On World Cat Day, Three Roars for the Jaguar

Editor's note: Today is World Cat Day, an homage to the domesticated companion which has lived alongside humans for more than 10,000 years. In commemoration of this day, we asked Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, CI’s vice president and senior advisor for global policy, to reflect on the domestic cat’s wild cousins, particularly the big cats which are all struggling for survival.

When I was 12 years old, in the Caribbean foothills of Costa Rica, my grandfather took me and three of my cousins out on his cattle ranch to check on the carcass of a cow that had recently been killed by a jaguar (Panthera onca). In order to get rid of the “problem” jaguar, my grandfather had poisoned the cow carcass, knowing that the cat would return to feed on it.

I will never forget the sight of a dead male 200-pound jaguar a short distance away from his kill. Initially I felt excited by the adventure and the experience, but it definitely marked my life forever.

Forty years later, jaguars remain at the heart of my conservation passion. In that time, I have witnessed a dramatic change in attitude among younger generations of people living in jaguar territory. While jaguars were once considered a nuisance, now people avoid killing them and ask authorities to relocate them when they prey on livestock — proof that people are slowly realizing that this animal is worth more to local communities when kept alive.

A Vulnerable Predator

There are four types of “big cats” in the genus Panthera: the tiger, lion, leopard and jaguar. These majestic animals — which are the only cats able to roar — sit atop the food chain in every ecosystem they occupy and have fascinated and frightened humankind since the dawn of time. But since they require vast expanses to survive, their populations are in quick decline. Today lions live on just 7 percent of their original range, and tigers just 3 percent.

For more than two decades, I have supported jaguar conservation efforts in Mesoamerica. The jaguar is the third-largest cat in the wild after the lion and the tiger, and the largest feline in the Americas.

Our societies and cultures across the region have evolved for centuries with the jaguar, a charismatic species that has inspired rich myths and legends, and today serves as a national symbol of conservation for several Latin American countries. But while people continue to be awed and intrigued by the jaguar, many live in fear and are intolerant of this large and wild cat. This fear is accentuated as humans continue to deplete forest cover, forcing jaguars to be in closer contact with people and livestock.

While the jaguar remains the top predator in the region, and serves as an indicator of healthy ecosystems, its survival is currently threatened by three main factors:

Dramatic habitat loss and fragmentation from the conversion of wild lands to agriculture and other development.

Direct hunting by people such as ranchers, who view jaguars as a threat to their livelihoods.

Disappearance of natural prey, like deer and wild pigs, from overhunting by humans and habitat loss, forcing jaguars to prey on domestic animals and provoking conflict with humans.

These threats are a recipe for disaster — not just for this species, but for entire ecosystems. As indicator species, the decline of jaguar populations reveals a parallel decline in ecosystem health, which could have dramatic consequences for humans. Fortunately, even though jaguars have been eradicated from over 40 percent of their historical range, they still exist in 18 countries in Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina.

Like many large, free-ranging wildlife species, jaguars are not constrained by political boundaries, nor are they as challenged as we might think by physical ones. Jaguars use — and require — protected areas, where their core populations can thrive. But they also move beyond protected areas, through landscapes, across rivers and roads; over hills and mountain passes; even through marginally developed areas, in search of food, space, security and breeding partners.

As head of the Costa Rica’s National Park Service in the ’90s, my scientist and park manager colleagues and I began to realize that jaguars were confined within several national parks without any possibility of moving into different ranges and ecosystems. This discovery triggered the creation of the national program for biological corridors in 1997. Through multilateral partnerships, payments for ecosystem services, government support and local buy-in, Costa Rica created a network of corridors, ensuring safe passage for the majestic jaguar across its entire range, from cloud forest to humid lowlands.

With support from CI, WWF, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the donor community, this effort was eventually expanded to a regional scale, including eight nations of Mesoamerica.

Living With Jaguars

In the last 20 years, Costa Rica has restored and doubled its forest cover, creating prime jaguar habitat and corridors. Recent data has shown that jaguars are expanding their ranges, and strong evidence suggests that their populations are increasing — largely thanks to the creation of corridors linking core jaguar populations in national parks within the human-transformed landscape.

Saving jaguars across their range is a winning strategy for conserving vast landscapes and ecosystem functions, and preserving human health and livelihoods. While corridors are focused on jaguars, the impacts go far beyond the animals; they also generate economic opportunities for local communities due to ecotourism and payments for ecosystem services. Through its Global Conservation Fund, CI recently collaborated with the Costa Rican government, Germany development bank KfW and the Global Environment Facility to design a US$ 18 million biodiversity fund, which will pay local farmers for protecting their land from hunting and deforestation. The species-rich Osa region will be the testing ground for this innovative, first-of-its-kind initiative.

Despite the decimation of numerous jaguar populations, new science indicates that with urgent and strategic action, this species can not only endure, but thrive, while local communities may benefit from its conservation. One key CI partner in Mesoamerica is the Panthera Foundation, whose Jaguar Corridor Initiative is the most comprehensive strategy ever. Through a targeted set of activities, Panthera is helping to ensure the future of this magnificent carnivore across its entire range. Costa Rica is the natural link in this continental corridor; I am proud to see my home country continue to prove that big cats and humans can live together harmoniously.

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez is vice president and senior advisor for global policy in CI’s Center for Conservation and Government. He was formerly the environment and energy minister for Costa Rica.