Supporting Co-existence with Paraguay’s Majestic Jaguars

A jaguar and cubs. Credit: Daniel Alarcon

Jaguars carry spiritual and symbolic meaning to many cultures throughout Latin America. Credit: Daniel Alarcon

Jaguars have been revered for centuries for their mystery, beauty, and power, beginning with the ancient cultures of the Aztecs, Incans, and Mayans. Today this iconic big cat of the Americas is under siege and their range in the wild has been reduced to about half of its original size.  This decrease is largely due to the expansion of agriculture and livestock production, which has placed people and jaguars in close proximity and increased tensions that sometimes result in retaliatory killings. As humans and jaguars are forced to share space, other human pressures on the remaining wild jaguar populations are intensified as well. These additional threats include poaching, hunting of jaguars’ natural prey, and more recently, the alarming spike in illegal trafficking of jaguar teeth and hides.

Why is the plight of jaguars important

Jaguars require large-scale landscapes with an abundant and diverse prey base in order to survive and thrive. Aside from the fact that jaguars are only found in the Americas and have been venerated for centuries, their presence and abundance serve as an ‘indicator species’ to the overall ecological health and resiliency of multiple ecosystems in the Western Hemisphere. If predators like jaguars are removed from their habitats, population dynamics of other species can also potentially be disrupted, which may lead to undesirable ecosystem changes. Strategies that protect jaguars are often beneficial for other species of wildlife too.

Developing win-win solutions with ranchers and landowners

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) International Affairs Program in recent years has provided support to projects that address the issue of jaguar retaliatory killings. Often hard-working livestock producers see no other option than to shoot jaguars in the struggle to preserve their livelihoods. However, options that can be mutually beneficial for jaguars and humans do exist.

An example that highlights the win-win possibilities in these situations is a project in Paraguay. Implemented by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the project seeks to mitigate conflict between jaguars and cattle ranchers through a collaborative effort in Paraguay’s Chaco Region. The project area is part of the approximately 386,000 square mile expanse of the Gran Chaco Americano, the second largest expanse of forest in South America after the Amazon. It is a region with diverse and unique ecosystems and wildlife that is considered to be one of the last remaining jaguar strongholds. Over a period of several years, WCS has been working with over 14 ranches spanning across more than 500,000 acres of land to test and now implement jaguar-friendly ranching techniques that reduce the likelihood of jaguars attacking their cattle.

Cattle used by ranchers in South America scatter when frightened, making them easy prey for jaguars. This is especially true when the natural prey of jaguars have been reduced. The loss of any number of cattle, whether it is one or multiple, represents a significant economic loss to a livestock producer and the response is often indiscriminate retaliatory killings of any and all jaguars. These situations harm both the ranchers and conservation efforts for jaguar populations. Yet, mitigation strategies can be incorporated which reduce the occurrence of these negative interactions.

A giant anteater photographed by a camera trap. Credit: WCS

The Paraguayan Chaco is part of the Gran Chaco Americano, which covers over 1 million square kilometers, spanning parts of Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil. The jaguar is among many unique species in the Gran Chaco. The region is also home to animals such as the giant anteater. Credit: WCS

The WCS project supported by the Service in Paraguay has used multiple mitigation methods which were selected and tested based on several guiding criteria. WCS has aimed for low cost solutions that are also easy to implement and maintain on a variety of property sizes while tailoring the strategies to the individual context of the local ranches. To date, LED light systems, electric fences, cowbells, and actions that address the spatial distance between cattle and forests have been utilized. In some cases, these techniques use or adapt methods that have been previously tested by WCS in other countries and regions in the interest of maximizing lessons learned to achieve the desired results: reducing cattle depredation and retaliatory killing of jaguars.

