Mexico, United States Join Forces to Protect Jaguar

October 17, 2007

By Staci Matlock, Santa Fe New Mexican

Mexican rancher Don Alejandro Hurtado, 84, hates jaguars.

“He’s shot many,” said Peter Warshall, projecting a slide of the tough old man up on a screen at Santa Fe’s McCune Foundation. “But he’s an amazing rancher.”

Warshall is a biologist, anthropologist and board member of the bi-national Northern Jaguar Project.

Hurtado’s ranch – in Sonora, Mexico – is key to the project’s creation of a 70-square mile preserve for the endangered cat. The ranch is adjacent to an existing 10,000-acre jaguar reserve and is almost 120 miles from the Arizona and New Mexico borders, where a number of jaguars have been spotted in the last decade.

Project director Diana Hadley, whose family has ranched in New Mexico for several years, softened Hurtado up with a lot of cow talk, and eventually, he agreed to sell. The group is now working to raise the money to buy Hurtado’s 35,000-acre Rancho Zetasora.

It’s a race against time.

Hurtado agreed to sell the ranch for $49 an acre – about $1.7 million dollars total. Project supporters have raised about half that amount and have until the end of January to pay off the other half.

Meanwhile, biologists estimate that only 80 to 120 jaguars remain in areas in and around the ranch and reserve. It’s difficult to get a good count, Warshall said, because males wander widely.

Warshall said at least 24 of the big cats, and their cubs, have been killed in the last decade. “That may mean there’s only 80 to 100 left,” he said. “Poaching can kill about
25 percent of the population.”

Once, jaguars roamed the lands from Argentina to North America. Their power was honored in ancient Mesoamerican cultures dating back to the Olmecs, the Mayans and the Aztecs.

Like tigers, jaguars love the water, and they’re at the top of the food chain on their respective turfs, Warshall said. Their tawny golden-brown fur and dark rosettes help them blend in well in tree-covered riparian areas and rocky outcroppings. Jaguars produce one to four cubs a year and feed off of a wide range of species – though biologists believe deer and javelina are likely their prime food sources in the U.S./Mexico borderlands.

Over time, the cats’ numbers have dwindled. Cities rose up along rivers and their habitat shrank. Ranchers shot the cats to protect their livestock, and poachers killed them for their valuable pelts. The animals were almost completely exterminated in the United States.

Recently, the jaguars have been returning to some of their former territories.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish reports that there were 15 jaguar sightings in the state in the early 1900s. In 1996, rancher Warner Glenn was hunting mountain lions in the Peloncillo Mountains when he came face to face with a jaguar. Glenn describes the surprise meeting in his book, Eyes of Fire: Encounter with a Borderlands Jaguar.

A key to the big cats’ survival lies in the rugged, mountainous folds of the Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Mexico. Millions of years of shifting tectonic plates, volcanoes, rifts and uplifts created the isolated terrain where the jaguars still thrive.

“It was so rough it became the home to many wildlife species, including the jaguar,” Warshall said. “We really owe it to that geologic history that the jaguar could be protected (so) far north.”

Even now, it takes a large tractor to ferry scientists, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle, to the sanctuary. From there, scientists follow a rough single-lane track that looks more like a badly maintained trail. The only other way to reach the sanctuary is by raft, in August or September, when people are forced to brave 110 degree heat and swarms of mosquitoes.

A dozen years ago, Mexican biologist and researcher Carlos A. López began tracking the jaguars’ movements through a corridor between southern Sonora and up into Arizona and New Mexico.

At the time, a few wildlife reserves already existed in Sonora, and López, a board member of the Mexican conservation group Naturalia, figured another reserve between existing reserves would provide a safe haven for jaguars and other species migrating north and south.

Naturalia purchased the 10,000-acre Los Pavos Ranch for use as a jaguar sanctuary. The purchase was accomplished in 2003 through a joint effort by Naturalia, Banco Mex and citizens.

“The first purchase was completely by Mexicans,” Warshall said. “No gringos.”

In the Los Pavos and Zetasora ranches, pumas, bobcats, ocelots and possibly jaguarundies share space with jaguars. Over the last few years, biologists have counted 180 bird species and 92 butterfly species on the sanctuary and the adjacent ranch. Among the birds spotted are tropical hummingbirds, bald eagles and military macaws. Biologists also have mapped out unique ecosystems in the area, including land shared by mesquite and tropical palm trees.

This year, biologists will be counting fish and other aquatic species in the Río Yaqui and Río Aros.

“We counted a gigantic population of low-land leopard frogs, which are endangered in the U.S.” Warshall said. “That’s a big issue among people concerned about the amphibian collapse around the world.”

The project is also finding ways to make saving the jaguar economically beneficial to ranchers whose land makes up the feline’s corridors.

The Northern Jaguar Project purchased trip cameras to place around ranches near the proposed reserve. When an animal crosses in front of the camera it sets off the camera’s shutter. The photos have helped scientists estimate the number of jaguars in the sanctuary and on the adjoining ranch. Unique spots and coloring on each jaguar help scientists identify individual cats.

The group pays a local vaquero to operate the cameras and hopes to hire more cowboys to protect the sanctuary. Recently, the program received a grant to purchase 64 more cameras to distribute to ranches surrounding the sanctuary in hopes of better tracking the jaguars’ movements.

The program pays each ranch owner $500 for a picture of an individual jaguar, $300 for a photo of a puma, $150 for an ocelot photo and $100 for bobcat pictures.

“One rancher got pictures of eight ocelots in one month,” Warshall said. “We’re concerned it might have been the same one.”

Warshall said that when someone asked the rancher what he would do with the money, the rancher’s son replied, “buy more cats.”

Naturalia is working with ranchers on a wildlife-conservation agreement – called an UMA in Mexican law. A rancher sympathetic to local wildlife helped set up the first agreement near the reserve, Hadley said. Ranchers agree not to shoot jaguars in exchange for grazing their livestock on the land and guiding hunters in to shoot deer.

“A rancher can make $5,000 for a deer hunt,” Warshall said. “We’re promoting UMAs in this area where the condition is you don’t shoot jaguars in exchange for making money from hunting.”

The agreements will expand protection for the jaguars beyond the boundary of the reserve, Hadley said.

Hadley’s family is part of a 20-ranch group in the Malpais area of Southern New Mexico who have agreed not to shoot jaguars who visit their ranches.

The jaguars’ migration north raises another concern for those trying to protect them: Proposed fences along the U.S./Mexico border could impede their way. Warshall said 75 to 100 miles of fences already have been set up.

“The border area needs to be protected for migrating wildlife,” he said. “We didn’t intend to be political, but we have been forced into it.”

Want to contribute? Help the Northern Jaguar Project raise funds needed to buy the 35,000 acre ranch in Sonora, Mexico which will become part of the jaguar reserve. One acre costs $49. Donations can be sent to NJP, 2214 West Grant Road, Suite 121, Tucson, Ariz. 85745. Or call (520) 623-9653 x.5.