Monday, October 26, 2015
Mexican Conservationists and Others seek to Save
and turns, efforts are mounting to protect the Americas’ biggest wild cat. A Mexican initiative, the National Alliance
for Jaguar Conservation, unites non-governmental and governmental organizations in a new and “ambitious” program
aimed at saving an emblematic creature, says Dr. Gerardo Ceballos, an Alliance member and coordinator of the National Autonomous
University of Mexico’s Ecology Institute.
The campaign’s centerpiece is an Alliance proposal for two long biological corridors dedicated to jaguar conservation.
Contouring jaguar habitats of about 10 million acres, the first corridor is envisioned to run between the northeastern state
of Tamaulipas and the Yucatan Peninsula in southeastern Mexico; the second one would extend from Sonora to Chiapas on the
western side of the country.
“We think we will have a strong impact on jaguar conservation,” Ceballos says.
Accordingly, the Mexican Senate is reviewing an Alliance proposal
to classify the biological corridors as a type of natural protected area, the biologist said.
In addition to the national university’s Ecology Institute,
members of the Alliance include the World Wildlife Fund-Telcel, and the federal government’s National Commission of
to Ceballos, Mexico’s jaguar population plunged from an estimated 20,000 animals at the beginning of the 20th century
to 4,000 calculated during a 2009-2011 census. An updated Mexican jaguar census is planned for 2016, while a hemispheric one
is in the works for 2017, he says.
Ceballos adds that a Latin American symposium devoted to the creature of legend and lore will held in Mexico City next
Located in the southeastern
state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula, near Cancun, the private El Eden Ecology Reserve supports the Alliance’s
Marco Antonio Lazcano
Barrero, general director of the approximately 6,600 acre nature reserve, stressed that the Yucatan, where nearly half of
Mexico’s jaguar population is found, is crucial for preserving an endangered species.
Outstanding threats to Quintana Roo’s jaguars include poaching,
habitat loss from touristic and urban development, rampant deforestation, and climate change, Lazcano says.
Underscoring the importance of involving rural dwellers
in jaguar preservation, Lazcano stresses that locals have been extremely helpful in protecting El Eden’s jaguars from
poachers. “This has cut (poaching) down to almost zero,” he says.
For Lazcano, protecting jaguars means protecting larger ecosystems. In a short paper,
he terms the predatory animal a “keystone” or a “flag” species, positing that saving the Yucatan jaguar
will translate into the survival of forests, wetlands, caves and underground river systems, which are “essential for
the maintenance of the northernmost portion of the second largest barrier reef in the world” – a reference to
the beautiful coral reef shelf that extends from near Cancun south to Honduras in the western Caribbean.
According to Lazcano, protecting the land of the jaguar
in the Yucatan benefits the habitat of migratory birds from Canada, the U.S. and northern Mexico. Citing studies, he calculates
that more than 215 species of migratory birds can be found in the Yucatan annually at one time or another.
Last month, Lazcano traveled to Santa Fe, New Mexico,
where he delivered his message in a public talk.
Given that jaguars cross borders, protecting the big cats in Mexico involves the United States and Central America,
where the Alliance would like to connect land corridors that are viewed by experts as essential for the species' genetic
Once native to the
U.S., jaguars were the target of an official federal government extermination campaign and widely considered extinct in this
country; the last documented female jaguar in the U.S. was killed in Arizona in 1963. However, several male animals have been
spotted and/or photographed in the southern border areas of Arizona and New Mexico since 1996. Balam, the sacred
symbol of the Mayas, was back in its northern haunts.
Experts trace the contemporary presence of jaguars in the U.S. southwest to the wanderings of males from across the
border in the Mexican state of Sonora, though the presence of females, which would imply the reestablishment of a breeding
population, cannot be discounted.
Oscar Moctezuma, founder and director of Naturalia, a Mexican non-governmental organization that operates a large jaguar
reserve in Sonora, estimates that 150 jaguars live in the northern state.
Protecting the few jaguars that may be in the United States has proven a thorny issue.
In 2014, as a result of successful
litigation pursued by the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service (USFWS) designated nearly 1,200 square miles of combined critical jaguar habitat in the southern borderlands of Arizona
and New Mexico.
victory notwithstanding, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Michael Robinson contends that the critical habitat designation
didn’t go far enough, and should have included more areas near the border as well as farther into the interior.
