Festival draws attention to the importance of conserving jaguars

21 dezembro 2023

Experts from Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico discussed best practices and ways to tackle the growing threats to the species
By Ana Maria Barbour, especially for WWF-Brazil 

Jaguars are threatened throughout the Americas. A further reduction in their population and possible extinction could cause serious ecological imbalances in the regions they inhabit, even impacting the lives of human beings. More than that: the disappearance of this species would jeopardize age-old cultural traditions and expressions, which find in the largest feline in the Americas synonymous with beauty, strength, power, and perseverance. 

To find ways of reducing pressure and recovering jaguar populations in Brazil, experts from all over the country, Mexico and Argentina met at the Jaguar Festival, which took place between November 27 and 29 in Foz do Iguaçu, Paraná, and Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. The event was organized by the Onças do Iguaçu (Brazil) and Yaguareté (Argentina) projects, in conjunction with various organizations, including WWF-Brazil, and was attended by around 200 people each day. 

Speakers and listeners were given an overview of the species' conservation situation in five Brazilian biomes: the Atlantic Forest, Pantanal, Caatinga, Cerrado, and Amazon. In the Pampas, unfortunately, the jaguar is extinct. They also learned about various projects underway in these landscapes and shared experiences and knowledge. 

Among the main fronts of action are the fight against deforestation, burning, hunting, trafficking of animal parts, and trampling; techniques for diagnosing human-fauna conflicts and implementing coexistence measures; restoring forests and creating green corridors; monitoring individuals; and ecotourism to observe animals. 

Why the jaguar? 

The jaguar is a flagship species because its conservation requires the preservation of an entire environment, large areas of vegetation, and several other species, as this feline is at the top of the food chain. "The jaguar is the largest predator on the continent, no animal eats it, but it eats many animals, which eat other animals, which eat plants," said Antonio de La Torre, a researcher at the Jaguars of the Mayan Jungle Project in Mexico. 

According to him, this is very similar to what happens to human beings, who can dominate their environment, hunt the other species in their ecosystem, and are the only ones who can kill a jaguar. "There is this duality between jaguars and human beings that is represented in many cultures," he says. 

La Torre explained that jaguars are not only a symbol of our biodiversity in Latin America but also of our culture. "Throughout history, we can see that they were a representation of nobility, of power, for the Aztecs and the Mayans, and they continue to be a very important part of the identity and culture of Central America, where they are seen as guardians of the jungle, or for Amazonian cultures, where jaguars come together with cosmogony and with representations of shamans, figures who chase away evil spirits, cure illness and predict the future." In other words, for de La Torre, losing the jaguars also means losing an important part of our culture and identity. 

In Mexico, he says, the threats are very similar to those in Brazil: hunting, conflicts with landowners, deforestation for agriculture, infrastructure works. "All of this is diminishing and fragmenting their habitat. The latest studies show that throughout the country we have between 4,000 and 4,800 individuals, which are distributed from the north of Mexico through the Sierra Madres to the south of the country, including the entire Yucatan Peninsula. But, as in Brazil, we have a very consolidated group that is working to ensure the conservation of the species. Together we're achieving better results than on our own," he said. 

What we saw at the Jaguar Festival was that Brazil has set good examples when it comes to joining forces to maintain the species. During the presentations, the speakers presented very positive results of their conservation work and the increasing engagement of society. Critical and challenging situations were also reported, allowing experts to share information and exchange experiences to overcome difficulties. 

Felipe Feliciani, conservation analyst at WWF-Brazil, pointed out that "November 29 is International Jaguar Day, and what we saw at this meeting showed that we have a lot to celebrate, that we are moving in a good direction. We really needed this union and exchange. We left the meeting with renewed hope and warnings about what still needs our attention." 

Exchanging experiences 

Currently, the Onças do Iguaçu (Brazil) and Yaguareté (Argentina) projects - the result of cooperation between WWF-Brazil, Fundación Vida Silvestre, Iguaçu National Park/ICMBio and Iguazú National Park - are examples of jaguar conservation. This is because, since 2016, the actions have monitored the fluctuation of the feline population in the region of the Atlantic Forest Green Corridor (Brazil-Argentina). The simultaneous biannual censuses in both countries are one of the largest efforts to monitor the species, both in terms of area and sampling period. 

Between 1990 and 1995, it was estimated that the region was home to between 400 and 800 jaguars, but at the end of that decade the population showed an alarming decline, and the estimate in 2005 was that there were only around 40 jaguars in the entire area. In Iguaçu National Park, in 2009 there were between 9 and 11 jaguars left, and the species was close to local extinction. 

"To reverse this scenario, pioneering work has begun that involves, in addition to counting individuals, monitoring to reduce threats to the feline, as well as engagement actions, coexistence between humans and wild animals, management and research and possible solutions," explained Yara Barros, executive coordinator of the Iguassu Jaguars Project. This includes studies, dialogues, and training with people in the region, measures to protect the remaining jaguar population, and rapid and continuous response to reported cases of human-wildlife conflict, with actions to mitigate conflicts. 

