Finding a home for jaguars


A jaguar (Panthera onca). From Flickr user Prosper 973.

One year ago this week Macho B was euthanized. He had been captured in mid-February of 2009, the only known jaguar living inside the United States, but after he was caught and fitted with a radio collar his health quickly deteriorated. When he nearly stopped moving he was recaptured, taken to the Phoenix zoo, and put to sleep when it was discovered that he was suffering from irreparable kidney failure.

At first it seemed as if his capture was a lucky accident, but a later investigation by the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the snare had been intentionally laid (without proper notification) in an area Macho B was known to have frequented. This may have hastened his death. At the time of his capture Macho B was at least 14, pretty old for jaguar, and it is possible that the stress of his capture is what triggered his decline. Since the necropsy on his body was incomplete, however, we can never know for sure.

But Macho B was probably not the last jaguar to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. At the same time that the report on Macho B's death was making the news it was discovered that another jaguar had been spotted just 30 miles to the south of the US border. There may no longer be any resident jaguars inside the United States, but big cats along the borderlands continue to cross the nation's southern boundary. As two recent studies illustrate, however, this northern population is only part of a network of jaguars conservationists are trying to hold together.

Northern jaguars face a lot of hostility from local ranchers and landowners. The spotted cat, the third largest cat species in the world, is not exactly welcome in areas where people raise livestock, and despite their protected status at least 11 jaguars have been killed illegally in the Sonora region since 1999. (This is the area from which jaguars seen in the United States are probably dispersing.) To curb these killings Octavio Rosas-Rosas and Raul Valdez began a conservation program in 2004 in which eight landowners were compensated from sales of deer hunt permits, and they have reported the results of the project in Conservation Biology.

For the past four centuries livestock have been a major part of the economy in Mexico's Sonora region, and there has been an equally long history of predator elimination. When raising sheep or cattle is your livelihood the presence of cougars and jaguars can be threatening, and so it is not surprising that in this area the idea of protecting large predators is not very popular. Still, through meeting with ranchers, the scientists were able to establish a better relationship with them, and some of the local people (who came together to form the Association for Jaguar Conservation in the High Sierra of Sonora) agreed that they would cease hunting jaguars if they were compensated for livestock losses caused by the predators.

This partnership allowed the scientists to determine that jaguars were not as much of a threat to livestock as some ranchers believed. Of all the recorded cattle losses less than 14% could be attributed to cougars or jaguars. Still, there was the question of how these minor losses would be covered, and so the scientists worked together with business owners to create Primero Conservation Outfitters. This group would take hunters (mostly from the US) into Mexico after trophy specimens of white-tailed deer and part of those proceeds would go to the Sonoran ranchers to offset cattle losses due to predation.

So far the plan has been successful. The Association for Jaguar Conservation in the High Sierra of Sonora gets $1,500 for every permit sold, and with up to 30 hunting permits sold during any given year (plus extra income from services provided to the hunters by the ranchers) the losses of the farmers to the big cats have been covered. While the idea of killing some wildlife (less than 1% of the local white-tailed deer population, in this case) to save other wildlife might be distasteful to some, so far it appears to be the best way to gain the cooperation of local landowners who might otherwise be reticent about working with conservation biologists. As the researchers concluded:

Given the necessary economic incentives, private landowners can help conserve wildlife and may even prioritize wildlife management in multispecies schemes. One of the participating landowners we worked with removed all cattle from his ranch because of the high profits realized from wildlife in contrast with the high economic inputs and low profits generated from his livestock operation. The present and future wildlife conservation agenda should prioritize strategies that provide incentive-driven conservation in human-dominated landscapes.

Yet the survival of jaguars relies upon more than changing attitudes about their presence. As large, solitary cats jaguars range over wide swaths of landscape, and available habitat for them is becoming increasingly fragmented. If the species is to survive they need space in which to live and a way for individuals of different populations to meet in order to upkeep genetic diversity (lest jaguars become as inbred as cheetahs). As proposed by Alan Rabinowitz and Kathy Zeller in Biological Conservation, the establishment of corridors that would keep different populations in connection.


A map of jaguar populations and corridors (both established and potential) between them. From Rabinowitz and Zeller, 2010.

