TRACKING JAGUARS

Jaguar

Dedicated conservationists trek the Costa Rican rainforest

We stand dead still. We try to be silent, but the rainforest isn’t. There’s buzzing, humming and squawking. And, to our right, a rustle in the undergrowth. I hope it’s a jaguar, I really do. But I’m not ashamed to admit that there’s a part of me that hopes it isn’t. Jaguar attacks on humans are rare, but the cat is one of the world’s most formidable killers. It’s built for power, yet has surprising stealth, which is why Jaguar’s founder Sir William Lyons chose the evocative name for his new sleek range of cars back in 1935.

The Osa Peninsula in south-western Costa Rica holds one of the last remaining patches of Pacific rainforest. National Geographic has described it as the most biologically intense place on earth. But it’s an area that needs help, and Friends of the Osa was set up to work with scientists, local communities, landowners, businesses and conservationists to preserve the area’s vital ecosystems.

The Osa Biodiversity Center provides simple, but comfortable, accommodation for university groups and scientists who want to visit Osa to research its flora and fauna. Aida Bustamante and Ricardo Moreno joined Friends of the Osa to study the region’s cats. By positioning 130 cameras at strategic points they’ve created the most intensive camera-trap study in the world.

“We want to focus on the conservation of wildcats, not only in Osa, but also in other parts of Costa Rica and Panama,” Aida says. Their Wild Cats Conservation NGO – Yaguará – aims to reduce the conflicts between big cats and the local population. “We’re the only wild cat conservation programme in Central America that provides financial compensation to farmers whose livestock has been killed by a puma or a jaguar, to try to limit the number of jaguars that are hunted,” says Ricardo. “We work with the local community – particularly ranchers – to try to educate them about the jaguar’s endangered status.”

Aida and Ricardo believe interaction with the local community is the reason their research has achieved such success. “When livestock or a domestic animal is killed, a jaguar is usually blamed,” says Aida. “The farmers pay the hunters to kill the jaguar, and the hunters sell the jaguar’s skin and teeth.” But, by studying carcasses, Aida and Ricardo have found that 90 per cent of livestock deaths were actually caused by pumas. “All cats kill with a bite to the neck and suffocation, except a jaguar, which kills by piercing the skull with a bite to the head,” Aida explains. “So we can tell if an animal has been killed by a jaguar.”

The poaching of animals is also a problem. Hunters shoot tapir and peccaries to sell the meat. The cats then have fewer food options, which could be why they prey on the local farm animals. “The jaguar is the primary predator of its community,” says Ricardo. “They are right at the top of the food chain, so if jaguars thrive, there’s a good chance that other species in that area are thriving too. But, if jaguars are in decline, it means that the environment in which they live is declining, too.”

Aida and Ricardo use Reconyx and Cuddeback cameras, made for the US hunting market. They have heat and motion sensors, and any movement bigger than a mouse triggers a photograph. The cameras have good sensors and fire quickly so the whole animal is caught in shot. They’re also flash-equipped, so they fire during the night. Their D-size batteries last for around one month, so each site gets a visit every few weeks.

Back at the Center, Aida clicks through the pictures. There are a huge number of photographs from each site, including a diverse and unusual range of animals. No photographs of a jaguar are collected today, but both cheer when a jaguarundi – a small cat that is not related to the jaguar – appears on the screen. It’s rare for the cameras to capture one, and Aida and Ricardo are thrilled to see it.

Aida logs the GPS data for each camera position and gives each cat a unique code number so that she can outline the size of the area each one uses. “We need to put cameras in the corridor that heads from Osa across to the Amistad National Park to see how the jaguars connect between both sites,” says Aida. “Our big aim, though, is to buy GPS collars. With that technology we can find out the jaguars’ true range and prove that the cats are using corridors. We’d also be able to tell farmers if one comes close to their livestock, in real time.”

We have to leave the rainforest to its buzzing, humming, howling and squawking. The jaguars have proved too cleverly elusive for us. It would have been incredibly lucky to have seen one. But that only reinforces just how much they are in need of our help.

HOW TO DONATE
The Yaguará Wild Cats Conservation work survives on donations. If you would like to contribute, please visit  www.yaguara.org or email  info@yaguara.org. To support the conservation of the jaguar’s habitat, visit  www.osaconservation.org

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