Course:CONS200/2021/Jaguar Conservation in Panama

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The Jaguar in a grassland ecosystem

Background on the Jaguar

Jaguars are one of the top predators in Panama and are well known across the globe for their ferocity and iconic spotted coats. [1] Historically, their range has included the lower parts of the United States in North America, throughout all of Central and Southern America down to Argentina. Due to an increase in human activities such as deforestation, the sightings of these big cats in North America have become a rarity.[2] The same reasons have also caused their southern range to shrink.[2] The first studies of big cats in Panama started 15 years ago, focusing more on diet and ecological aspects rather than population status.[1] Jaguar conservation is suffering due to the lack of research knowledge and negative attitudes of local people towards jaguars.[1][3]

Because of their strong build and adaptable camouflage-suited bodies, jaguars can be found in a vast array of habitats. This includes humid dense-covered lands like the Amazon, arid desert-like areas like the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, grassland, wetland, and river areas.[4][5] The climate in these areas differs dramatically. In Amazon rainforests, the temperature and humidity are both very high, ranging from 20-30ºC and 80%. Similarly, the wetlands also have heavy rain and flooding events in wet seasons, with extremely high temperatures (up to 40ºC) during dry seasons. For the deserts and grasslands, however, the climate is fairly arid with cold winters and hot summers.[6] Despite the various environments they can live in, jaguars generally prefer to live in places with warm temperatures and relative humidity. Panama is very close to the equator, giving it warm, tropical temperatures year-round that are ideal for jaguars.

Jaguars in Panama

Due to its thin shape, Panama is known as an Isthmus, or "land-bridge," connecting North and South America. This unique geography makes Panama a special habitat for jaguars and other wildlife, as the viability of its ecosystems can greatly determine a species' presence and entryways between the two continents.[7] If the Isthmus of Panama were to cease as a biological corridor, biodiversity would suffer considerably due to a restriction of gene flow and movement between wildlife populations.[7] Because of this, it is vital that Panamanian forests remain intact and healthy in order to preserve the historical ranges of important wildlife such as jaguars.

Due to a genetic mutation that favors melanin, jaguars can also have a black coat.

In Panama, jaguars are found mainly in Darien National Park, La Amistad International Park, and Cerro Hoya National Park. [8][9][10] All of which have 3000-4000 mm of annual precipitation and an annual average temperature of 26 ºC.[8][9][10] Besides the suitable climate, the biodiversity in these parks provides jaguars with sufficient diet choices. In Cerro Hoya National Park, there are over 95 bird species and a large number of deer populations, which are jaguars’ main choices of prey.[10] Darien National Park has undisturbed forests with the most diverse species-rich ecosystems.[8] Its favorable climate, high biodiversity and unique shape collectively make Panama a vital habitat for jaguar conservation.

Importance and Current Status of the Jaguar

As the largest wild cat found in the Americas, the jaguar plays a valuable role in the ecosystems they inhabit. As key predators, they play an essential part in maintaining the balance and health of the ecosystems by regulating population sizes of prey.[1] Unfortunately, the acceleration of human activity within jaguar environments has caused their numbers to decrease considerably. These activities include (but are not limited to): deforestation for logging and expansion of agriculture, poaching, illegal hunting, wildlife trafficking, and overhunting of prey.[11][12][13] Of these threats, habitat loss due to deforestation remains the most pervasive.[1] Should these activities continue without the consideration of local wildlife, low numbers of jaguars in Panama and beyond could offer heavy consequences for future biodiversity. The loss of the jaguars would result in increasing numbers of prey animals which, in turn, could deplete many native grass and plant species, causing an ecosystem imbalance.[1]

Drawing of an Aztec Jaguar Warrior.

The species also displays significant cultural and spiritual importance for many Indigenous cultures in Mesoamerica. For Indigenous groups such as the Aztec and the Maya, the jaguar symbolizes attributes such as strength, braveness, and ferocity - qualities that are revered and respected.[14] Jaguars also play many important roles in Indigenous stories, songs, and prayers, and are displayed frequently in Mesoamerican art and cultural clothing. [14] For example, Aztec warriors would frequently dress in the jaguar pelt during battle as it was believed to enhance strength and power.[14] The loss of the jaguar would greatly impact the cultural legacy within Mesoamerican Indigenous cultures as well. [14]