After looking at geographic and ecological information Rabinowitz and Zeller identified areas through which jaguars might travel with relative ease. Even though the total range occupied by jaguars has shrunk to almost half of what it once was the researchers propose that, with the establishment of proper corridors, almost 80% of the historic jaguar range might be recovered. If conservationists can preserve some of these key habitats it would provide a continuous belt of pathways from the US-Mexico border down through Argentina. Just how conservation biologists might construct this network, however, is another question. As Rabinowitz and Zeller state:

For a corridor of any significant scale to have a chance at success and sustainability, conservation practitioners must negotiate a maze of land tenure, land use, jurisdiction issues, and legal issues before deciding upon strategies and approaches. Each corridor has its own unique set of circumstances, threats, and opportunities that need to be addressed for implementation to occur. Long-term financial and political commitments are a key component of the process.

But what does this mean for jaguars in the United States? Should we be trying to restore resident jaguar populations here? According to Rabinowitz, the answer is "No." In response to recently-announced plans to set aside critical jaguar habitat in the United States Rabinowitz argued that the American southwest is marginal habitat for jaguars, at best, and since there has been no resident populations of the big cats here for nearly a century conservation efforts should be focused elsewhere. Establishing a conservation plan for jaguars in the United States would probably not bring them back. The few that can make it through the increasing amount of fences and walls along the border face a harsh landscape that their species may never again call home.

This is the harsh reality of rewilding. We cannot turn the clock back fifty, one hundred, one thousand, or fifteen thousand years to a time when our species had not yet caused so much damage. There may no longer be a place for a healthy population of jaguars in the United States, but by working with local governments, hunters, ranchers, and others we may be able to ensure that there is a place for jaguars in the rest of the New World.

Rabinowitz, A., & Zeller, K. (2010). A range-wide model of landscape connectivity and conservation for the jaguar, Panthera onca Biological Conservation DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.01.002

ROSAS-ROSAS, O., & VALDEZ, R. (2010). The Role of Landowners in Jaguar Conservation in Sonora, Mexico Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2009.01441.x

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The jaguars that disperse into the United States are usually old males that have been displaced from their territories in the Sierra Madre Occidental by younger males. Often their teeth are worn down or broken, they've been injured, or they're just old. There hasn't been a breeding population in the US in many decades. Habitat for jaguars north of the border represents a population "sink" for the source populations along the Chihuahua/Sonora frontera. Ranchers in Mexico hunt & trap "el tigre" (jaguar) and "el leon" (mt. lion) every chance they get. As human population grows on both sides of the border, and as habitat degrades, the prospect of reestablishment of a viable jaguar population along the Mexico/U.S. border becomes nil. It would be cool to have them in the Gila & Chiricahuas, or even just in the Animas Range of the New Mexico bootheel, but it isn't going to happen.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 05 Mar 2010 #permalink

I agree it was likely capture myopathy that led to kidney failure... very sad situation. If the backlash from ranchers/hunters against the Mexican wolf reintroduction program is used as a barometer of social resistance against large predators in the SW, one can only imagine what ire jaguars would suffer there. The urban areas like Tucson and Phoenix and Las Cruces have a lot of support for these projects, but in the less densely populated areas (where the predators would be) there is a lot more resistance culturally/socially.

Have you read Borderland Jaguars? It's a decent little sketch with good content, though the writing is not very literary (more straight academic). I wrote a book review of it on my blog here:….

I seem to recall Nat Geo running a feature on Rabinowitz's meta-corridor work a few years back. Maybe it was this one:

Perhaps I'm being cynical here, but Rabinowitz's argument seems like a financial/emotional argument more than a scientific one.

I literally laughed at loud when I read this line from the Op-Ed:

Despite the continued evidence, the two conservation advocacy groups continued to sue the government. Apparently, they want jaguars to repopulate the United States even if jaguars donât want to.

His argument is that jaguars shouldn't be in the American SW because they haven't already done so themselves? I hope that's just a rhetorical device and not a serious stance. The examples of just how untrue and biased that statement is are too varied and numerous to mention.

Beyond that, I doubt very much that the USFWS or any applied ecologists are hoping to turn back any clocks. That's not really the point of reintroductions. Extending ranges and building corridors is important for biodiversity, and this kind of work can help involve the public and promote conservation in the US and in neighboring countries. Sure, the physical and political boundaries are daunting, and it will take a lot of time and effort to create protected corridors between countries, but those sorts of political interactions can also create political/philosophical inroads between nations and raise the level of dialog and cooperation. To say that it's a delicate situation is just stating the truth; to say that the USFWS is incapable of handling said delicacy is just plain fatalism.