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Seeing Spots

  • Carolyn Nistler
  • A jungle story


    Conjure an image of hunting prowess in dark, steamy jungles and a jaguar might leap into mind. Ancient Mayans, in fact, celebrated him as a deity. Like all large predators, jaguars evoke fear, awe, and respect—sometimes simultaneously. While jungle stories and legends abound, and the magnificent creatures indeed inhabit lush, green corridors and tropical rainforests, we don’t realize that jaguars are just as happy to carve out an existence in the upland habitats of the southern United States and northern Mexico. In fact, jaguars have the ability to make a living wherever prey is plentiful and human disturbance is minimal.

    The jaguar (Panthera onca) reigns supreme as the largest felid in the western hemisphere. He is immediately recognized by his large size (males may exceed 300 pounds and 8 feet in length) and, of course, those spots. Melanistic (black) jaguars are also in the wild, and often referred to as “black panthers.”

    The historical range of the jaguar extended north from Mexico into southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. The current range reaches as far south as Argentina but toward the north their range barely spills over the U.S.-Mexico border. While breeding populations exist throughout Mexico and Central America, jaguar presence has been sporadic in the United States for the past 100 years. This is due in part to early ranching communities that viewed jaguars as a threat to livestock. Without protection, jaguars did not stand much chance of survival in northern latitudes during the 1900s.

    Currently protected in the United States by the Endangered Species Act, jaguars are the focus of several conservation groups that are working with landowners to restore the jaguar to its historical habitat. Ironically, the very same market responsible for effectively reducing jaguar numbers last century may offer the greatest hope for successful jaguar restoration this century.

    A shot in the dark


    Independent jaguar sightings by two Arizona hunters in 1996 prompted local landowners, conservation groups, and agency personnel to form the Jaguar Conservation Team, which has been meeting for more than 10 years. Participation on the team is voluntary and has resulted in the formation of numerous jaguar conservation initiatives.

    The Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project was established to confirm jaguar presence along the border between southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. Fifty automated, motion-detecting cameras have been placed in probable jaguar movement corridors along the U.S.-Mexico border. Cameras are sponsored and monitored through partnerships between the Arizona Department of Game and Fish and private donors. Photos obtained from the project are being used to identify suitable jaguar habitat and movement corridors.

    Project co-founder Emil McCain first became involved with jaguars while tracking cougar movement and activity for his master’s thesis project at Humboldt State University. He became fascinated with the jaguars near the Mexico border and the combined market and conservation potential for these spotted cats. He is interested in developing a sustainable market system for jaguar conservation, perhaps promoting “jaguar-friendly” beef—ranchers agree to not take lethal measures against predators, which creates a potentially profitable selling point to consumers. Efforts such as this draw focus to positive conservation developments that can be mutually beneficial. As McCain says, “money speaks!”

    Two collaborative efforts are taking an enviropreneur approach to jaguar conservation in northern Mexico. The Northern Jaguar Reserve is the result of a three-way partnership between Naturalia, the Northern Jaguar Project, and Defenders of Wildlife. This tri-partisan effort has led to the acquisition of 10,000 acres of jaguar habitat in Sonora and is in the process of purchasing an additional 35,000 acres to set aside for jaguar conservation  (see box below).

    “Save a Spot for Jaguars”

    Naturalia, in cooperation with the Northern Jaguar Project and Defenders of Wildlife, purchased the 10,000-acre Rancho los Pavos in 2003 to establish the Northern Jaguar Reserve. The partners are currently negotiating a contract to purchase the adjacent 35,000-acre Rancho Zetasora to complete the Northern Jaguar Reserve in early 2008. The partners are currently raising funds through their “Save a Spot” campaign. For more information on this program, visit

    In a related entrepreneurial effort, the Northern Jaguar Reserve has essentially doubled its area of protection through the Wildcat Photo-Survey Contest. Ten ranches neighboring the reserve participate in this program. Remote motion-triggered cameras, similar to the cameras used by the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, are strategically placed on ranches and are monitored monthly by trained vaqueros. Participating ranchers receive $50 to $300 per photo taken of jaguars, cougars, ocelots, and bobcats obtained on their private land. This demonstration project is proving very successful, and is currently being evaluated for the addition of new cameras, and increased rancher payment amounts. Between January and May 2007, 31 photos were taken, and 34,000 pesos (about US$3,400) were paid to participating ranchers.