Currently, jaguars are listed as "Near Threatened" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. They are also protected under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).[15] This indicates that commercial international trade of jaguars and jaguar products is strictly prohibited.[15] Furthermore, hunting jaguars is forbidden by law as a strategy to mitigate jaguar population decreases in Panama. Similar restrictions have been applied in other nearby countries such as Guatemala and Peru.[15] Unfortunately, insufficient management and supervision of the jaguar market, as well as accidental human interactions with jaguars, have made it difficult for these laws to be maintained. [15]

Main Threats to the Jaguar Population in Panama

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

The main threats to the jaguar population in Panama are all a result of increasing human activity. Expansion of agriculture and logging leads to mass deforestation, which inevitably causes significant loss and fragmentation of the jaguar's habitat.[13][16][7] From 2000-2012, areas critical to jaguar conservation units (JCUs) spanning from Mexico to Argentina lost approximately 0.93% of the forest, and deforestation increased at a rate of 4.43%.[16] Fragmentation of their habitat means smaller continuous areas of forest which can significantly decrease forest biodiversity, including prey for jaguars. This limits the total amount of forests that are able to support a jaguar population without crossing over to another fragment,[17] and has the potential to restrict gene flow between jaguar populations.[7] An example of this would be the creation of the Panama Canal, a waterway spanning across the entirety of Panama that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. [18] Because the canal is a highly industrial area, jaguars run the risk of being hunted when crossing the canal.[18] The creation of the canal also greatly divides the jaguars' habitat, making it harder for them to cross between North and South America, as well as areas within Panama. [18]

Socio-economic Implications and Human-Wildlife Conflict

Because the jaguar's habitat is now so fragmented, interactions with humans have become more common as fragments create the need for the big cats to cross farmland for prey and other resources. [3] These interactions often result in Panamanian locals killing jaguars as a means of protecting themselves and their livestock, which jaguars will often hunt.[3][11] Despite laws put into place to protect them, the hunting of jaguars is common to those who consider their presence to be a threat to their occupations and livelihoods.[3] For example, cattle ranchers and other farmers whose main source of income is dependent on their livestock may consider killing jaguars to be necessary, as the loss of livestock would correlate to a direct economic loss.[19] On the other hand, those with more knowledge about the vitality of the species to the area tend to have a more positive outlook on the presence of jaguars.[3] Because of the many socio-economic implications that it implies, attitudes towards jaguar conservation in Panama are not consistent, varying among different genders, age groups, classes, and education levels of locals.[3] As a result, the implementation of a sufficient, long-term protection strategy for jaguars is a difficult and ongoing process.

Poaching and Illegal Hunting

Despite their protection under Appendix I of CITES,[15] jaguars, like many other endangered species, are still prone to being poached. Common parts of the jaguar used for wildlife trade include their pelts and fur, teeth, and even meat. [20] Because the species is more vulnerable in areas of their habitats that are degraded, poaching has been reported to occur most often near logging and mining sites, as well as areas bordering agricultural land.[20][12] Motives for poaching vary, but the current most prominent demand comes from China, primarily for the use of Chinese traditional medicine. [12] For this purpose, jaguar parts are reportedly being sold to replace ingredients that would traditionally come from tigers.[12] Because of the tiger's reverence as a powerful, mighty beast, traditional medicines involving this species are said to enhance one's own personal strength and mighty characteristics.[21] The jaguar, similar in stature and image to the tiger, seems to be suited as an alternative. There is also an ongoing Chinese demand for jaguar teeth for jewelry,[22] as well as a jaguar "paste" that is made of their bones and used in Chinese traditional medicine for general health.[20][12] The main sources for the trade of jaguar products seem to come from other South and Central American countries such as Suriname, Belize, and Bolivia, but Panama is not exempt from contributing to the illegal market. While laws are in place to protect jaguars in Panama, they are still being illegally hunted as a result of insufficient regulation of protected areas and increased vulnerability due to habitat loss.[11][23]

Conservation Activities

Habitat Preservation

Conservation of jaguars and their habitat is a regional concern extending their range from Mexico to Argentina. There are jaguar-specific habitat reserves located in North and Central America. In 1984, the world's first public preserve, Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, was established in the Central American country of Belize. This preserve, with subsequent additions of the Chiquibul National Park and Labouring Creek Jaguar Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary, have provided important sources of economic activity for the surrounding communities.[13]

