This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.
Wildlife biologist Ricardo Moreno is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.
As a kid in Panama, Ricardo Moreno used to wake up early to watch National Geographic documentaries about wildlife, especially big cats. That early fascination gave way to a career as a biologist and wildlife conservationist studying wildcats, primarily in Costa Rica and Panama. His research has shown, for example, that jaguars are being killed faster than they can reproduce.
Through his nonprofit organization, Yaguará, Moreno studies wildcats. But he believes the key to conserving them is winning over the locals for whom the cats are enemies. He says he’s given more than 1,300 talks during a five-year period in Costa Rica, and now, back in Panama. He’s still talking to all kinds of people, from farmers to government ministers, in the hope that every conversation, every camera trap picture, will help buy time for the animals.
Beyond National Geographic documentaries, what else sparked your interest in wildcats in particular?
I grew up watching my own domestic cat from when I was 14 years old. With my cat, I never slept. Every single day when I’d wake up, the first thing I did at that time in my life was try to find my cat outside and see what he was doing with the other cats around.
While in school I continued watching the group of domestic cats living near my house. If they moved to somewhere, if they fought, if they mated with the females—I needed to record everything about their behavior. At midnight I’d wake up and go out trying to find where they were.
I grew up in a not very safe place. My mom was very angry with me for being out in the street late at night. “But mom, I am trying to find the cat and see what he’s doing!” After my cat died [seven years later], I started to get more focused on wildcats and started reading a lot of scientific papers.
You were inspired to come to Gamboa, a town surrounded by Soberania National Park, during a visit in 1997. Why did you ultimately move there?
I thought the beauty in this area was so wonderful. We walked inside the national park and we saw jaguar tracks. I thought, in the future I want to live in Gamboa because if I live there, then all of those animals will be, like, the animals my backyard.
And you know, now I live in Gamboa, but the sad thing is that we’ve had no pictures of jaguars from the camera traps since 2012. For me it’s super sad, because I thought the moment I moved here it was going to be very easy for me to track jaguars in the area. It’s not like this. The jaguar faces a lot of threats in Panama.
You’ve said one of the biggest threats comes from farmers, such as cattle ranchers. How does that conflict take shape?
Most of the farmers kill jaguars because the jaguars kill their domestic animals. Second of all, in Panama people have a lot of fear because they believe this is a very dangerous animal, even though jaguars are not human-killers.
If the jaguar kills one cow, for example, and if the land owner arrives early and sees that, they climb a tree close to the cow and wait with a gun. At night or in the afternoon when the jaguar comes back to eat again, they shoot it. Others, they send hound dogs to chase the animal. The moment the jaguar climbs a tree to rest, people arrive and shoot it in the tree. If people are a little bit lazy and they know they want to sell the skin and other parts of the animal, they poison it.
What did you want to do in founding Yaguará?
We had an idea in our mind: We need to do science, but at the same time, if we are doing science, we need to work closely with the people. We started doing a lot of talks in villages and in schools.
Usually after researchers have a result, they just write and publish a science paper. But for us, this is not the only thing. We publish the science paper, but after that, we want to publish in the newspaper. We want to do talks and show everybody what we can do with those results.
Founding Yaguará in Panama, my main idea was to create a group of warriors. Warriors means, for me, students or any single person who really wants to help in this kind of work. To help people. Because for most of the people coexisting with jaguars, the jaguar is the enemy.
We need to find a way they can understand how important the jaguar is for the ecosystem and for them. It’s about trying to build better things for the humans who coexist with the jaguars. I believe if we do that, those people are going to save the jaguars.
But how do you do that for people whose livestock are being eaten?
We’re doing workshops with farmers, because after a lot of years I realized if you do a talk for one hour, they have a lot of questions, and they don’t get answers.
We set up camera traps with farmers, and if they show us the best places to take jaguar photos, we give them a cash prize. Usually, if we set up the cameras and a jaguar kills, they call us. My girlfriend told me, “You are buying time.” And I say yes, we are buying time. Because in that moment, if the jaguar kills animals, they are not going to kill it. First they are going to call us.
We also visit farms to see if they can offer tours—maybe the land has waterfalls or wonderful trails. Then we can promote the place with a tour operator in Panama. We teach people how to make a plaster cast of the jaguar track. If the plaster casts are very good, we can help sell them. We offer free advice and sometimes help with medicine for the cows, pigs, horses and even dogs in communities. If we need to tag a jaguar with a GPS collar and people help us, they can be paid and have more information about what we are doing and why.
The main thing is to build trust, talking with farmers and being super honest. I never say, I promise you this or that. I say, to do this, I need you to help me and I’m going to help you. But the goal is to conserve the cat. Most of the time, on the first try, you’re not going to convince them. You need to spend more quality time. Stick with them. Walk with them.
Can you talk about jaguars and their importance? What do you see?
Even now, if I see a jaguar track, for me it’s one of the most beautiful things, because I can say, wow, those animals are still in that place. I’m fascinated with making plaster casts of those animals’ tracks because I try to show to people how powerful they are, how majestic they are, and how important they are for our ecosystems. Jaguars and other wildcats control the population of herbivores such as white-tailed deer and peccaries. If we don’t have that, the herbivores are going to eat all the seeds and we won’t have new trees.
It’s easy to talk with people who like wildcats, but the challenge is to convince people who really don’t like them. We need to work with these kinds of people. Most researchers, they don’t want this kind of stress. [They want to write someone off, saying] “This guy is problematic.” No, we need to work with him. Especially with him.
Most people, they already know the animal is wonderful and beautiful. They usually say, I really like that animal, but if it starts killing our livestock and no one helps us, we need to kill them. Usually humans, if they don’t know something, they are afraid of it. Our idea is to explain more so they know the animal as another species in the world—like us.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Want to become a National Geographic Explorer? Learn how you can apply for a grant from the National Geographic Society.