If the Jaguar Vanishes
By Pilar Franco
The rare sight of a jaguar moving stealthily through the jungle is a good indication that the forest is a healthy one, for without this frightening animal, the jungle’s ecosystem is not as it should be.
MEXICO CITY, (Tierramérica).- When the jaguar roars, silence invades the jungle. But that roar is in danger of being silenced as increased hunting and a reduction in forest cover in Central America threaten the continued existence of this elusive predator.
An accord to be signed in July by the National Environmental Authority (ANAM) of Panama and the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is seeking to preserve the jaguar and other species of wild cats in Panama.
“It will encompass the 570,000-hectareNational Border Park of Darien and the 200,000-hectare Friendship Park,” said Laura Fernández, ANAM director of Protected Areas.
The Darien Park, bordering Columbia on the east, was declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1982 and a World Natural Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1981.
The Friendship Park on the west, shared by Panama and Costa Rica, has been a World Natural Heritage site since 1990.
Virgin jungles in both parks shelter six species of felines: the jaguar (Panthera onca), the puma (Felis concolor), the ocelot (Felis pardalis), the jaguarundi (Felis yagouaroundi), the tiger cat (Felis tigrina) and the margay cat (Felis wiedii). All are in danger of extinction.
“This agreement will launch the first site for the conservation and long-term study of wild cats” in Central America, said Laura Fernández.
“In addition it will open the way for scientific research on the species, their prey and the ecosystem” using electronic locator systems such as radio collars.
Officials from the Panamanian government will receive training and technical
advice to help them participate in the project, said Eduardo Carrillo, coordinator for the WCS’ Jaguar Conservation Program for Mesoamerica (southern Mexico and Central America).
The conservation plan will boost knowledge about the most important carnivores whose territories stretch from the south of Mexico to the north of Argentina, said Carrillo. For example, just how many jaguars remain in the region is not known, he explained.
“The presence of the jaguar is an unequivocal sign that the ecosystem is healthy. The cat maintains the equilibrium in the population of other animal species,” said Carrillo, who is also a researcher at the National University of Costa Rica.
The jaguar eats alligators and crocodiles, monkeys, land and water turtles, and fish, and regulates the population of these species.
The extinction of a species such as the jaguar “would bring secondary extinction, and the process would lead to the transformation of the structure and composition of the forests,” he noted.
Carrillo said management of the biological corridors that allow felines and their prey to move around is essential. The protection of these large areas is a critical factor in the conservation plan, since reduced territories make it harder to maintain a healthy jaguar population, he added.
Deforestation is a major threat to the jaguar’s continued existence because loss of forest cover destroys the species’ food supply. In the Darien and Friendship parks, researchers will look at the relationship between the jaguar and other wildlife that form its main diet.
Carrillo said cattle farmers are also a danger, because they shoot the big cats whenever they see them anywhere near their ranches.
The jaguar is included in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which makes it illegal to trade in their skin or any other body parts. However, poachers abound, he noted.
The jaguar can weigh up to 150 kg. Solitary, save for its period of reproduction, it is a nocturnal creature. The keenness of its senses of smell and hearing and its ability to run, climb trees, swim and stalk its prey make it an excellent hunter.
Since 1999 the WCS has run a jaguar conservation program in Costa Rica and has initiated other small projects for the survival of the cat in the Indio Maíz Reserve in southern Nicaragua and bordering Costa Rica, and the Río Plátano Biosphere, the main natural reserve in Honduras.
WCS and Mexican experts began in June to draw up plans to support the conservation of felines in the Sian K’aan reserve in the southeastern Mexican peninsula of the Yucatan.
* Pilar Franco is a contributor to Tierramerica