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On the prowl: Jaguar population rises in Iguazú Falls region

  • After almost losing its jaguar population in the early 2000s, the Atlantic Forest area between Brazil and Argentina has seen the number of the big cats more than double to 105.
  • It’s the only place in South America that has registered an increase in the jaguar population, thanks to joint law enforcement by Brazil and Argentina to tackle poaching, and planting of camera traps by researchers, which deter would-be poachers.
  • Changing agricultural trends have also helped: livestock ranching used to be the predominant farming activity in the area, but the jaguars would prey on the cattle and sheep, prompting ranchers to kill them in retaliation.
  • In the past decade, soybean and corn crops have taken the place of ranching, reducing conflicts between jaguars and farmers.
Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park and Argentina’s Iguazú National Park span a combined 250,000 hectares (617,000 acres). More than 2 million people a year come to see its main attraction, Iguazú Falls, but the greatest importance of the parks is in what they preserve: both are part of the most important Atlantic Forest corridor in the South-Central area of South America. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

Last December, camera traps installed in Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park captured an image of a new member of the jaguar population resident in the region, raising hopes of a sustained resurgence in numbers of the big cat there.

The female jaguar (Panthera onca), named Cacira, will be counted in the next census of the species, to be carried out in the first half of 2020. The census will cover both sides of the Iguaçu River, where the Brazilian park and the Argentinian one, Iguazú National Park, meet, in a joint effort by researchers from the two countries.

Cacira is part of a growing trend of jaguars in the Iguazú region, rebounding from a near complete loss of the population on the Brazilian side in the first decade of the century. In the early 1990s there were about 400 jaguars in this border region, but by 2005 there were only 40 individuals left. In 2008, there were only eight left in the Brazilian park. The main factors pushing the species to the brink of extirpation were hunting and loss of habitat due to intense deforestation in this part of the Atlantic Forest biome.

A turnaround started happening in 2010, when the jaguar population reached 58 in both countries (14 in Brazil). By 2016 researchers counted 90 (22 in Brazil), and by 2018 there were 105, with 28 in Brazil.

“The goal is to reach 250 individuals, a number that the region could sustain in its current state,” says Ronaldo Morato, coordinator of Brazil’s National Center for Research and Conservation of Carnivorous Mammals (CENAP), linked to ICMBio (the Chico Mendes Institute).

Argentina has a larger number of jaguars because the area covered by the census includes, in addition to Iguazú National Park, two other parks in the province of Misiones and 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) of forest. In Brazil, the census is limited to Iguaçu National Park, an 185,000-hectare (457,000-acre) green belt surrounded by crop farms.

Key species in ecosystem regulation

“The jaguar suffers strong threat in the whole Atlantic Forest because it is a highly urbanized region, where over 140 million people live, that is, two-thirds of the Brazilian population,” Morato says. “What helps the species in the case of Serra do Mar, in the mosaic of conservation units [in the states of São Paulo, Paraná and the frontier with Rio de Janeiro] is the fact that it is a very mountainous area, of difficult access. Fewer than 100 jaguars live there.”

It’s not only in the Atlantic Forest where the jaguar is vulnerable — and not just in Brazil. “As the great forest remnant, the Amazon biome is the one that guarantees the jaguar’s long-term survival. And yet, the animal is threatened in all Amazonian countries, like Colombia, where forest areas have been replaced by the planting of palm trees for oil extraction,” Morato says.

“The same is true in Central America, in addition to the Brazilian Cerrado and Caatinga [biomes]. The conversion of forest to pasture increases human access to those borders, and with that the possibility of hunting grows.”

The largest wild cat in the Americas, the jaguar is present in all Brazilian biomes except the Pampa, where it once occurred. The jaguar is a key species in the functioning of the ecosystem, since, as the apex predator in the food chain, it regulates the population of herbivores such as peccaries, capybaras and tapirs, which in turn influence the type of growth of vegetation in the ecosystem.

The map shows the areas of the Atlantic Forest best suited to serve as habitat for the jaguar. Orange areas are inadequate, while green areas are the most suitable. The area enclosed shows the Iguazú region, straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina. Image by Agustin Paviolo et al. (2016).

