In Costa Rica, the fight to save the hunted jaguars
At least 18 jaguars have been found dead in the Southern Zone’s Osa Peninsula since 2008. Across the country, conservation groups estimate that figure exceeds 30.
The death of Costa Rican jaguars is alarming for wildlife protection groups, particularly since jaguars are listed in the “near threatened” category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an estimated 15,000 jaguars remain in the wild, all in Latin America. Substantial populations only exist in 13 of the 18 countries where they are found.
Jaguars are considered to be extinct in El Salvador and Uruguay and are critically endangered, if not extinct, in the U.S. The New York-based wildcat conservation group Panthera reports that 40 percent of the world’s original jaguar population has already disappeared.
“The jaguar is still an abundant species, but is threatened by habitat loss and persecution,” said the IUCN’s 2008 red list report. “Due to loss of habitat, poaching of prey and fragmentation of populations across portions of the range, this species is considered to be ‘near threatened.’ If threats continue at the current rate the species will likely qualify for vulnerable status in the near future.”
In Costa Rica, traditional threats to the species remain. Poaching and sport hunting remain a menace, though national conservation and wildlife groups agree that the biggest threat to the jaguar population is their death at the hands of farmers. According to Eduardo Carrillo, biologist and director of the International Institute of Conservation and Wildlife at the National University (ICOMVIS-UNA) in Heredia, the conflict between cattle and jaguar has resulted in the greatest losses of the wild cats in the last 20 years.
“Much of the reason that jaguars enter farms to attack cattle is because sport hunting has diminished their principal prey and sources of food in protected areas,” Carrillo said. “People kill the principal prey of the jaguars and it leaves them without sufficient food. As a result, they leave the protected areas and kill cows and pigs, which results in the jaguars being killed by farmers… In Costa Rica, it is the principal cause of decreasing population of jaguars.”
Carrillo said that as the population of wild pigs, known as peccaries, decreased in Osa’s Corcovado National Park due to poaching in the early half of the 2000s, the jaguar population fell with it. When Corcovado added dozens of park rangers to combat poaching in 2005, the peccary population gradually replenished. While the jaguar population didn’t recuperate as quickly, Carrillo said that six new jaguars were identified in Corcovado during the past year.
In addition to encroachment into farmland in search of food, conservation groups say that shared water sources, such as rivers and streams that run from the forest into farmland, also result in clashes between farm animals and jaguars. Roberto Salom, a coordinator of Panthera’s Mesoamerica Jaguar Program in Costa Rica, said that if a cow or pig wanders into the forest or a jaguar into farmland to drink, there is a higher propensity for an attack.
“Often farmland and forest preserve share the same boundaries, and farm animals and wildlife are in close proximity to each other,” Salom said. “When a jaguar is in the same vicinity of a cow or pig or dog, the risk of attack is high. Even though other animals such as pumas or coyotes sometimes kill the farm animals, farmers usually assume they were jaguars. In order to protect their animals, they kill the jaguars if given the opportunity.”
Working With Farmers
To reduce the number of jaguar deaths at the hands of farmers, wildlife conservation groups are actively trying to educate farmers and landowners located near national forests how to protect their animals from possible attack.
Salom said that the four members of the Panthera program visit farms in Talamanca, in the southern Caribbean, the central Caribbean, and the Northern Zone to suggest possible prevention methods. Ideas for the protection of farm animals include providing a source of water, such as a trough, closer to the farm, or the construction of secure shelters for their animals at night. Salom said that the minor costs incurred to increase animal safety are far less than the cost to replace lost animals.
Carrillo also said the lead investigator at ICOMVIS-UNA, Ronit Amit, is conducting similar efforts in Corcovado, Santa Rosa, Pacuare, San Ramón and Monteverde.
“The reception of the farmers is usually very positive,” Carrillo said. “Farmers are looking for ways to protect their animals from attacks and aren’t out to kill jaguars. With some adjustments, they can both be reduced.”
In Puerto Jiménez, the largest town on the Osa Peninsula, the Wild Cats Conservation Program, or Yaguará, has collaborated with farmers to reduce attacks as well. They are experimenting with alternative strategies, such as a farmer compensation programs when a wildcat kills an animal.
“When the jaguars prey on domestic animals, such as a cow or hunting dog, it is very costly for farmers. If a jaguar kills a hunting dog, for example, the loss is valued at $500 to $4,000,” said Aida Bustamante, the founder of Yaguará. “One strategy that we are trying to implement to resolve the issue is through a compensation program. If one of their animals is killed, we investigate if the cause of death was indeed a jaguar or puma. If we can determine that it was, we try to pay for some of the cost of the animal or supply them with another one. The response has been very positive and we hope it will reduce the number of jaguars killed.”
In recent weeks, Yaguará was permitted to employ an innovative technique that could further enhance the monitoring of jaguars in the Osa Peninsula. In April, the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET) approved for Yaguará members to begin placing GPS satellite monitoring collars on area jaguars. Though the ambitious project will require the youthful team of five to spend long nights in the forest trying to capture and place collars on jaguars, Bustamante feels that technology provided by the GPS radar system will reduce the number of wild cat deaths in the peninsula.
“We will be able to observe the movement of the jaguars on the Internet and will know when they are approaching farms,” Bustamante said. “When they do, we can alert the farmers that a cat is near so they can take the proper precautions. It will be a much more direct and efficient way to protect farms and jaguars.”
Bustamante also said that the collars will be placed only on adult jaguars, as they could provide a strangulation hazard for younger, developing cats.
Despite the potential benefits to tracking jaguars with a GPS collar, both Carrillo and Salom say the method carries a high amount of risk.
“I respect their efforts and I hope the project turns out well,” Carrillo said. “But you can get much of the same data with cameras that don’t require human interaction with the jaguars. Catching a jaguar and placing a collar on it could be a very traumatic experience for the cat and could result in an attack if not done properly. Jaguars and humans are not intended to interact.”
Regardless of their chosen methodology, the wildlife conservation groups of Costa Rica are united in their efforts to reduce the number of jaguar deaths and to educate farmers on how to assist them. On the scale of the IUCN red list, “near threatened” hangs between “least concern” and “vulnerable.” It will be the efforts of these organizations that determine the future movement of that pendulum.
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