Jaguar conservation efforts have been instrumental in forming landscape approaches to species preservation. In the early 1990s, an initiative of this movement, the "paseo panthera" (Spanish: "path of the panther"), eventually evolved into the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor[24] A widely endorsed effort by governments in the region, there was much hope that this approach would provide for the movement of terrestrial mammals. Several studies on the subject have provided mixed perspectives on its success.[25]

Habitat preservation efforts continued to gain momentum and coordination at the turn of the 21st century when the Wildlife Conservation Society sponsored a priority‐setting and planning exercise for the jaguar across its range.[26] As a result, over 90 Jaguar Conservation Units (JCU) were identified in all 18 range countries where conditions are favorable to support continued jaguar populations. This framework has guided the work of organizations focused on jaguar conservation such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Panthera, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Conservation International as well as governmental agencies.[27]

Panthera Jaguar Corridor Initiative

In 2013, Panama became the fifth Latin American government to sign on to a regional effort called the Jaguar Corridor Initiative (JCI). The JCI began in 2008 and builds on the efforts discussed above. This effort has been coordinated, in part, by a non-profit organization dedicated to - Panthera. The JCI will work to maintain linked Jaguar habitats throughout the region.[28]

WWF Jaguar Strategy: 2020-2030

Another initiative that is focused on regional jaguar recovery is WWF's Jaguar Strategy: 2020-2030. As with the JCI, the Jaguar Strategy builds on previous conservation work discussed in this section. Efforts are to be focused on 15 landscapes throughout the jaguar's range. Special emphasis is placed on those landscapes identified as JCU or corridors for travel. Panama is included within the regions considered for landscape selection. That said, to date none of the 15 landscapes that are the focus of the Strategy are within Panama's borders.[27]

Panamanian Government

Young Jaguars drinking water.

In 2011, the Panamanian National Environmental Authority developed a Jaguar Conservation Action Plan.[27] Very little detail is readily available about the plan and it's approaches. However, the Panamanian government website includes many stories of partnership with organizations such as Panthera, the Smithsonian Institute, and other efforts related to jaguar conservation.[29][30]

Ecotourism

The use of ecotourism is a relatively new implemented strategy for conservation in Panama.[31] [32] Due to Panama’s rich ecosystem and multiple protected areas, in which jaguars’ inhabit, the use of ecotourism can be a successful means for conservation.[32] The government in Panama has made various changes for the development of ecotourism, such as lowering taxes for ecotourism and approving the principles of ecotourism.[32] The use of ecotourism as a method of the conservation of jaguars is possible in Panama as it can be helpful for further economic growth in the country and the habitats have such lush flora and fauna that need to be preserved.[31] Though Panama has great opportunities for implementing ecotourism programs, it is noted that the approach needs to be carefully planned.[33] Having guiding systems for administering and monitoring will allow for effective conservation of Panama through ecotourism programs.[33] The use of ecotourism as a means of conservation is will be impactful for the preservation of rich ecosystems in Panama and will lead to jaguar habitats being protected.

A main impact of ecotourism on the Jaguar population will be through the sustainable use of protected areas. [31] Furthermore, ecotourism readily utilizes education for conservation awareness.[31] Educating locals and tourists will hopefully decrease the negative perception of jaguars as a threat and spread awareness about their species.[31][32] This will both benefit and the foreigners coming to the areas and the local communities. [31] Hopefully leading to a shift in mindset around the need to conserve the Jaguar population.

The benefits to the community are a strength of ecotourism.[31] The views and relationship to the land that the local people hold seriously impacts ecotourism and conservation.[33]Giving responsibility to local people through ecotourism in Panama encourages the conservation of natural resources and ecosystems.[33] Additional local communities can gain financial resources through employment and revenue of leading ecotours.[31][33] Having this empowerment for local communities, both economically and environmentally gain, is a key benefit to the use of ecotourism as a conservation practice.[33] The use of ecotourism is currently and can continue to be developed as a conservation practice. It will support the protection of Jaguar ecosystems and empower local communities to focus on the conservation of wildlife.

