In northwestern Mexico, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts are home to a collage of transitional ecosystems including desert thorn scrub, high-elevation oak woodlands, and the northern-most occurrence of tropical deciduous forests. This unique intersection of ecosystems provides habitat to a number of rare species including the endangered Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), the Mexican spotted owl (Strix occidentalis lucida), and the American black bear (Ursus americanus).
Another endangered and perhaps unexpected species also roams this rugged terrain — the jaguar (Panthera onca). The species once claimed a territory stretching from South America to the southern United States, but conflicts with humans — including habitat fragmentation and poaching — have nearly eliminated them from their northern range. An estimated population of 80 to 120 jaguars remains in the Sonoran desert. Tragically, within the last few years, at least 24 jaguars, representing as much as one-quarter of this fragile population, have been killed by cattle ranchers because of livestock predation.
To safeguard jaguars in Mexico and recover the species in the southwestern United States, a binational coalition comprised of the US-based NGOs Northern Jaguar Project and Defenders of Wildlife and the Mexican NGO Naturalia A.C. have joined forces to implement a suite of creative solutions including land protection, environmental education, and conservation incentive programs.
Their collaboration began in 2003, when the partnership identified a 45,000-acre (18,220-hectare) complex of Sonoran cattle ranches that had evidence of consistent jaguar reproduction, and the highest number of jaguar mortalities from poaching. The group raised funds to purchase a 10,000-acre (4,050-hectare) section of the complex, and created the Rancho Los Pavos Jaguar Sanctuary, located just south of the confluence of the Aros, Yaqui, and Bavispe Rivers. Once the sanctuary was established, the NGOs began education, research and conservation efforts, as well as raising the additional funds needed to acquire the remaining 35,000 acres (14,170 hectares) of ranch lands.
The partnership created an innovative photo-survey contest that provides ranchers with financial incentives to let jaguars roam their lands, while simultaneously collecting valuable information on jaguar and other wildlife species ecology. In return for signing a contract which stipulates that they will not kill any wildlife, participating ranchers are awarded between $50 and $500 for photos of jaguars, cougars (Puma concolor), ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), and bobcats (Lynx rufus) captured on their land.
Craig Miller, vice-president of the Northern Jaguar Project and southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife, explains that the camera contest was created as an alternative to a formal direct compensation program for livestock loss to jaguars. He notes, “We determined after talking to ranches and examining the situation that a traditional compensation program wouldn’t be effective, and so we met with area ranches and collectively created the camera contest concept. It has created positive relationships with participating ranchers, has given researchers access to the ranch lands, and has helped to change local perspectives about the value of wildlife.”
The partnership has also hired two Jaguar Guardians, who conduct field research to determine the size of the jaguar population, gauge their habitat needs, and protect important dispersal corridors and breeding areas. The guardians also patrol the reserve to prevent poaching and conduct educational programs to raise local support for jaguar conservation. Miller believes that the program has been successful and says that “Because the guardians have been a consistent presence for conservation in the community and on the reserve, conservation goals have been shared with dozens of community members.”
To raise the additional funds needed to purchase the remaining 35,000 acres, the partnership teamed with a project team from the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders program, which trains mid-level wildlife conservation professionals in developing conservation campaign strategies, to develop an innovative “Save A Spot” campaign, where members of the general public were able to donate $49 and secure one “spot” of jaguar habitat.
With contributions from more than 600 individual donors and foundations, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the land purchase was finalized and the 45,000 acre (18,220 hectare) Northern Jaguar Reserve was formed in January, 2008. “This land is perfectly suited to support North America’s largest wild cat,” emphasizes Oscar Moctezuma, director of Naturalia. “With lengthy frontage on the Aros River, a single, often-impassable road, and deep canyons with deer and other prey, the reserve supports the best possible habitat for northern jaguars.” The reserve is also important overwintering habitat for Neotropical migratory birds and represents the northernmost region in the Americas where the jaguar, cougar, ocelot and bobcat are known to interact.
The project is now focusing on restoration and monitoring activities, as well as developing a management plan for the reserve. The camera contest is now in its second year, and the partnership is going to utilize the images it captures to complement research on the reserve and throughout the region. Miller explains, “It is expanding beyond a compensation tool to become a more scientifically vigorous research tool used to guide regional conservation activities.” The partnership is compiling an inventory of species present on the reserve, and has recorded 23 reptiles and amphibians, 80 migratory and resident birds, 34 insects, and 31 mammals, with more than 20 of them having protection under Mexican laws.
Since the partnership began its efforts, all wildlife poaching has ceased on the ranches participating in the camera contest, and on the Northern Jaguar Reserve. Yet, despite these huge successes in Mexico, efforts to conserve the northern jaguar in the United States have faced serious recent setbacks. In February of 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that it would not draft a formal recovery plan for the jaguar in the southwestern U.S., claiming that the species is biologically a “foreign” species and therefore does not qualify for U.S. recovery efforts.
In response to the government’s decision, Defenders of Wildlife is suing the FWS because the agency has not responded to repeated requests from scientists that it develop a recovery plan for the species, as required by law. Miller notes, “In the United States, we have some of the most effective conservation tools available in the form of the endangered species act, funding, protected lands, and large-scale conservation initiatives. With these tools, we can help jaguars where they have suffered their most significant losses, but the refusal to develop a recovery plan threatens to unravel that potential success and benefit.”
In addition, the construction of a wall along the U.S. — Mexico border, intended to limit illegal immigration into the U.S., has presented a permanent obstacle to the recovery of the jaguar in the Unites States, by separating the cats from the population in Mexico and limiting their opportunities to reproduce and expand their territories. Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club are filing a constitutional challenge with the U.S. Supreme Court to block the wall’s construction. Miller emphasizes, “There are better ways to balance perceived homeland security needs with the needs and conservation of wildlife species. I’m hopeful that the wall won’t be constructed in its entirety and the most biologically sensitive areas will be preserved through more innovative solutions.”
Contacts: Craig Miller, Defenders of Wildlife, tel: +520/623-9653 x101; fax: +520/623-0447, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.defenders.org. Oscar Moctezuma, Naturalia A.C., tel: +52/55-5559-6330; email@example.com, www.naturalia.org.mx