Feline Empowered

November 1, 2013


By Wendy Sweet, Tucson Lifestyle

Power, strength, beauty and grace: that is the description of the jaguar. These big cats used to roam the Southwestern United States borderlands until they became locally extinct due to hunters and government predator programs in the first half of the 20th century. Poaching and habitat destruction also have played a part in their disappearance. But the Northern Jaguar Project (NJP) is working to bring them back.

“NJP preserves habitat and provides protection for the northernmost breeding population of jaguars on the continent,” explains Diana Hadley, president of NJP. “We prevent poaching of jaguars, and we educate students and cattle growers about the importance of wildlife and keystone species. A keystone species — such as the jaguar — plays a crucial role keeping an ecosystem in balance.”

Headquartered in Tucson, NJP co-manages the 50,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve in Mexico with Naturalia, a Mexican nonprofit conservation organization. “Our partnership with Naturalia is crucial to our success,” Hadley relates. “It also is a great example of cross-border cooperation.”

The Northern Jaguar Reserve lies 125 miles south of Douglas, Arizona, in very rugged terrain in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. “It is an exotic and beautiful landscape and very, very remote and unpopulated,” says Hadley. “I once counted 17 mountain ranges at dusk and saw not one single electric light.”

Two jaguar guardians work on the reserve to prevent access and poaching. They also oversee a network of 150 motion-triggered cameras that take photos of whatever wildlife is present. On the NJP website, you can see more than 500 photos of jaguars on the reserve and surrounding ranches, along with photos of mountain lions, bobcats and ocelots. There is plenty of other wildlife, too, including turkeys, deers, javelinas, raccoons and birds. With the elevation on the reserve ranging from 1,500 to about 4,000 feet, it is a region of amazing biodiversity.

To help prevent poaching, Hadley says, “We need to spread the word in the U.S., the way we spread the word in Mexico. We incorporate the neighboring cattle ranchers into our conservation program, called Viviendo con Felinos (Living with Felines), by signing contracts with them in which they agree not to harm any wildlife. They also agree to have the motion-triggered cameras placed on their ranches, and they receive monetary awards for photos that indicate the presence of the area’s four feline species.”

Jaguars are solitary, secretive animals that are highly endangered throughout their entire range. Other than in photos, sightings are extremely rare. “There have been no known attacks by jaguars on humans anywhere in their northern range, ever,” Hadley emphasizes.

A retired land-use historian, Hadley and her ecologist husband Peter Warshall (who passed away this past April) were two of the co-founders of NJP in 2003. “We thought it would be a short-term project,” she notes. Ten years later, she is still very involved as the volunteer president.

“NJP is an efficient, small grassroots group that is making a big difference.” In the Tucson office, volunteer opportunities include sorting and categorizing trip-camera wildlife photos, writing letters and helping with fundraisers.

NJP relies on donations and support from communities, businesses, organizations and individuals; other funding sources include grants from private foundations.

“Donated funds go directly to programs for wildlife protection, landscape restoration, scientific research and education. Funds also go toward land acquisition.”

In the future, “We would like to further expand the reserve and improve the habitat, get designation of Mexican governmental protection at the highest level, increase the number of ranchers involved in the Viviendo con Felinos program, and publicize our message in the U.S. and Mexico,” says Hadley. “We would also like to conduct more scientific research on the reserve, establish more partnerships with other reserves and environmental organizations, and create safe wildlife corridors between Mexico and the U.S.”

To see some remarkable wildlife photos and videos, and to learn more about volunteering or making a donation, click on www.northernjaguarproject.org or phone 623-9653, ext. 5.