Tracking Jaguars

Researchers in Panama have used tracking as a means for Jaguar conservation in the country. A female Jaguar was fitted with a GPS tracker by the National Geographic Emerging Explorer in the hope to help conserve the wild cats.[34]They wanted to understand the movements of Jaguars in each area around Panama.[34] This strategy was successful in gaining information for environmental education in the local communities, which is much needed as a strategy to help conserve Jaguars and reduce the number of them being killed.[34]

Other studies in Panama have set up camera traps to record jaguars.[35] Similar to the tracking method this one was used to identify the habitat of jaguars.[35] They also realized that that many keystone habitats for jaguars, such as wetlands were increasingly fragmented by cattle ranches and oil palm plantations.[35]

These projects were the result of coordination with the environmental efforts from the government, scientists, and local communities and thus this needs to continue to be financed in order to see more Jaguar conservation.[34][35]

Increasing the number of Jaguars tracked through GPS trackers or cameras will allow for more research generation and understanding of these large mammals in Panama.[34] [35]

Due to Panama's unique geographical situation and use as a corridor for these animals, this should be a key focus for the government and local research scientists.[7] Having this form of conservation action will help in gaining more concrete educational research to show to the communities, therefore helping to reduce the numbers of Jaguars killed due to conflict with humans.[3] Also having a greater understanding of the movements and geographical locations that the Jaguars reside in will help the government implement more accurate protected areas for Jaguars or regulate most intensely the deforestation and degradation of habitat that is happening in key areas that the Jaguars need to survive.

Research

Research has been inconsistent regarding jaguar conservation. Surveys of Panamanian resident's attitudes and opinions regarding jaguar protection and general ecosystem health have been conducted. The objectives of the survey were to "measure local attitudes and perceptions as an indicator of tolerance towards jaguars and National Park conservation in Cerro Hoya National Park and an area bordering Darién National Park". This survey found "Positive perceptions of jaguars and National Parks, and criticism of park management increased with the level of education and land ownership. Men were more open to receiving help on their farms to mitigate the impacts of jaguars and more tolerant of the presence of jaguars than women. Residents from both study areas indicated high appreciation for their respective National Parks". [3] Additional research on the causes of conflict and killings of jaguar has also been conducted. [11][36]

To support and inform planning efforts to protect jaguars and their habitat, many studies have been conducted on their behavior and patterns. Topics such as jaguar breeding success,[37] the impact of road and infrastructure development on jaguar migration,[33] and the effects of deforestation on habitat connectivity[38] are just a sample of the work forming the technical background to conservation efforts.

These studies have also identified important areas for continued research. For instance, a study authored in 2019 found that wetland preservation could facilitate jaguar persistence. [35] Others have raised questions about how to consider conservation of large carnivores and other wildlife in policies using community-based strategies. [33] While important research has been completed to date, much remains to inform effective policies and actions to save this iconic species.

Conclusion

Panama is a unique region for jaguars due to its suitable climate, high species richness, and geographical features. However, jaguars residing in Panama are facing threats of habitat fragmentation as a result of industrial expansion through expanding anthropogenic activities such as agriculture. Retaliatory killing,[11][3] as well as poaching and illegal hunting for jaguars' products, including fur, teeth, and meat, are also some of the biggest threats to the population. Early conservation activities in progress include habitat preservation started in the 1990s, eventually evolved into Jaguar Corridor Initiative (JCI), whose job mainly focuses on jaguar habitat preservation.[28] Ecotourism is also an effective way to protect the jaguar population by supporting the conservation economically, giving responsibility to local people, as well as raising awareness of jaguar protection among communities. The involvement of local communities in the conservation of jaguars is important as jaguar habitats border many farmlands,[7] making co-existence essential. Jaguar tracking is another method of conservation being used, providing information on jaguar movements in their daily lives.[34] This method is also successful in environmental educations in local communities. Not only does jaguar tracking teach local people about conservation like ecotourism, but also offers opportunities for research generation. Currently, research projects on jaguars' habitat and behavior patterns are carried out to deepen the understanding of jaguars. Breeding techniques and human influence on the population are also largely studied, informing the public of the importance of jaguar conservation. Numerous regional efforts are underway to preserve habitat essential to sustain jaguar populations. Panama has become somewhat involved but significant opportunities remain to leverage conservation activities within Panamanian borders.

For future remedial actions, more government policies like the Jaguar Conservation Action Plan need to be carried out, and more research on protection methods is needed. In addition to scientific research, all of Panamanian society must work together in protecting this critical species from disappearing. As stated by Panamanian wildlife biologist Ricardo Moreno, "science, only science, is not going to save [the jaguars]. We need to work with the people."[39]

References

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Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
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