    The novel approach of the Wildcat Photo-Survey Contest converts predators, including jaguars, from ranch liabilities to ranch assets. Jaguars benefit from being worth more alive than dead. With similarities to the Defenders of Wildlife-sponsored predator-livestock compensation programs, this program is decidedly proactive in nature, rather than reactive. Ranchers can receive payments simply for providing wildlife habitat, whether or not livestock depredation ever occurs.

    To the detriment of beef lovers everywhere, damage to livestock can occur. Fortunately, private markets have developed a solution for this as well. The Malpai Borderlands Group, comprised of local ranchers and stakeholders devoted to ecosystem health, agricultural sustainability, and preservation of open spaces, was formed in 1994 and covers nearly 1 million acres in southern Arizona and New Mexico. Through rancher participation and conservation easements, the group addresses a variety of issues related to grazing, conservation, and ecosystem management.

    Coincidentally, a founding Malpai Borderlands Group member, Warner Glenn, is one of the aforementioned hunters who spotted and photographed the first live Arizona jaguar in the wild in 1996. His book, Eyes of Fire, contains his photos and story of the face-to-face encounter with a jaguar. A portion of the book proceeds goes to the Malpai Borderlands Group Jaguar Fund, which provides dollars for research and rancher reimbursement for livestock that have been killed by jaguars. Since the 1996 sightings, only one U.S. livestock depredation has been attributed to a jaguar. The Malpai Borderlands Group reimbursed the rancher even though the ranch was outside of the Malpai area. In addition, the group purchases conservation easements throughout the area, made possible through grants and private donations. While the primary purpose of these easements is to keep the land in agricultural production and out of development, benefits to large carnivores that need hundreds of square miles of contiguous open space, are obvious.

    Sport hunting for conservation


    Research has shown that one of the most effortless ways to conserve a species is with hunter involvement. Many game species have repopulated areas throughout North America through hunter-related conservation efforts. So can an endangered species be protected through hunting markets?

    Primero Conservation Outfitters thinks so. This enterprise was born through the research efforts of Dr. Octavio Rosas Rosas, wildlife researcher and professor at Campus San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and partner Ron Thompson, retired wildlife biologist and law enforcement officer in Pinetop, Arizona. An outgrowth of Rosas’ “Conservation Program for Jaguars in the Uplands of the Sierra Madre Sonora,” Primero Conservation Outfitters markets legal deer hunts on Mexican ranches within jaguar habitat.

    With Rosas’ assistance, these ranchers develop and implement wildlife management plans on their private lands. One stipulation is that ranchers agree to conserve jaguars and jaguar habitat. All hunt proceeds are donated back to the participating ranchers as a form of compensation for providing habitat. According to Rosas, because jaguar habitat is fragmented, and both human populations and agriculture are increasing in areas where jaguars are distributed, innovative solutions are necessary to assign value to top predators such as jaguars. He believes that natural reserves are important, but it will be difficult to declare large reserves to protect jaguars in countries with priorities other than the conservation of large predators. Economic incentives for stakeholders are crucial to develop tolerance for wildlife. Despite their protected status, Rosas believes human tolerance will ultimately determine the fate of jaguars. Primero Conservation Outfitters’ program is proof that private markets can indeed conserve jaguars throughout their habitat.

    For every action…


    The jaguar conservation effort provides a wonderful illustration of the role of economic markets in natural resource conservation. Nonetheless, this jaguar “tail” is far from over. While legal hunting markets conserve jaguar populations, illegal poaching continues to destroy them. While conservation groups work cooperatively to maintain large, unbroken tracts of land for wildlife habitat, adjacent lands continue to be fragmented to satisfy an ever-growing human population. And while measures are being taken to ensure migrating jaguars have access to important habitat corridors for population expansion, an impenetrable border fence, proposed by the current U.S. administration, threatens to abruptly halt all jaguar immigration into the United States. Despite obstacles, or perhaps because of them, jaguar conservation efforts remain more focused than ever, and innovative solutions are being created to restore jaguar habitat and populations. Through these efforts, it is possible that people in North America may very soon have the opportunity to see spots again.

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