Maria del Carmen Fleytas, who serves as the Paraguay Program Director for WCS says that “where there are jaguar attacks, an inexpensive bullet can be used to end these situations immediately. It’s a practice that has been employed for decades. When we visit ranches and talk with ranchers about the ecological importance of jaguars as apex predators, the existence of low-cost techniques to diminish attacks, and the package of knowledge we can offer them, most seem initially reluctant to change their traditional ‘control’ methods. Through our continuous visits, conversations, and trying to change minds, we have learned that a very valuable tool is the photos that come from discretely placed camera traps that use motion to snap images of wildlife. Until we started working with ranchers, they only saw the damage created by jaguars when their cattle were killed. But the images show them a close-up of their enemy: this spectacular animal that’s one of a kind. It’s sometimes a female with cubs, and they are astonished and probably more conscious. A key second step has been offering them inexpensive solutions to lower the chance of interactions between jaguars and their cattle, and thus preventing further attacks.”

A collage of camera trap images of jaguar, chacalaca, peccaries, and jaguarundi. Credit: WCS

Images sourced from camera traps at the San Juan ranch. Although WCS is primarily focused on jaguars, additional animals were caught on camera including the Chachalaca bird, Chacoan peccary, and the jaguarundi. Without mitigation techniques, jaguars can hunt cattle even in the presence of natural prey. Credit: WCS

WCS’s efforts so far have paid off, as the ranches they have been working with have shown a 60-80% decrease in jaguar attacks and cattle losses. Their research findings indicate, however, that there is variability among the different mitigation tactics. Outcomes for LED light efficiency depend on the degree to which ranchers have the time to adjust the positioning of the lights. Cowbells need to be used with a sufficient number of cattle in order to be effective. Installing electric fences is labor-intensive, but has shown to be very effective. WCS is also beginning to experiment with other techniques such as having donkeys present on ranches because there is evidence that they may also deter jaguars from attacking cattle. Increasing the spatial distance between ranches and adjacent forests has proven to be the most efficient tactic for decreasing attacks on cattle, guiding WCS’s conclusion that distance between humans and jaguars is a central factor in reducing conflict.

A cattle ranchers shows cowbells that he is placing on cows. Credit: WCS

Cattle herding in the Campo Grande Ranch. One of four mitigation strategies, cowbells were attached to leather pieces and hung around the necks of adult cows. Cowbells were tested by changing the leather strap to a nylon one and adjusting the number of cows with bells. Credit: WCS

The collaboration between WCS and ranchers has supplemented the mitigation strategies with community engagement through workshops and other outreach activities in order to educate ranchers and other stakeholders about jaguar conservation. WCS has in particular focused on conducting outreach to students focused on wildlife biology, agriculture, and veterinary sciences. “Raising awareness among them is so important for jaguar conservation, because they can soon be in the position to help decide the fate of these animals and also train other people. They are a powerful source of advocacy on behalf of jaguars,” explains Maria del Carmen Fleytas.

A guide produced by WCS shows example of jaguar-friendly ranching techniques. Credit: WCS

WCS has created several resource guides for cattle ranchers that explain and illustrate various techniques to reduce jaguar attacks. Shown here are techniques that include providing water sources for both cattle and wildlife that can help keep them farther apart (#3) and using low-cost solar-powered LED motion-detector lights that turn on when animals like jaguars approach (#4). WCS notes in the guide that one drawback is that jaguars can become accustomed to the presence of the lights if they remain predictable and in the same locations, which can diminish their effectiveness. Credit: WCS

Since they started their work, over half of the ranchers that WCS has worked with have developed a more positive perception of jaguars. Maria del Carmen Fleytas is encouraged by the number of additional ranchers that have become interested in working with WCS on reducing retaliatory killing of jaguars. She also notes that many ranchers are now contributing their own funds to buy materials and hire people to help install jaguar-friendly features. She says that “This is a light of hope for jaguars. Since 70-80% of the Paraguayan Chaco is privately owned, land owners can decide what to do and not to do with their lands. If they choose to protect wildlife, this is decisive for conservation.”

This story was written by Deborah Kornblut, an intern with the Service’s International Affairs Program.