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Predator Conservation: Endangered Species Day Edition

By assuming the liability of big cats in cattle country, conservationists can reduce human-wildlife conflict.

For three decades, the big cat conservation community assumed that jaguars were locally extinct along Nicaragua’s Pacific slope. Years of deforestation had led to serious habitat fragmentation for jaguars and their prey, most of whom rely on a healthy forest understory.

At Paso Pacifíco, we knew that jaguars were still present. Our knowledge, though, was from the locals who farmed the area. They had seen jaguar tracks and lost livestock to jaguar predation. However, local knowledge and reports from subsistence farmers are not always enough to convince the experts in the scientific community.

In 2010, a Paso Pacifico intern conducting research for his master’s thesis finally caught a jaguar on film with a camera trap he’d set up in the Paso del Istmo —a narrow isthmus separating Lake Nicaragua from the Pacific Ocean. With photographic evidence, Paso Pacifíco could secure funding to launch a jaguar conservation program. Like all of Paso Pacifíco’s programs, it included scientific research, community education, and biodiversity conservation.

First my colleagues ventured deep into the Nicaraguan wilderness to set up more camera traps. They slogged through waist-deep mud and faced spiders as big as their torsos, but they were committed to the task. Did you know that a jaguar’s markings are as unique as a human fingerprint? With more camera traps set up along the narrow isthmus between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean, our scientists could determine how many individual jaguars inhabited the corridor.

Next came community education. Concerned with protecting a threatened species considered extinct just a few months before, why would we prioritize outreach above conservation? When you’re a subsistence farmer raising cattle in a jaguar corridor, big cats are your enemy. To protect the jaguars, we needed to reduce human-wildlife conflict, so big cat biologist Miguel Ordeñana traveled throughout the region to conduct community workshops on human-jaguar coexistence.

Along Lake Nicaragua, you see greater population density as well as wetlands and rainforest —the kind of habitat you imagine a jaguar to gravitate toward. In these communities, people are generally receptive to a message of human-jaguar coexistence. More easily accessible to urban areas, it’s harder to raise cattle in this region, and easier for people in this region to get their goods to market. Jaguars don’t pose the same threat to livelihoods they do in the tropical dry forests on the Pacific side of the mountains.

In the tropical dry forests on the Pacific slope, Miguel had a less receptive audience. Here, individuals live in very remote, rural areas. Many subsistence farmers don’t own the land they live on, and they clear just enough forest to raise a few head of cattle. For these members of the community, jaguars posed a very real threat to their livelihoods. Rather understandably given the circumstances, when they shot a jaguar, it wasn’t with a camera, it was with a gun.

While many people were receptive to Miguel’s message on the importance of jaguars in the ecosystem, jaguar conservation was not their top priority. They had cattle to raise and mouths to feed. Rather than asking locals to absorb the cost of jaguar predation, Paso Pacifíco raised funds from big cat conservationists, and started a compensation program. If a jaguar attacked cattle, a farmer could call Paso Pacifíco and receive compensation for the lost cow. Knowing that jaguars don’t lead to financial devastation, farmers are less likely to kill them.

As we’ve often said at PERC, when it comes to wildlife conservation, it’s important to find a way to recognize or allocate property rights in such a way that endangered wildlife become an asset rather than a liability. By compensating farmers for lost cattle, Paso Pacifíco took partial ownership of jaguars. They didn’t claim the jaguars as their own private property, but they did assume the liability of the jaguars. In addition to paying predation fees, whenever jaguar presence is established in a community, Paso Pacifíco also offers a small financial reward to every household in the vicinity. These dispersed benefits signal that jaguar conservationists acknowledge the costs a jaguar could impose and help establish trust and good will.

This story may sound very specific to the spectactularly beautiful (yes, I’m biased) and biodiverse Paso del Istmo, but it’s a universal tale. Substitute “Yellowstone ecosystem” for “Nicaragua,” “wolves” for “jaguars,” and “Defenders of Wildlife” for “Paso Pacifíco,” and you’ve basically got the Hank Fischer story. Hank, the ultimate enviropreneur, helped ease tension between ranchers and wolf conservationists, and paved the way for wolf reintroduction in the Rocky Mountain West.

Respecting the humans involved in human-wildlife conflict goes a long way toward changing attitudes. This endangered species day, it’s important to remember the costs as well as the benefits of wildlife conservation policies and practices.

See the jaguar video clip that busted the myth. And check out this more recent video of a mother jaguar with her cub. And read Miguel’s project overview on the Urban Carnivores blog.

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