Conserving Cats

June 2, 2011

Groups in Mexico and the U.S. join forces to create an innovative jaguar-protection reserve

By A. Greene, Tucson Weekly

Around 150 years ago, jaguars thrived in much of the southern United States—ranging as far east as Louisiana.

However, the cats were hunted because they killed livestock, and for their skins. Today, they’re virtually extinct in the United States, though a small number of them remain in Mexico.

In northern Sonora, there is now a 45,000-acre reserve set aside for the remaining jaguar population—and that reserve represents a lot more than just wildlife conservation.

It all started in the late 1990s with a man named Carlos López González, a large-mammal biologist who specialized in jaguars. López González had heard of a region known to be the home of the northernmost population of jaguars, and he traveled to the area to search for tracks and to speak with local ranchers.

“The way I approached them was more in the sense of whether they had any problems with depredation of livestock,” said López González. “They wouldn’t feel threatened by my presence; they would feel that I was concerned about their problems, which I was.”

By talking to the ranchers in this way, he was able to open a lot of doors.

After his initial research, López González brought his findings to a program based in Mexico City called Naturalia, whose mission is to protect endangered species and environments in Mexico.

After hearing from López González, Naturalia staff members set out to procure that land for a reserve.

“Once this region had been identified, we started doing fundraising … to buy a 10,000 acre property,” said Juan Carlos Bravo, a biologist with Naturalia. “At the time we were doing this, a group of very enthusiastic U.S. citizens created the Northern Jaguar Project for the same purpose, so we (created) an immediate and very favorable partnership.”

The collaboration allowed for the purchase of a much larger slice of land in January 2008. That land became the Northern Jaguar Reserve.

The cats on the reserve are monitored in various ways, including via motion-sensor cameras. They’re placed across the reserve and are checked on a regular basis. Every time an animal walks by a camera, a picture is snapped.

Of course, the pictures are not always of jaguars. The reserve is home to numerous other mammals, amphibians, birds, bugs and plants. In fact, the Northern Jaguar Reserve is quite a diverse place, home to more than 185 different species of terrestrial vertebrates.

Since the beginning, reserve officials have made an effort to work with ranchers living in the area. Naturalia, supported by the Northern Jaguar Project, also reaches out to students in the region. The groups teach young students about the reserve and about the importance of protecting biodiversity and ecosystems.

A related program, the Feline Photo Project, compensates ranchers for photos of felines taken on their property.

To take part in the program, ranchers must sign an agreement promising not to harm any protected species. Though a photograph of a jaguar is best, all photographs of felines in the area earn a cash prize.

“At first, most of (the ranchers) were hesitant, but we had enough of them to jumpstart the project … and it’s been building momentum,” said Bravo. “Right now, there’s a waiting list of ranchers who want to incorporate into the program.”

Thanks to the Feline Photo Project, many of the participating landowners are beginning to understand the importance of wildlife conservation, and have become much more receptive to the idea.

The programs have also worked with ranchers close to the reserve to develop and implement strategies to reduce livestock predation.

“What we’ve done is put up fences to divide pastures in such a way that (ranchers) can keep vulnerable animals closer to their house,” said Bravo.

Recently, the Northern Jaguar Project applied for a Disney Friends for Change grant on behalf of both groups, which involved a contest wherein the group competed for votes online. The project was awarded second place, earning $50,000.

According to Megan “Turtle” Southern, coordinator at the Northern Jaguar Project, the money will go toward the Northern Jaguar Project’s Growing the Jaguar Garden program, which provides kids living in the area with a chance to learn about and participate in habitat restoration on the reserve.

Despite the current environment of political strife, Naturalia and the Northern Jaguar Project have managed to show the power of good communication. This binational collaboration has not only flourished, but has led to tremendous success regarding conservation efforts in the Southwest.

Bravo said that the collaboration is expanding to include yet other ambitious environmental projects, like water-harvesting and soil recovery.

“We’ve been able to preserve a joint heritage, and it makes it, in a sense, unique, that … there’s joint decision-making and joint fundraising and joint everything,” said Naturalia’s Bravo. “I am personally grateful for all the assistance that we’ve had from our partner, Northern Jaguar Project, and so much that the U.S. citizens have done. … It brings us closer together.”