Soy and corn fields favored multiplication of jaguars

The increase of jaguars in the Iguazú region is the only case of its kind in South America, and can be attributed to a series of factors. In recent years, the governments of Brazil and Argentina have worked together to organize and intensify law enforcement activity, resulting in arrests of poachers, seizures of weapons, and dismantling of illegal logging and hunting camps. Scientific research being carried out in the field has also deterred poachers, who are wary of the camouflaged camera traps monitoring the area.

Another key factor has been the shift in agricultural patterns since 2007. The predominant farming activity before was cattle and sheep ranching. With jaguars being squeezed out of their habitat and facing a dwindling population of natural prey, they ended up hunting livestock, prompting retaliatory killings by ranchers. That began to change thanks to two crops that elsewhere in Brazil have been strongly linked to deforestation and loss of biodiversity. Amid rising global demand for soybeans and corn, more farmers switched from ranching to cultivating these crops, thereby helping reduce the conflict between ranchers and jaguars.

Illegal hunting hasn’t been limited to those reasons alone. “Southern Brazil has a strong tradition in the activity. Farmers go out to hunt pigs, and if they find a jaguar they often kill it,” Morato says.

Nevertheless, that mind-set has been changing among the 500,000 inhabitants of the 14 municipalities located around Iguaçu National Park, says Yara Barros, executive coordinator of the Onças do Iguaçu Project. The organization, in partnership with Argentinian researchers from Proyecto Yaguareté, monitors the population of the species and carries out conservation efforts in the region.

“The jaguar’s survival depends to a great extent on human tolerance to the animal. Our work seeks coexistence between the two groups through a change in perception towards felids,” Barros says.

Unlike lions, tigers or even leopards, jaguars don’t have a reputation as man-eaters. They tend to avoid human presence, even though they have the strongest bite of all big cats. Image by Gregoire Dubois.

Alternative income sources curb killing

That effort includes a series of initiatives in recent years such as the “Jaguar chat,” where researchers talk with locals about how to manage their livestock and other animals properly to prevent jaguars preying on them, as well as what to do in the unlikely event of an encounter with one. (Jaguars usually avoid humans).

“We are also evaluating how to encourage alternative sources of income for producers who have lost cattle due to big felids. Many of those ranchers own small and medium-sized properties. It is a way to compensate and dissuade them from killing the jaguar,” Barros says.

“In the municipality of São Miguel do Iguaçu, a farmer had a calf killed by a wild cat. We saw that he produced some cheese and we started taking his product to sell it in the park, which worked out. The last time, we took 40 units and sold them in five minutes. He now calls it the ‘jaguar cheese,’ and also started to sell ‘jaguar vinegar.’ In addition, he installed an electric fence on the farm that prevents outside animals from entering the property.”

Another initiative is “Jaguar in school,” which consists of lessons and theatrical plays for children in public schools. Twenty events were held last year, reaching 1,500 children in 12 municipalities.

There’s now greater acceptance of the big cat among the public, says Morato, one of the country’s leading specialists on the species. “Not only in Iguaçu National Park, but projects throughout Brazil are bringing together government agencies, researchers, NGOs and rural communities. There are farmers who still do not accept conservation initiatives, but people in general are friendlier toward nature. I have seen that attitude out in the field, when we approach farmers and rural workers, in a change that has been taking place in recent years.”



In January, a camera trap installed in Iguaçu National Park captured an image of a jaguar, named Croissant, scratching the trunk of a tree. In addition to sharpening the claws, scratching is a way of marking territory. Image by Onças do Iguaçu Project.

Citation:

Paviolo, A., De Angelo, C., Ferraz, K. M., Morato, R. G., Martinez Pardo, J., Srbek-Araujo, A. C., … Azevedo, F. (2016). A biodiversity hotspot losing its top predator: The challenge of jaguar conservation in the Atlantic Forest of South America. Scientific Reports6, 37147. doi:10.1038/srep37147

Banner image by Gregoire Dubois.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Mar. 2, 2019.