“The big area that should have been protected and
wasn’t, was the Gila area of New Mexico where I live and the Mogollon Rim of Arizona,” Robinson says.
Steve Spangle, Arizona field supervisor for the USFWS,
says his agency based its geographic designation on evidence of recent jaguar presence, not “rumors,” in identifying
the area south of Interstate 10 as the suitable zone for critical habitat. The USFWS is developing a final jaguar recovery
plan, which will be published in the Federal Register for public comment.
Jeff Humphrey, public affairs specialist for the USFWS in Arizona, adds that the agency
does not have a “solid target date” yet for the publication of the plan, but anticipates the spring of 2016.
Differences between the USFWS and Robinson’s organization
aside, the Center for Biological Diversity along with Defenders of Wildlife have intervened on the side of the federal government
in a pending New Mexico court case challenging the critical habitat designation.
Last May, the New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, New Mexico Cattle Growers’
Association, and the New Mexico Federal Lands Council filed suit in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque seeking to overturn
the USFWS’ critical jaguar habitat designation of 170 square miles in New Mexico.
According to plaintiffs’ attorneys, tens of thousands of acres
have been “illegally” impacted for a “phantom” animal that has not been sighted in the specific area
in question for years.
asserts the USFWS violated the Endangered Species Act when the jaguar was listed in 1972, because the area in dispute was
not occupied by the animal at the time and is “not essential for jaguar conservation.”
Although conceding that there have been some sightings
of jaguars in southern Arizona and New Mexico’s Hidalgo County since 1972, the lawsuit is based on the premise that
the jaguar is mainly a tropical animal with a marginal presence in the U.S. southwest at best.
The New Mexico plaintiffs contend that not only would their livelihoods
and economic pursuits be disturbed by the critical habitat designation, but that fire control in area forests could be impacted.
“The determination that
designated critical habitat in New Mexico is essential for species conservation is arbitrary and capricious,” the lawsuit
But according to
jaguar conservation advocate Robinson, evidence exists that jaguars actually evolved in the upper parts of North America and
then spread south to their present range. 400 years ago, they even roamed the future continental U.S. between the modern states
of California and North Carolina, he says.
In a declaration filed in the New Mexico lawsuit, the Defenders of Wildlife’s Craig Miller argues that the small
jaguar population in northern Sonora must expand to Arizona and New Mexico to remain viable.
So far, no litigation challenging the larger Arizona jaguar critical
habitat zone has surfaced.
not commenting directly on the New Mexico lawsuit, Spangle says the critical habitat designation does not affect hunting or
grazing but forces federal agencies that might have activities within the zone to first consult with the USFWS on jaguar concerns.
Naturalia’s Oscar Moctezuma
strongly backs international cooperation as critical for the jaguar’s survival, saying his organization maintains relationships
with Defenders of Wildlife and like-minded U.S. organizations.
Though few in number, Sonora’s jaguars enjoy certain advantages over their southern counterparts,
benefiting from isolated ranges and lower human population densities, Moctezuma says.
To curb poaching, Naturalia has implemented a program of installing
cameras in jaguar habitat and paying ranchers approximately $300 for each picture snapped of a jaguar, in return for agreements
that the predators won’t be killed.
Saving jaguars, he insists, is not only important on its own merits, but also crucial for preserving the complexity
and richness of “biodiversity in the country.” Indeed, the charisma – and even sexiness – of jaguars
captures the public’s imagination and focuses attention on larger environmental questions, he affirms.
Despite the myriad challenges, Moctezuma and other jaguar
defenders say they are firmly committed to the big and elusive cat. “This is a long and complex arena that will take
time, but we are in it,” the conservationist said.
“It’s heartening that efforts are being made on a continental scale,” Robinson adds. “We need
to look at how this original (southwestern) range of the jaguar can contribute to the continental efforts.”
Frontera NorteSur (FNS)
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Cruces, New Mexico
Kent Paterson is the editor of Frontera NorteSur. Reprinted
with authorization from Frontera NorteSur, a free, on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news source.