As recently as one hundred years ago, jaguars inhabited a vast range, stretching from the southwestern United States through Mexico and Central America into Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and as far south as southern Argentina. But by the 1990s, the jaguar population had vanished from about 50 percent of the range it had occupied in 1900, mostly at the northern and southern edges, according to data compiled by the Wildlife Conservation Society.
No one knows how many jaguars remain in some regions, especially the southern Amazon and the Cerrado, tropical dry forests that cover one-quarter of Brazil. But the jaguar has disappeared from much of Mexico and is no longer seen in the pampas of Argentina. Coastal Brazil has lost most of its jaguars, as possibly have El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Uruguay, according to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre. The WWF states that the jaguar has likely been wiped out from Chile and is at risk in Argentina, Costa Rica, and Panama.
In most areas, the jaguar population has diminished because the animal's habitat has been drastically modified by human activity. As populations expanded in Latin America during the late twentieth century, trees were cleared for agriculture and cattle grazing. Roads and highways were cut through forests, bringing people and new farms and towns. Dams, built to harness energy for electric power, flooded river plains, and logging operations leveled the rain forests. Because the jaguar needs a dense cover of forest, bush, and grass, as well as access to water and sufficient prey, the cat had fewer places to hide and hunt.
Today, many of the jaguar's historic hunting grounds are no longer wild. In the northern part of its range, Mexico has lost at least one-third of its forest cover. On the southern edge, the native vegetation of the pampas grasslands of Argentina has been virtually eliminated by farming and ranching. In between, the swamps, dry forests, and wetlands of the Cerrado in Brazil have been planted with soybeans and other crops, pushing out native plants and animals. The Atlantic Forest, which once spread down the coast of Brazil, has nearly vanished. And now, more than ever before, the Amazon rain forest is threatened by slash-and-burn logging, new settlements, and hydroelectric dams.
The pressure on the jaguar's environment has quickened in recent years and poses more peril in the future, for there is no question that the loss of an animal's habitat leads directly to extinction. "The light and the way for the world's biodiversity is the preservation of natural ecosystems," writes Harvard University zoologist Edward O. Wilson. Yet just 3 to 6 percent of the jaguar range is sufficiently protected in parks or refuges, according to some estimates. For the jaguar and other large predators, time is fast running out. Saving the jaguar's habitat has become increasingly difficult.
That difficulty is due to the fact that progress and economic growth in Latin America, and other parts of the world, often relies on the exploitation of natural resources, which destroys wildlife habitats and puts native plants and animals at risk. For example, in the 1990s, Paraguay built a hydroelectric dam at Ayoles. The dam flooded a large island, some 486,000 acres of grasslands, displacing dozens of species of mammals, including jaguars, as well as birds and reptiles. Yet Paraguay desperately needed the electric power the plant generates.
Similarly, a gas pipeline project proposed for Bolivia may be an economic boon to the struggling South American nation, but it would imperil the jaguar and other local wildlife. The 224-mile pipeline, backed by Shell Oil, is intended to transport natural gas from Rio San Miguel in Bolivia to Cuiaba in Brazil. However, it also threatens to destroy the largest remaining tract of tropical dry forest, Kakutani Forest in eastern Bolivia, according to the WWF. Kakutani Forest is home to many endangered species, including the hyacinth macaw, maned wolf, ocelot, and jaguar. Many environmental groups oppose the pipeline.
Yet another ongoing controversy, this one in Belize, highlights the difficulty in balancing the economic and environmental needs of developing countries. The Belize government and Belize Electricity Ltd. plan to build the Chalillo Dam on the Macal River to provide electricity to the country. Environmentalists oppose the dam, which they say will flood a river valley that is critical habitat for many endangered species, including jaguars living in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. "We are gambling with our natural resources, treasures that are not duplicated anywhere else in the region," said biologist Sharon Matola, director of the Belize Zoo.
But Norris Hall, a spokesman for Belize Electricity Ltd., responds that Belize needs electricity to fuel growth and development. He points out that one-third of Belizeans live in extreme poverty and need more economic opportunity: "Developing countries, such as ours, will not be able to lift themselves out of poverty without increased use of modern forms of energy," he said.
Nowhere is the conflict between the need for economic progress and the need to preserve natural resources more apparent than in Latin America's rain forests. In these dark, dense, tropical forests that hug the Equator, temperatures are fairly steady from 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and rainfall amounts range from 80 inches to between 200 and 300 inches every year. The constant warm temperature and ready access to water create nearly perfect conditions for life, so the rain forest is full of numerous plant and animal species. When British naturalist Henry Walter Bates explored the Amazon River Basin and its rain forest in the 1840s, he counted some 14,712 species. In fact, although the Amazon rain forest makes up 3.5 percent of the earth's surface, it contains about 50 percent of all living species. One of these species is the jaguar, which has historically been more abundant in rain forests than in any other part of its range. The rain forest provides the jaguar with everything it needs -- water, plentiful prey, and undergrowth that offers thick cover.
