By Dr. John Polisar
In late December of 2016, Paraguay launched an initiative to balance the ecological needs of the jaguar—the world’s third largest big cat species—with those of ranchers who raise cattle in the same landscapes. Paraguay’s Secretary of Environment (SEAM) announced the completion of a 10-year national plan that contains the contributions of a unique mix of NGOs, researchers, and ranchers who seek to maintain jaguars as the symbol of wild across the productive landscapes and protected areas of Paraguay.
The plan is a multi-faceted effort with all of the ingredients needed for effective conservation, including an overview on the natural history of the jaguar, previous research, current status, and the legal framework supporting management decisions in Paraguay. The plan includes action items for further investigation, policy, and education. The most important piece of the plan may very well be protocols for managing human-jaguar conflicts, an important consideration for a country heavily invested in cattle ranching.
One important region for the new plan is the Gran Chaco, one of the largest wildernesses remaining in South America and a key jaguar landscape that western Paraguay shares with Bolivia. In its eastern portions Paraguay also shares smaller sections of the Atlantic Forest —also crucial jaguar habitat— with Brazil and Argentina. Both regions play key roles in Paraguay’s economy, particularly because the small country is the sixth largest exporter of quality beef to the world, and the fourth largest exporter of soy. Unfortunately, the expansion of ranches and crops in the Paraguayan Chaco has resulted in one of the highest deforestation rates in the Western Hemisphere.
Growth in Paraguay’s profitable cattle sector and other forms of agro-industry is likely to continue, so the new effort to maintain vital habitat for jaguars comes not a moment too soon. Multiple institutions—including WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society)—have contributed to the new plan for safeguarding Paraguay’s jaguars.
As Coordinator for WCS’s Jaguar Conservation Program, I have grappled with the challenge of reducing conflict between jaguars and human communities for two decades. In the late 1990s, I worked with a team of researchers in the high plains of Venezuela to identify the factors needed for human-jaguar coexistence in an 80,000-hectare cattle ranch and wildlife preserve. Thankfully, valiant jaguar conservation efforts in that productive landscape have been successful. Twenty years later, that ranch supports approximately 13,000 head of cattle and a higher density of jaguars than in the 1990s. The secret for this record of coexistence is an absolute ban on hunting, so jaguar have natural prey to eat, and complete protection of the ranch’s forests, including large blocks not penetrated by pastures.
Since Paraguay has such a vibrant and successful ranching community, WCS was able to leverage past experiences and successes in reducing rancher-jaguar conflicts in this new setting. We are now working with ten ranches and testing techniques to reduce jaguar attacks on livestock. Such attacks often lead to rancher retaliation and jaguar mortality, so preventing these attacks is a critical first step in this process. One of the most effective techniques has been LED light systems, powered by solar panels and a battery, deployed in pastures with young calves, which are the most vulnerable to jaguar attacks, with a 100 percent success in reducing attacks.
At the same time, the long-term persistence of jaguars in Paraguay and other countries requires a mosaic of productive and protected areas. Ranging from the southwestern United States to northern Argentina, the jaguar is one of the most widely distributed big cat species in the world. The key to its persistence is to create a functional mix of protected areas and corridors so jaguars can move across and survive in both. When ranches include forest reserves, they can provide good jaguar habitat.
I have seen first-hand how weak enforcement of protected areas has resulted in denuded hills in Mesoamerica, leaving jaguars without a home. Deforestation rates are also high in the Amazon. In response to these challenges, WCS works with small farms in Mesoamerica to improve cattle management to reduce deforestation and jaguar attacks. We collaborate with indigenous communities to help protect wildlife in their territories. Other measures include documenting jaguars in forests certified for sustainable selective timber extraction. And across all of our areas of engagement, which now includes parts of Paraguay, we work with authorities who manage the protected areas that provide jaguars with safe homes.
Since jaguars need more than protected areas in order to maintain healthy populations, the participation of motivated ranchers can help preserve jaguar habitat and vital dispersal corridors. It is encouraging to see Paraguay proactively forging a team of interested individuals and institutions to generate a pragmatic plan for the future for jaguars in Paraguay.
Dr. John Polisar is the coordinator for WCS’s Jaguar Conservation Program.