The result of all this has been an increase in the species' population over the last decade, doubling between 2005 and 2016 (from 40 to 90 animals) and stabilizing, as of 2016, at close to 100 animals throughout the Green Corridor. In Brazil's Iguaçu National Park, the current average population is 25 animals. 

Despite this increase, Agustin Paviolo, executive coordinator of the Yagareté project, points out that the Green Corridor is losing area. "Deforestation is fragmenting the forest into several parts, and we need to stop this movement. The loss of this connectivity reduces the space for animals to move around, hinders the availability of prey for feeding, and, consequently, prevents the jaguar population from growing. In addition, it increases conflicts between humans and felines, since, with fewer options, the felines end up looking for livestock and domestic animals to feed on," he says. 

Deforestation in Brazil is caused by various human actions, such as the opening up of fields for livestock and agriculture, mining, logging, and other activities. There are also fires. "With the loss of habitat and the fragmentation of forest areas, we have also seen a big increase in the number of animals being run over," said Rogério Cunha de Paula, coordinator of CENAP - the National Center for Research and Conservation of Carnivorous Mammals at ICMBio (Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation). 

Expansion of work 

Based on the positive experience of coexistence between humans and jaguars in the Iguaçu Park region, WWF-Brazil has expanded its action to other regions of Brazil where there is a higher density of jaguars and their existence is strongly threatened. These are: the south of Amazonas, the region crossed by the Transamazon, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in Acre, and the northern (Mato Grosso) and southern (Mato Grosso do Sul) Pantanal. 

This has been done in partnership with local organizations, identifying and respecting the reality and specificity of each region. Felipe Feliciani, Conservation analyst, points out that local partners are strategic for continuing the work in the medium and long term, "because they share the same territory and establish a relationship of trust with rural landowners and local communities." 

The work initially involves diagnosing conflicts between humans and cats: where they occur and why. Subsequently, actions are taken to promote coexistence, using a participatory planning methodology with local communities, actors directly involved in conflict situations, and training leaders to act as multipliers. 

"In general, in conflict situations, there are multiple interest groups involved, cause and effect relationships, and this doesn't happen linearly. Understanding and unraveling this situation and listening, without judgment, to everyone involved is essential for successful coexistence," explained Silvio Marchini, a member of the Pro-Carnivore Institute and the Group of Experts on Coexistence and Conflicts between Humans and Wildlife of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), who has led several coexistence workshops promoted by WWF-Brazil. 

According to him, among the simple actions to prevent the jaguar from approaching the property are: letting off fireworks when the jaguar approaches the property; using lighting activated by a presence sensor; rounding up cattle at night, and electrifying the property's fence. 

Also in the Atlantic Forest, there is the Large Mammals of the Serra do Mar Program, which operates in the states of Paraná and São Paulo. According to researcher Roberto Fusco, the monitoring work using camera traps - which are attached to trunks and triggered by the movement of animals - has made it possible to identify jaguars where it was thought they no longer existed. "From 2018 onwards we started working with large-scale monitoring and with this we identified a large community of medium and large mammals. We estimate that there are now at least 25 jaguars in the region," he said. 
Knowing the population of species is fundamental to understanding their habits and drawing up conservation strategies. Ana Carolina Srbek de Araújo, the coordinator of the Felinos Project, which operates in the Vale Nature Reserve in Linhares, Espírito Santo, said that the situation of the jaguar is currently quite critical in the region. According to her, in 2019 it was estimated that there were no more than 20 jaguars in the Linhares-Sooretama Block. 

However, we no longer have an estimate. This is because there has been a reduction in the number of records made by camera traps, even though footprints have been found. "Climatic anomalies, with very dry years and very rainy ones, have affected the dynamics of the vegetation in recent times. This has certainly also had an impact on the jaguars. We are now developing a supplementation project to reintroduce jaguars to the reserve, initially a female," she said.   

Research shows that the jaguar currently occupies just over 50% of the Pantanal. This biome is home to the highest population density of the species in Brazil, which is strongly threatened by conflicts with cattle ranchers, loss of habitat especially due to fires and land grabbing, and the consequent reduction in its prey. 

Ecotourism and conservation 

In this scenario, responsible ecotourism to observe these animals has worked as an instrument for their conservation. According to Fernando Tortato, a researcher at Panthera Brasil, "Where there are lodges, we find more jaguars, where there are cattle ranches, we find fewer". In other words, the desire and curiosity to see and understand this beautiful and charismatic animal has given rise to a lucrative business, which has encouraged its preservation. 

The Onçafari Association is an example of an organization that works in this field in the Pantanal - in the Refúgio Ecológico Caiman (Caiman Ecological Refuge) and the Refúgio da Ilha (Island Refuge), in Mato Grosso do Sul - among other biomes. "We monitor the cats, going out into the field, setting up cameras, collecting data, and understanding the jaguars' movements within each area. We also organize tourist activities to try to make it possible to see these animals," explained Stephanie Simioni, who coordinates Onçafari's base at Legados nas Águas, which is in the Atlantic Forest in São Paulo. 

