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Room to roam: Biologists and communities create corridors for jaguars in Mexico

  • A group of biologists is working with communities to improve habitat for jaguars, pumas, jaguarundis, ocelots and margays in forested areas of Guerrero, in southern Mexico.
  • Three communities in Costa Grande de Guerrero joined the project and created corridor for jaguar conservation.
  • Now they want to strengthen this conservation area so that the cats can thrive and so that communities can create sustainable development projects.

The face of Carlos Torres Valdovinos reflects a combination of happiness and fear when he hears the news: the camera traps captured the presence of a jaguar. “It appeared three times,” biologist Fernando Ruiz Gutiérrez says. The knowledge that the biggest cat in the continent still roams Costa Grande de Guerrero is cause for celebration but also for concern and urgency.

The trail camera that registered the presence of the jaguar was mounted on one of the paths that locals use in the small ejido communities – areas of communally owned and managed lands – of Las Humedales and Platanillo, in the municipality of Tecpan in southern Mexico. That’s why when Carlos Torres Valdovinos and other ejidatarios hear the news, they look at each other, smile and share the biologists’ enthusiasm. But they are also worried. The place where the cat appeared on camera is near their houses.

In fact, in the images recorded between January 12 and February 14, 2022, there are more people than jaguars; some of the locals who noticed the camera stared at it for a few minutes, posing and giving a ‘thumbs up’ as if they were taking a selfie.

Jaguar imaged by a camera trap, February 1st, 2022.

Torres Valdovinos celebrates knowing he was right: “I told them that they would certainly look there.” He says that days before he had advised the biologists on where to place the camera traps, he and his brother had seen a yellow shadow between the trees out of the corner of their eyes. It was dark and they were walking the cattle. They didn’t know what animal it was. Their dog followed it and came back barking in just seconds.

The biologists show the images and the ejidatarios look at them and say that they have no doubts the jaguar killed a few calves. The five families that live in the community of La Sierrita run a dairy business.

The presence of the jaguar evokes conflicting feelings in the community because their cattle are competing with the space that the big cat needs. At the same time, they are hopeful. “That means we aren’t doing so badly. We can recover what we had and save much of what we still have,” Torres Valdovinos says.

Fernando Ruiz Gutiérrez, director of Wild Felids Conservation México (WFCM), listens to the ejidatarios. He and the other biologists behind the Guerrero Jaguar project know it’s urgent to intensify the work that they’ve been doing with the communities for almost a decade to preserve the populations of cats that live in the forest area of this region.

An ocelot captured by a camera trap in the Guerrero territory in Mexico. Image courtesy of the Guerrero Jaguar project.

A future for the communities and the cats

The community of La Sierrita is part of a region where, until 2015, people grew marijuana and opium poppies. When the price of these illegal crops fell, the locals looked for other options. Some intensified their small-scale ranching; others decided to log, ignoring the forest use programs; some others started to grow fruit trees (lemon, mango and soursop trees) but now they have trouble transporting their produce on the rough roads.

For decades now, people from the Cordón Grande, Platanillo and Las Humedades ejidos — where the community of La Sierrita is — have tried community forest management, and now they have a plan to make sustainable use of their forests.

The Las Humedades ejido did it for a while, too. However, in the last couple of years there have been disagreements, particularly among those who don’t want to respect the forest management plan and take timber out without regulation.

The neighboring ejido, Cordón Grande, did continue with the sustainable work on their land of around 16,000 hectares (39,500 acres). Thanks to that, they are launching productive projects like a community forestry company, for which they have received funds from the National Forest Commission (Conafor).

Cordón Grande has an area of 16,000 hectares (39,500 acres) where locals practice community forest management. Image courtesy of the Cordón Grande ejido.

It was in the forests of Cordón Grande where the idea of creating a community corridor for the conservation of the jaguar in Guerrero started.

Nansedalia Ramírez, from el Cordón Grande, says that in 2013 her community received Conafor funds to conduct a study of the biodiversity in their forests. “The elders said there were tigers [as people call big cats in this region], they said they’d heard their roars. We thought it was only a rumor,” she says.

The ejido contacted members of the Guerrero Jaguar Project, among them biologist Fernando Ruiz Gutiérrez. The studies they carried out, published as a thesis, showed that the elders were right. In the forest area of Cordón Grande there were jaguars (Panthera onca) and other endangered cat species like margays (Leopardus wiedii), jaguarundis (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) and ocelots (Leopardus pardalis).

It was then that the project to create the corridor was born. The ejidos of Cordón Grande, Platanillo and Las Humedales joined the proposal; together they comprise an area of 32,000 hectares (79,000 acres) of forest.

“It’s been a difficult process that has taken many years,” says Ramírez. “We’ve had to raise awareness in the ejido so that people see value in preserving endangered species. We showed that by taking care of them, we help the forest and also the communities, because we can access projects and resources to conserve biodiversity.”

Ocelot captured on camera in November 2011.

Biologist Fernando Ruiz Gutiérrez says that it would have been even harder to work with the communities without the information that confirmed the presence of jaguars.

Fernando Ruiz Gutiérrez has been working on cat conservation since he began studying biology more than 20 years ago. In 2011, together with other colleagues, he started the Guerrero Jaguar Project, and in 2020 they created the NGO, Wild Felids Conservation México.

“As biologists, we started working in the area only on felid conservation but with time, we’ve had to work on other things like helping the community to find productive alternatives that are environmentally-friendly, and working on projects to help the sustainable development of the region,” he said.

