- Jaguars are essential to healthy ecosystems but have been eradicated from almost 50% of their historical range, and by some estimates, only 64,000 individuals remain.
- Brazil is home to half of the world’s jaguars, and a group of researchers has identified the highest-priority protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon for jaguar conservation.
- The top 10 highest-priority protected areas fall primarily across the arc of deforestation in southern and western Brazil, and eight of these are Indigenous territories.
- Researchers say conservation efforts must include strengthened participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities, increased funding and support for protected areas and environmental agencies, and the implementation of more robust environmental policies.
Jaguars have been feared and revered for centuries, inspiring rituals, cults, and, more recently, conservation concerns. Although jaguars’ known range extends from Mexico to Argentina, they’ve been eradicated from almost half of this region. Scientists estimate that between 64,000 and 173,000 individuals remain, and half of these are in Brazil.
A group of researchers has now identified the highest-priority protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon for jaguar conservation. Most of these areas fall along the Arc of Deforestation in the southern Amazon, where forest loss has been most intense over past decades. Here, in the world’s largest rainforest, jaguars are threatened by deforestation and fires at the hands of humans.
According to the study, the top 10 highest-priority protected areas are the Araribóia, Apyterewa, Cachoeira Seca, Kayapó, Marãiwatsédé, Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Xingu, and Yanomami Indigenous territories, along with the Terra do Meio Ecological Station, and Mapinguari National Park.
The Yanomami Indigenous Territory, covering an area the size of Portugal, has the highest population of jaguars, with a conservative estimate of 1,003 individuals. The smallest population is Marãiwatsédé, an area nearly one-sixtieth the size of the Yanomami territory, with an estimated 16 jaguars.
The results, published in the journal Communications Biology, considered jaguar density and population size and used a threat index (TI) to calculate the risks posed to the species across all 477 protected areas in Brazil. These threats include habitat loss, fragmentation, killings, roadkill, mining, and fires.
Jaguars are the third-largest cat, behind only tigers and lions, but have a more powerful bite that can crunch through a tortoise shell. These opportunistic predators feed on more than 85 prey species and can live anywhere from forests to grasslands to swamps. Jaguars are territorial and need a lot of space to roam and hunt.
“Safeguarding protected areas is of paramount importance for jaguars but it is not enough. We also need to maintain connectivity between them through safe corridors and robust land use planning to ensure genetic flow,” said study co-author Valeria Boron, senior program adviser at WWF UK.
According to a 2018 study in the journal Oryx, jaguar subpopulations are threatened with extinction virtually everywhere except in the Amazon. Connectivity could be a lifeline to the populations of these cats living outside the world’s largest rainforest.
The Jaguar 2030 Roadmap is a plan to connect key jaguar conservation areas or conservation units by the year 2030, spearheaded by the WWF, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the global wild cat conservation organization Panthera.
“The Jaguar 2030 Roadmap breathes new life into the world of jaguar conservation, providing a vision and real solutions for the world to protect this culturally iconic and ecologically essential species,” Panthera conservation science executive director Howard Quigley said in a 2018 statement.
As a keystone predator, jaguars are essential to a healthy ecosystem. They’re also considered an umbrella species in conservation, so protecting their habitat can protect the thousands of other species living in the same area.
“Ultimately, conserving jaguars means conserving large areas of the Amazon with important planetary benefits,” Boron said.
Across the 447 protected areas examined in the study, Indigenous reserves were home to around 24,000 jaguars or 63% of the total estimated number of jaguars across the Brazilian Amazon.
In light of this, the study authors say, there needs to be strengthened participation of Indigenous peoples and local communities in the decisions and management of their territories; increased funding and support for protected areas, Indigenous lands, and environmental agencies; and the implementation of stronger policies and legal frameworks in Brazil to prevent protected areas being downsized, downgraded, or losing their protected status.
“With a fast-shrinking Amazon, the study increases pressure on Brazil (and neighbouring countries) to deliver effective implementation of conservation and support for protected areas and indigenous lands,” Juliano Bogoni, lead author and researcher from the University of São Paolo and the University of East Anglia, said in a statement.
The authors highlight that the vast majority of Brazilian protected areas suffer from severe underfunding, understaffing, and a lack of operational infrastructure, which has persisted for decades.
Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, took office at the start of this year with a promise to halt deforestation and restore degraded lands. Many are optimistic that his presidency will mean significant conservation gains for the Amazon. Under the former president, Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation reached its highest level in 15 years.
“The Amazon is one of the last great strongholds for jaguars, and is key for their north-south connectivity,” Allison Devlin deputy director of Panthera’s jaguar program, who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay.
“Jaguars can be protected through a mosaic approach, working within protected areas, and along with local communities, indigenous territories, and governments … to support wildlife-friendly landscapes that will ensure safe passage and persistence of jaguars, their habitat, and their prey — in perpetuity.”
Bogoni, J. A., Boron, V., Peres, C. A., Coelho, M. E. M., Morato, R. G., & Oliveira-da-Costa, M. (2023). Impending anthropogenic threats and protected area prioritization for jaguars in the Brazilian Amazon. Communications Biology, 6(1), 132. doi:10.1038/s42003-023-04490-1
De la Torre, J. A., González-Maya, J. F., Zarza, H., Ceballos, G., & Medellín, R. A. (2018). The jaguar’s spots are darker than they appear: assessing the global conservation status of the jaguar Panthera onca. Oryx, 52(2), 300-315. doi:10.1017/S0030605316001046
Banner image of a jaguar in the Pantanal by Steve Winter/Panthera.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough
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