According to her, tourism enables contact with society and awareness-raising work that is only possible when you have an experience in nature, see the animals, and understand how important it can be. "In addition, tourism generates resources, moves an entire production chain, and employs many people. People from the surrounding area can work as guides, in hotels, in transportation. It's multifunctional, it educates and transforms the reality of the people who live there," Simioni points out. 

In the Caatinga biome, there is the Amigos da Onça (Friends of the Jaguar) Program, run by the Instituto Pró-Carnívoros (Pro-Carnivores Institute), which operates in 35 locations in the region of the conservation units of the National Park and the Boqueirão da Onça Environmental Protection Area and its surroundings, in northern Bahia. "In 2007, the presence of the jaguar in the region was recorded for the first time by ICMBio. As a result, in 2012 we began planning and implementing conservation actions for this species and the puma, and evaluating their conservation status in the biome," said biologist Cláudia Bueno de Campos, creator of the Program and current manager of the Boqueirão da Onça Conservation Units for ICMBio. 

The program monitors medium and large terrestrial mammals through field studies, camera trapping, and other specific techniques, and two jaguars and two pumas have already been monitored by radio-collar. It is also carrying out actions to reduce conflicts with small farmers, to prevent domestic livestock from being preyed on by cats; and educational actions in the region's communities aimed at conserving these species. 

Located in the central Amazon, in the state of Amazonas, is the Mamirauá and Amanã Sustainable Development Reserve. Here, the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute carries out a variety of research, natural resource management, and social development. According to Emiliano Esterci Ramalho, the Institute's scientific director, the biggest threats to the jaguar in the Amazon are hunting and forest fragmentation. But, fortunately, this process is still happening on a small scale. 

"We don't see hunting as a problem in that location because it's opportunistic, not intensive. It often happens for subsistence reasons. But in other regions, there are cases of intense international trafficking in animal body parts. If we don't take care, it could also become a problem for us shortly," he said. 

Deforestation and forest fragmentation 

At the moment, Ramalho's biggest concern is the major infrastructure projects, especially the construction of roads, which give rise to various branches, generating deforestation and fragmentation of the forest. "Our big goal today in the Amazon is to create and maintain conservation units. Zero deforestation would really be a huge victory. If we manage to maintain large chunks of forest, we'll be able to conserve jaguars," he said. 

Asked about the feasibility of achieving this goal, Ramalho stressed that we need to have hope. "Without this, we can't work with conservation. The current federal government has this intention and we hope it follows through. We need to carry out social and economic development while respecting the time and seasonality of the forest, combining conservation with the quality of life and rights of the people who live there," he concluded. 

According to Ronaldo Gonçalves Morato, general coordinator for Conservation and Sustainable Use at the Ministry of the Environment's National Secretariat for Biodiversity, Forests, and Animal Rights, Brazil has the world's largest population of jaguars: more than 60%, so the country has a great responsibility when it comes to conserving the species. "We identified deforestation as the main threat and set ourselves the target of zero deforestation by 2030. In the Amazon, by 2023, there had already been a 22% reduction. We are also focused on combating wildlife trafficking. In addition, we intend to restore 12 million hectares of woodlands and forests," he said. 

However, he acknowledged that there are political challenges that can make this process difficult: "We always have to be negotiating, looking for ways and solutions that are acceptable to everyone. It's a collective construction. There's no point in implementing public policies if there's no co-participation from society as a whole," he added. 

Morato believes that the role of organized civil society is fundamental in this collective construction, as well as that of the private sector. "We always emphasize that those in illegal activities will never be ready for dialogue. This is a barrier that we need to confront and punish. But the vast majority of companies and industries operate legally and respect the rules and laws." 

Guidelines on conflict and coexistence 

In addition to the 36 talks, during the Onça Festival the Portuguese version of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Guidelines on Conflict and Coexistence between People and Wild Animals, an essential document for those working in wildlife conservation, was launched. The material was prepared by the IUCN Specialist Group on Conflict and Coexistence between Humans and Wild Animals (HWCCSG). It was launched by Silvio Marchini and Rogério Cunha de Paula, members of the group. The translation was done by Yara Barros with funding from ICAS - Instituto de Conservação de Animais Silvestres (Wildlife Conservation Institute). 
Imagem de um auditório com as pessoas da plateia de costas. No palco, que está no centro da imagem, existem dois banners compridos nas pontas, um telão no meio e 7 homens estão sentados em poltronas brancas. Há também um grafite colorido com uma imagem estilizada de uma onça-pintada.
The meeting showed the results of jaguar conservation projects in Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico.
© Ana Barbour / WWF-Brasil
Três pessoas aparecem na foto, um rapaz loiro de cabelos compridos usando uma camisa cinza com a logo do WWF-Brasil, que é um panda. Uma mulher de cabelos castanhos escuros, vestido blusa preta e um homem de cabelos curtos grisalho, vestindo camisa branca.
The WWF-Brazil team was present at the event, which was supported by the organization.
© Ana Barbour / WWF-Brasil