- Conflicts between cattle ranchers and jaguars are among the biggest threats to the big cat population in the Brazilian Pantanal, experts warn.
- Studies reveal that nearly a third of jaguars’ diets are cattle, causing economic losses to ranchers and consequent retaliatory killings.
- Conservationists are using new solutions, such as ecotourism, tourism fees and education, to protect both jaguars and the livelihoods of cattle ranchers.
- Empirical evidence suggests that jaguar populations in the Pantanal are now recovering, thanks to shifting perceptions of the wetland’s famous big cat.
Examining the torn remains of a calf, Paul Raad saw evidence of a jaguar attack. Most big cats grip the throat to bring down their prey, but jaguars prefer to bite the nape, he said as he placed a camera trap next to the carcass.
“It’s like a detective job. Every time a cow is killed, I check the body,” the veterinarian and conservationist told Mongabay. “If it’s from a jaguar, I’ll put a camera trap there.”
Camera traps are used to identify and monitor jaguars. Understanding predator-prey dynamics can help create solutions to protect the jaguar population in the Brazilian Pantanal while also assisting the pantaneiros (Pantanal cattle farmers), who struggle to protect their livelihoods.
Four-fifths of the Pantanal’s vast wetland is divided into unfenced private ranches where cattle roam freely in the same habitat as the jaguars. The overlap means jaguars inevitably hunt cattle, which make up nearly a third of their diet, a 2010 study found. It causes economic losses for local farmers and can consequently prompt retaliatory jaguar culls.
“There’s a historical conflict between the ranchers and the jaguars — it’s a real problem,” Fernando Tortato, conservation scientist for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, told Mongabay by video call. “All the ranchers I talk to say that they don’t want a Pantanal without jaguars. But they just have a problem with their cattle being preyed upon every month.”
As part of the nonprofit Jaguar Identification Project, Raad uses monitoring, research, and education to find long-term solutions for jaguar conservation. Since June last year, he has partnered with local eco-lodges and cattle ranches in the northern Pantanal to create an ecological corridor of more than 30,000 hectares (74,131 acres) to monitor at least 12 jaguars known to the region. Knowing the jaguars’ whereabouts can help promote wildlife-watching tourism, which has played a key role in shifting local perceptions of the wetland’s famous big cat.
“The tourists are the reason why jaguars are alive today,” Raad said.
Ecotourism is an important economic activity in the Pantanal. A 2017 study found that jaguar tourism generated $6.8 million in gross annual income in northern Pantanal, compared with $121,500 in losses from cattle depredation. In other words, jaguars are worth up to 56 times more in tourism than the costs they inflict on ranchers.
“The pantaneiros start seeing that a live jaguar is worth more than a dead one,” Eduardo Eubank, owner of the Pousada Piuval eco-lodge within the ecological corridor, told Mongabay by phone. “The entire production chain benefits, including hotels, safari drivers, tour guides and boat drivers. Everyone wins. The jaguar brings a high income to the region, which wasn’t there before.”
For those not directly working in ecotourism, Raad and his supporting team are implementing a small fee that tourists pay to ranchers whose land they pass through while observing jaguars. Raad found that in a six-month period, the tourism fee not only compensated the losses incurred by jaguar attacks in Pousada Piuval, but also generated a profit more than 1.5 times larger than the losses.
“The jaguar creates more income than what was lost,” Raad said. The fee will ensure that the millions of dollars earned each year in jaguar tourism don’t just stay with the tour operators and lodges, but will be shared with the neighboring ranchers whose livelihoods are affected by big cat attacks.
Although ecotourism can improve rancher-jaguar relationships, Tortato warns “it’s a solution, but not a silver bullet.” Not all ranchers want to engage with tourism or open their land to tourism. Others can’t be involved as their ranches are accessible only by horse, tractor or plane during the wet season’s floods.
This can cause friction between ranchers who benefit economically from jaguar tourism and those who continue to suffer economic losses from big cat attacks. “It’s a paradox that on one side of the fence, the jaguar is a benefit while on the other, it’s a problem,” Tortato said.
According to Tortato, up to 30% of the Pantanal can be developed to support tourist activity. For the rest of the wetlands and for those ranchers not involved in tourism, “we need to improve the coexistence by providing information to ranchers and ways to reduce conflict,” he said.
Education as a solution
Raad and his team involve the local community in jaguar conservation by providing lectures to both tourists and pantaneiros about the importance of jaguars to the ecosystem. These talks help promote a positive perception of the big cats and find ways to build better coexistence between pantaneiros and jaguars.
Jaguars are a keystone species in the Pantanal. “They show how much life the biome has,” Jorge Salomão, a veterinarian at the Brazilian wildlife protection agency Ampara Silvestre, told Mongabay by phone. “They are at the top of the food chain and are a synonym for the environment’s health. If the jaguar populations are healthy, then everything underneath them is healthy.”
As well as seminars with tourists, the Jaguar Identification Project sets up workshops to train ranchers how to identify jaguar attacks and reduce the vulnerability of their cattle to help minimize losses. They are taught to use electric fences to keep cattle away from areas known for jaguar sightings, and to confine cattle at night in safe areas to avoid nocturnal big cat attacks.
The nonprofit also emphasizes how jaguars reduce the risk of parasites and diseases spreading to cattle by keeping the populations of capybaras — one of their preferred prey — balanced. “If these animal populations get out of control, there will be a problem,” Raad said. “We talk more about pandemics now after the last two years. We have to take care of the environment.”
Raad works with his supervisor, São Paulo State University veterinary medicine professor Felipe Fornazari, to collect and study jaguar fecal matter. The research provides insights into not only the jaguars’ diets but also paints a clearer picture of the parasites they ingest. The results are currently being analyzed, and the researchers hope that the information they generate from the samples can be used to further build awareness of the jaguars’ role in reducing zoonotic risk.
Based on empirical observations from cattle ranchers throughout the Pantanal, experts say the numbers of jaguars across the wetlands have recently begun to recover after years of being killed for their fur or as farm pests. Nowadays, the jaguars benefit from the region’s flourishing ecotourism and increased exposure to the big cat’s plight in the Pantanal. “With social media, NGO efforts and environmental agencies, it’s very difficult for ranchers to hunt or poach a jaguar without social pressure,” Tortato said.
The jaguars’ growing numbers indicate a healthy ecosystem, both in terms of biodiversity and human communities. “The Pantanal is home of the jaguars, but it’s also the home of many other species as well as traditional groups, Indigenous peoples and ranchers,” Tortato said. “It’s one of the few places in the world where it’s possible for economic activities to coexist with big cat conservation. We need to take care of this heritage.”
Banner image: A mating pair of jaguars. Jaguars tend to be solitary animals, only socializing to mate. Research has found that jaguars in the Pantanal tend to be more social and have been observed hunting in pairs. Photo courtesy of Eduarda Fernandes/Wild Jaguar PhotoSafaris.
Cavalcanti, S. M. C. & Gese, E. M. (2010). Kill rates and predation patterns of jaguars (Panthera onca) in the southern Pantanal, Brazil. Journal of Mammalogy, 91, 722-736.
Tortato, F. R., Izzo, T. J., Hoogesteijn, R., & Peres, C. A. (2017). The numbers of the beast: Valuation of jaguar (panthera onca) tourism and cattle depredation in the Brazilian Pantanal. Global Ecology and Conservation, 11, 106-114.
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