As part of these efforts, the members of Guerrero Jaguar Project and WFCM have provided the communities with seeds for improving pasture, so that they can plant them and use them as fodder, “so that people don’t release their animals into the forest area.”

In addition, they boosted projects like chicken farming and family-scale vegetable gardens. “We had good results but we weren’t able to monitor it properly due to the pandemic,” Ruiz Gutiérrez says. “Now we are going back to it. Our strategy is to find sustainable alternatives for the people.”

Ejidatarios and biologists joined forces to create the community corridor for the conservation of the jaguar. Image courtesy of the Guerrero Jaguar Project.

Joining efforts

The ejidatarios go out with the biologists to set up the trail cameras, guiding them through the foothills of the mountains so that they don’t get lost. When the locations are remote and rugged, they take them in the all-terrain vehicles that the communities use.

At the start of 2022, the biologists of Guerrero Jaguar Project installed six camera traps around the community of La Sierrita. One of them is at the edge of one of the highest hills in the area, 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) above sea level. It’s a remote and undisturbed area, yet the only animal photographed was a badger.

“Sometimes the cat appears where you least expect it,” says Osmar Zamudio Pineda, a biologist who has been working with Guerrero Jaguar Project for three years, to Luis Astudillo Loeza, who is new to the team.

Ejidatarios, biologists and students who participate in the monitoring work. Image courtesy of the Guerrero Jaguar Project.

In La Sierrita, the jaguar did in fact appear where they least expected it. When the team retrieves the images from the camera, they can’t hide their surprise. “Look at what we have here!” Ruiz Gutiérrez says.

Since they started using camera traps in 2013, the researchers have documented the presence of 14 jaguars in the forest area of the three ejidos. They think there are nine or 10 individuals now. They have also recorded pumas, ocelots, margays and a small cat that is very rare here: the jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi).

Ruiz Gutiérrez says that in this region of Guerrero there are records of 42 mammal species, 30 amphibians, 63 reptiles and 154 birds, including the crested guan and the military macaw.

Puma captured by camera trap in February 2022.

With the information they are collecting from the images, the team of scientists wants to identify the places where the cats roam and spend the most time. This will help them, together with the ejidatarios, to map the area and make decisions about how to manage the territory.

“The forests in this area — from tropical to temperate, to montane mesophitic forests — still hold an important biological wealth that is worth conserving,” Ruiz Gutiérrez says.

In his years of work in this region, the scientist has confirmed that the communities are committed to the conservation of ecosystems and wildlife, when they see it brings them social benefits.

The team setting camera traps in the Guerrero Mountains. Image courtesy of the Guerrero Jaguar Project.

Community lands for conservation

Nansedalia Ramírez says that in the ejido where she lives, Cordón Grande, they are waiting for the authorities of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (Conanp) to give them official documents certifying that 8,573 hectares (21,184 acres) of their forests are intended for conservation.

A few months ago, in an assembly, the ejidatarios voted in favor of creating a voluntary area for conservation (ADVC) in their community territory. This is a category of natural protected area considered in Mexican law that allows the communities to make sustainable use of their natural resources and do different projects for the conservation of biodiversity.

The plans for the future are for the ejidos of Platanillo and Las Humedades to be able to certify a part of their territory as an ADVC, says biologist Ruiz Gutiérrez, who has aided the ejidos in this process.

A community-managed forest. Image courtesy of the Cordón Grande ejido.

The certification of a part of the Platanillo ejido is already in progress. In Las Humedades, the process stopped due to internal problems. Ruiz Gutiérrez is confident the problem will be solved, particularly because the ejidatarios in the communities have the examples of their Cordón Grande neighbors, who’ve created economic alternatives thanks to the good community management of forests.

For the scientists, conserving the forests in these ejidos is of vital importance, as their studies show they are of high priority for the conservation of critically endangered species, including jaguars.

In other areas of Guerrero there is more depletion of natural resources and people don’t respect jaguars: “if they see them, they kill them,” he says.

Ocelot captured by a camera trap in the forest area of the Guerrero mountain range. Image courtesy of the Cordón Grande ejido.

Enlarging the corridor

New challenges for the scientific team include organizing the communities in the Atoyac municipality, and enlarging the corridor to encompass another 600 square kilometers.

There is already monitoring with camera traps in the municipality, and they also had good news. The images they obtained in the mountainous areas of Atoyac at the beginning of the year showed at least three locations with jaguars, pumas, margays and ocelots.

Since November 2021, the scientists have gone to the places where they installed cameras once a month, to replace the memory cards and batteries. They also change the location of the cameras to get a wider perspective on the place. The fieldwork takes 10 days on average, although there often are setbacks that make it take longer.

Jaguarundi captured on camera in January 2022.

The sampling they are carrying out now is part of a National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiveristy (Conabio) project that aims to evaluate the condition of ecosystems in the country.

Fernando Ruiz Gutiérrez says he hopes that the results obtained with this new monitoring will help them design new strategies to protect the estimated population of 113 jaguars in Guerrero.

The Guerrero Jaguar team knows that their work is a race against time. “If we don’t take the appropriate measures to protect the species and its habitat, we could lose most of the jaguar population in Guerrero in 10 years.”

Banner image: A jaguar couple in the forest area of Costa Grande de Guerrero. Image courtesy of the Guerrero Jaguar Project.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on March 18, 2022.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: How combining traditional Indigenous knowledge and Western science aids the conservation of seagrass in Mexico: listen here: