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Jaguar cubs rescued from a house in Chanchamayo, Peru

  • In the past seven years, trafficking of jaguars and their body parts has become a major threat to the species, with China the main destination.
  • In Peru, researchers found 102 jaguar parts being sold publicly in just four months, while in Bolivia, the number of jaguar parts seizures since 2014 totals 700.
  • Efforts to protect these animals range from national governments forming new protected areas, to transboundary projects such as the Jaguar 2030 Plan.
  • Scientists are keen to raise the big cat’s conservation status on the IUCN Red List from near threatened to vulnerable.

In late November 2019, authorities in Peru found two jaguar cubs in a house in Chanchamayo, in the country’s central Amazonian region. The cubs were so young that they still had part of the umbilical cord attached; their mother was nowhere to be found. Legal proceedings were opened against the alleged poachers, and although the cubs were taken to a specialized zoo, they died within a few weeks. Separation from the forest and their mother can be fatal for jaguar cubs.

The cubs were among 86 seizures associated with the species by Peruvian authorities between 2015 and 2020. In addition to live animals, authorities have recovered fangs, skins, skulls and other body parts, according to the National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR). Studies by SERFOR and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) indicate that the nine jaguar-related items seized in 2019 represent less than 10% of what can be found in some illegal markets around the country.

The seizures effectively amount to the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the illicit trade in parts and live specimens of jaguars in Peru, which is home to the second-largest population of the big cat in South America, behind only Brazil. The total wild population of the species is about 163,000, according to 2018 estimates by the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research (IVIC) and the big cat conservation NGO Panthera.

In this investigative series, Mongabay Latam starts out with a regional snapshot of the plight of the jaguar. We interview more than 10 scientists to look at the threats and strategies to conserve this species in six countries: Bolivia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela.

163,098 – The estimated jaguar population in South America is around 1.95 jaguars per 100 square kilometers — an average disaggregated by South American country: Brazil / Peru / Colombia / Bolivia / Venezuela / Guyana / Suriname / Ecuador / French Guyana / Paraguay / Argentina

An iconic animal in the crosshairs

A four-month study by WCS and SERFOR in Peru shows that the illegal trade in jaguar parts is more common than previously thought. During visits to 21 locations in Iquitos, the capital of the Amazonian region of Loreto, researchers found 96 jaguar parts for sale in markets, handicraft shops, piers and even hotels. Jaguar fangs and claws were found embedded in necklaces and bracelets, while skins were hung up on show along public highways, almost like paintings or carpets.

Their investigation also covered two other cities in the Peruvian Amazon — Pucallpa (in the Ucayali region) and Puerto Maldonado (in Madre de Dios) — as well as Puno in the Andes. In total, they found 102 jaguar parts for sale publicly: 45% of these comprised skins, 37% fangs, 14% claws, and the remaining 4% were jaguar fat and skulls. Three-quarters of these parts were incorporated into handicrafts. The price of fangs, depending on the buyer, ranged from 30 to 1,000 soles ($9 to $280).

Jaguar teeth, skulls and claws were found for sale in Iquitos handicraft shops, in addition to other wildlife items. Several sellers offer fangs discreetly to avoid the attention of authorities.

“We have normalized animal trafficking; in Latin America we are used to seeing these kinds of scenes,” says Liliana Jáuregui, an expert in environmental justice at the IUCN NL. Her organization has coordinated investigations in Bolivia and Suriname, countries where the first evidence of the rise of international trafficking of jaguar parts to Asia was uncovered seven years ago.

Despite the seriousness of the problem, data for seizures of jaguar parts in these countries have not been recently updated. In Bolivia, cases stopped being counted in early 2019, as attention focused on environmental emergencies such as massive forest fires, as well as the political upheaval that led to a change of government, according to Ángela Núñez, a biologist specializing in jaguars who researches trafficking as part of Proyecto Operación Jaguar (Operation Jaguar Project) in Bolivia.

“Since 2014, we have seized around 700 fangs, including a seizure in China [of fangs] that originated from Bolivia,” Núñez says, emphasizing the need to continue monitoring this environmental crime. According to the Bolivian Ministry of Environment and Water, there have been more than 20 legal actions taken related to the illegal trafficking of fangs, with five of the cases resulting in criminal sentences.

Research conducted by the IUCN NL also found that the demand for jaguar parts in Bolivia began in 2013 and was advertised through radio stations and posters distributed in rural areas. Between 2014 and 2016, the trafficking problem was underway in earnest, with 300 jaguar parts found in 16 postal packages, 14 of them sent by Chinese citizens working in Bolivia.

The facts that link the trafficking of jaguar parts to Asia, particularly China, are sensitive, considering that the most affected countries, such as Bolivia and Suriname, have sought to diplomatically resolve the problem by establishing alliances with the Chinese community within their territories.

But if there is one thing scientists in the six countries agree on, it’s the link between jaguar trafficking and the presence of companies engaged in Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in areas of high biodiversity, such as the Amazon. A study published in early June by the journal Conservation Biology examined the relationships between trafficking of wild cats and Chinese investments in South and Central America.

Among the main findings were that trafficking has been increasing and that the Chinese citizens involved in illegal activities don’t belong to the Asian communities already established in these countries, but are instead workers who travel to the Amazon to work on the megaprojects such as new dams and roads. “Chinese companies have invested heavily in developing countries, first in Africa and then in South America,” says Guyanese geographer Anthony Cummings, who also investigates the trafficking of jaguar parts in his country. “While we are not trying to stigmatize, it is important to be aware of the connection.”

Chinese couple Li Ming and Yin Lan were arrested and tried in Bolivia for trafficking jaguar parts. In South America, Asia has been identified as the main international trafficking destination.

In Suriname, for example, the IUCN has found evidence of trafficking since 2003, when a former forest service employee there was contacted by the owner of a Chinese supermarket in the capital, Paramaribo, who was looking for jaguar fangs and claws. Esteban Payán, regional director of Panthera’s northern South America program, says that due to the significant decline of tigers in Asia, demand for big cat parts used in traditional medicine seems to have been filled by parts from other big cats. It’s suspected that this may be one of the reasons why trafficking of jaguar parts is growing in Latin American countries.

Large-scale illegal mining and logging have been observed in Suriname’s Brownsberg Nature Park. An estimated 40,000 people live within and around these mining camps, though only 18,000 people are formally registered. Links between this activity and wildlife trafficking are being investigated.

According to the IUCN’s Jáuregui, this is an important hypothesis. “We believe that there are links to illegal logging and its trade, or to gold routes. Trafficking routes are cross-border and take advantage of their porosity,” she says, referring to how criminal groups use the same routes to traffic gold, timber and wildlife.

Although the trafficking of jaguar parts is the obvious threat, there are other clear dangers for the continent’s top predator. Cummings mentions two in Guyana: conflict between jaguars and ranchers or farmers, and with gold miners in the Guyanese jungle, as both groups kill the animals in retaliation for attacking their livestock, crops or pets.

“Despite the cries for help from Latin American countries, it has not been possible [to vary their level of protection],” says Rodrigo Medellín, a scientist at the Latin American Alliance for Jaguar Conservation. “Even the leopard has been categorized as at risk of extinction, despite having a larger area of occupancy than the jaguar,” he says of the big cat species found in Africa and Asia.

In Venezuela, María Fernanda Puerto, founder of Proyecto Sebraba, an NGO that studies jaguars, says there are no official numbers for seizures, and that jaguars are at constant threat from the use of their parts in Sanería, a popular belief system in some parts of the country, which has even attracted parishioners with political power. “We have reports of local consumption of these animals, and that there is a risk of reporting when a jaguar or ocelot has been seized. Once it has been done, within a few hours [the report] disappears,” Puerto says.

In her investigation into the threats to jaguars, she has encountered a prisoner incarcerated in southern Lake Maracaibo with a jaguar skin hanging in their cell as a symbol of power. “It is on display there, despite it being a crime.”

In other countries, such as Ecuador, where no significant evidence of trafficking of jaguar parts has been found, alerts continue to be triggered due to the strong pressure of deforestation and habitat loss. Galo Zapata-Ríos, scientific director of WCS in Ecuador, says that in the country’s Amazon region, there has been a 30% loss of habitat.

“In the Chocó area, 90% has been deforested now due to the advancement of livestock and agriculture, such as the cultivation of African [oil] palm,” he says. This area is an important jaguar corridor between Ecuador and Colombia. The growth of such monocultures near protected natural areas is also occurring in Peru and Brazil, where these areas play a crucial role in big cat conservation.

More protection for jaguars

To protect a species, it’s important to understand it. This applies to the jaguar populations in each of the six countries in questions, where investigations began in 2013 after the first evidence of a rise in trafficking of jaguar parts in Bolivia appeared.

Key data on jaguars in South America. In this region there are 23 populations and 60 jaguar conservation units (JCUs). Sources: Jaguar populations: Antonio de la Torre, José F. González-Maya, Heliot Zarza, Gerardo Ceballos and Rodrigo Medellín, 2018. Average number in jaguar conservation units: Data Basin/Panthera, 2010.

On the IUCN Red List, the jaguar’s conservation status is categorized as being “near threatened,” an assessment that many in the scientific community say doesn’t reflect their concerns. As with many other species, the lack of information is a factor in whether the jaguar should be placed under one of the “threatened” categories: vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Vania Tejeda, biodiversity officer for WWF in Peru, says it’s difficult to raise the alarm about the dangers faced by jaguars without investigations to demonstrate that they exist. “It is difficult to push policies when there is no supporting scientific information,” she says.

Recent findings, such as a 60% reduction in the species’ original habitat across South America, indicate that the threat is significant. Some range countries, aware of this problem, have begun to invest in the research necessary to categorize these species’ conservation status within their territory. For instance, the libros rojos de la fauna silvestre (wildlife red books) of Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador — the national equivalents of the IUCN Red List — assess the jaguar populations in the Amazon as being vulnerable, and the population inhabiting the Ecuadoran coast as critically endangered. In Peru, the species is listed as near threatened, but scientists led by José Luis Mena, director of the WCS Species Initiative in Peru, want to bring together studies carried out in recent years to improve their level of protection.

For scientists such as Rodrigo Medellín and Antonio de la Torre from the Latin American Alliance for Jaguar Conservation, there is already sufficient evidence to recategorize the jaguar’s conservation status at the continental level. De la Torre says that only by raising the status to vulnerable — moving it from “near threatened” into a “threatened” category — will it be possible to increase resources for its conservation, in turn drawing public and political attention to its care. “The call for attention of an international organization may be heard more than that of local biologists and conservationists,” he says.

However, there is one more step that must be taken along with the categorization, and for which more studies are also needed: the protection of habitats.

Safe territories

In Peru, says José Luis Mena, five jaguar conservation units, or JCUs, have been identified in recent years. These are spaces that should be protected by law as important jaguar habitats, but have not been recognized as such by the state.

“We must identify which are the priority areas for this conservation, as [jaguars live] in protected areas,” Mena says. “There is also an analysis of which spaces these corridors should support.”

Peruvian scientists have begun to collect information in the northern jungles of Loreto and the southern ones of Madre de Dios. But the country’s central forests and the Ucayali region still need to be covered, Mena says. In these latter locations, in particular, cases of trafficking of jaguar parts have been detected, with six of the 11 seizures recorded between 2019 and 2020 occurring in these areas.

The lack of data in Bolivia is also evident, with many questions still unanswered: Where are the jaguars? How many are there? What spaces should be protected? According to Núñez from Proyecto Operación Jaguar, studies have focused mainly on two protected areas: Madidi and Kaa-Iya national parks in the Gran Chaco region. “Outside the protected areas, where the jaguar is most at risk, not many studies are carried out on the species,” she says.

Even in protected spaces such as Tariquía National Flora and Fauna Reserve, where jaguars move freely, there is no clear idea of how many there are, Núñez says. The need for information becomes more urgent against the increase in oil and gold extraction and hydroelectric activities within the parks and reserves. Operation Jaguar, an IUCN NL project carried out in Bolivia, Guyana and Suriname, aims to conserve the big cats by identifying the most vulnerable areas to focus on.

Across South America, jaguar populations face very similar dangers, with little difference between the various range countries. Ecuador also has to contend with a lack of information, and has started updating its national jaguar conservation plan to identify existing research and determine who will be involved in new studies.

Jessica Pacheco, from WWF Ecuador’s forest and freshwater program, says there’s already information on the jaguar population in Cuyabeno Fauna Production Reserve, but not, for example, on the population that moves through the Achuar Indigenous territory along the border with Peru. Pacheco is especially interested in studying the latter area since, she says, “It is not a national protected area” but has still maintained high levels of wildlife conservation.

The creation of protected natural areas is one of the main tools that South American countries use to protect jaguars.

To this list of areas to explore, Galo Zapata-Ríos of WCS adds the Andean foothills and the corridors that connect them to the Ecuadoran Amazon. “We know very little about what happens in these areas and there are records of the jaguar above 2,000 meters [6,600 feet],” he says, adding that WCS will start a project in these places in 2021. Zapata-Ríos says cross-border corridors, such as those that link Yasuní and Cuyabeno with La Paya Natural National Park in Colombia or with Güeppi National Park in Peru, should not be forgotten. “Jaguar conservation must have a transboundary approach,” he says.

In Venezuela, to reaffirm the importance of the connection between jaguar populations, Proyecto Sebraba’s María Puerto uses satellite imagery to identify routes that can link Sierra de Perijá Park with Ciénagas de Juan Manuel. Esteban Payán of Panthera says that to complete the puzzle, it would be ideal to revive the proposal for a park that would link Colombia and Venezuela, in the area of Sierra del Perijá, where jaguars are known to move through.

But Puerto’s enthusiasm is tempered by the reality of the political situation in Venezuela. “The corridor that links to Colombia should be protected, but there has already been a rejection of this proposal by the Ministry of Environment of Venezuela,” she says, adding that there’s no national plan for jaguar conservation in her country.

For 12 years, Puerto has concentrated her work in Ciénagas de Juan Manuel National Park, south of Lake Maracaibo in Zulia state, where she estimates there are up to 3.37 jaguars per 100 square kilometers. This is an important number considering that the jaguar population density for the whole of Venezuela is an estimated 1.97 per 100 km2 — with around 11,500 of the big cats in the grasslands alone — according to a study by Wlodzimierz Jedrzejewski and other scientists from IVIC and Panthera.

Further research on jaguars in Venezuela may include the region of Los Llanos and the state of Amazonas. In Guyana and Suriname, research has focused primarily on threats to jaguar populations. According to Jedrzejewski’s study, there are an estimated 11,500 jaguars in both countries, though there aren’t enough studies yet to confirm this.

Further research on jaguars in Venezuela may include the region of Los Llanos and the state of Amazonas. In Guyana and Suriname, research has focused primarily on threats to jaguar populations. According to Jedrzejewski’s study, there are an estimated 11,500 jaguars in both countries, though there aren’t enough studies yet to confirm this.

In Guyana, biologist and geographer Cummings has been studying jaguars in his native country since 2014. He says the Guyanese government, represented by the Management and Conservation of Wildlife Commission, is currently interested in systematizing the data generated by studies, such as one he’d been conducting on the animal’s situation in four Indigenous communities a few months ago through camera traps and drones. However, this study has been halted due to the quarantine, though there are hopes for it to be resumed before the end of the year.

Alliance against crime

At the end of 2018, 14 of the 18 countries that are home to jaguars joined forces to launch the Jaguar 2030 Plan, a road map for the conservation of the animal and the 30 landscapes it inhabits. This plan highlights priority areas to ensure the survival of the species, such as the JCUs, corridors that link territories both inside and outside the countries, and, above all, the importance of protecting natural areas that are part of their habitat.

A recent study carried out by WWF in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador proposed the creation of a mega landscape in these countries as a jaguar cross-border corridor. In this space there would be an average of 2,000 jaguars.

“Protected natural areas are those that will prevent human-made threats,” says Vania Tejeda from WWF Peru. She adds that a recent WWF study of protected areas in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia has verified the effectiveness of such areas in keeping jaguar populations stable and ensuring the forests are healthy.

There are examples throughout South America: in Bolivia, Rob Wallace, a scientist who has studied jaguars for more than 20 years, highlights the Tambopata-Madidi transboundary landscape that encompasses natural areas in Peru (Tambopata National Reserve and Bahuaja-Sonene National Park) and Bolivia (Madidi National Park and Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve).

Since the beginning of 2000, together with colleagues Guido Ayala and María Viscarra, Wallace has carried out research using camera traps that revealed a density of 0.5 jaguars per 100 km2 in 2001. By 2008 the density was up to 2, and by 2014 between 5 and 6. Since then, however, hunters have put severe pressure on the species. In 2019, the scientists carried out new monitoring that will more reliably depict the big cat’s current situation.

Wallace highlights the importance of joint work between countries and uses South America’s jaguar subpopulation map as evidence. According to research carried out in 2018 by Antonio de la Torre and other scientists from the Latin American Alliance for Jaguar Conservation, 26 of the 34 subpopulations are located in cross-border areas. This was also one of the main reasons outlined in the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) for the jaguar to be included in Appendices I and II. This would oblige each country to boost conservation efforts for the species and work with other range countries on cross-border protection.

“Positive and negative factors are converging in the fight for the survival of this feline,” says Rodrigo Medellín from the Latin American Alliance for Jaguar Conservation. Although the pressures of trafficking and habitat loss are evident, he notes that international conservation strategies, such as the Jaguar 2030 Plan, along with growing interest in expanding studies and taking actions to protect jaguars, have increased under the IUCN and global wildlife trade treaty CITES. Medellín says each country must also commit to start concerted actions in the next five years.

One of these actions is the Jaguar Corridor, a Panthera initiative that forms part of the Jaguar 2030 Plan and seeks to preserve genetic continuity between the JCUs through key cross-border sections. The area it covers spans 6 million km2, about three times the size of Mexico. As Panthera’s Payán says, “The Jaguar Corridor should act as a layer to generate better sustainable decisions for South America’s development. This means understanding where to build a road and where to permit areas for agriculture.”

WWF Ecuador’s Pacheco says countries should consider the sociocultural situations of the communities near the areas where jaguars are found as part of their conservation strategies. “In updating the national conservation plan, we are taking this link with the communities into account. The process must be observed holistically, while also considering the educational side and exchange of information,” she says.

Sometimes it can be difficult to sell the concept of conservation to local populations, even with animals as charismatic as the jaguar. But for Guyanese scientist Cummings, it’s necessary to start with everyday situations. “If we know that having water is directly linked to the presence of jaguars in the forests, we might see it differently: that the environment’s health is directly connected to my health, that when an animal is wiped out, it has implications for my quality of life.”

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