Yet rain forests are also a valuable natural resource for developing countries. From the stands of mahogany and cedar trees, whose woods are profitable export products, to the plentiful supply of lowland soil sought by local farmers, Latin America's rain forests are a magnet for a variety of economic pursuits. The energy of the rivers and their tributaries is harnessed for hydroelectric power, while the land is plowed up for roads and housing for expanding populations. Valuable minerals and oil have also been found in the rain forests of Latin America, resulting in major operations to extract the natural resources.
But mining and road building, and cutting and burning trees to clear the land for planting and grazing, disrupt the intricate ecosystems of the rain forest. Farming not only destroys the habitat, but rain forest soil is typically not rich in nutrients, so farmers quickly move on after a season or two, cutting further into the jungle. Chopping down trees and burning the stumps to clear for planting crops may not directly kill jaguars, but deforestation alters the natural ecosystem in ways that make the jaguar's survival more difficult. As development intrudes on the tropical forests of Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries, the jaguar is losing the natural resources it needs to survive.
Rich in those natural resources are the lush grasslands and dense tropical forests surrounding the Amazon River and its tributaries. These areas are considered a critical habitat for the jaguar and one of the few regions where the cat may be able to survive for the long term. Yet the Amazon rain forest -- the world's largest surviving rain forest, sprawling outward from the banks of one of earth's most massive rivers to encompass about 2 million square miles, mostly in Brazil -- is also considered to be the region's last frontier, ripe for exploitation.
After remaining intact for most of the twentieth century, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, Brazil's interior rain forest was opened to development. A maze of new highways and airports brought hundreds of thousands of settlers into the region and eased the way for extraction of the natural resources, including large-scale mining of iron ore and bauxite, from which aluminum is made. Logging increased. Sixteen million people already live in the region, and rapid development continues, mostly unchecked.
Adding stress to the rain forest, in the mid-1990s the extreme dry weather caused by El Ni¤o, the periodic warming of Pacific Ocean waters off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru, helped to ignite uncontrollable forest fires, which burned large sections of the forest in 1995. These burned regions will take years to renew themselves, if they are not developed in the meantime.
All this means the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed at an alarming rate, according to a 1999 study by the Global Forest Policy Project. The study estimated that 16 percent, or 217,000 square miles, of original forest has been destroyed; 17,000 square miles were lost in 1998 alone. Brazilian government estimates are lower, but no less worrisome for environmentalists. "All these estimates are quite conservative. The problem could be bigger," said ecologist Daniel C. Nepstand of the Woods Hole Research Center, one of the authors of the study.
As a result, over two hundred animals and one hundred plant species in Brazil are known to be in danger of extinction, most in the Amazon basin, including mahogany trees, the golden lion tamarin, the hyacinth macaw, and the jaguar. Even with laws protecting the rain forest from uncontrolled logging, the Brazilian government acknowledges that illegal logging and farming continue. As each acre is relinquished to development, the jaguar loses one more piece of its shrinking range.
The jaguar's range is shrinking not only in the Amazon but to the north as well. Mexico is considered the northern edge of the jaguar's range, but like its southerly neighbors, the country is offering less and less shelter for the big cat. Before Spanish colonization, two-thirds of Mexico was covered with forest; today, the remaining forest covers just one-fifth of the country, mostly in the south and east. The country is losing about 1.5 million acres of forest each year. For example, in the Lacandona jungle in the southern state of Chiapas, the forest shrank to 1 million acres in 1999, compared with 2.1 million acres in 1993, according to a Reuters news report. Agricultural expansion and cattle ranching have pushed puma, deer, coyote, and jaguar into isolated pockets.
Elsewhere, jaguars still live in the tropical dry forest of the Chamela-Cuixmala Biosphere Reserve in central coastal Mexico, as well as in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a large area of humid tropical forest in southern Mexico. But the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, also home to tapirs, anteaters, peccaries, deer, and other prey animals, is surrounded by a growing population of subsistence farmers, which is putting pressure on the wildlife in the region, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The jaguar is threatened not only by the destruction of habitat but also by the changing use of land in Latin America. Brazil's Pantanal, a sprawling grassy wetland in the interior of the country, has historically been a jaguar stronghold, but here, too, the jaguar is losing ground. In the Pantanal, in Venezuela, and in other countries, the threat comes not from logging or mining but from cattle ranching. Beginning in the sixteenth century, European settlers brought horses and cattle to Latin America, introducing an important source of income for the pioneers and new prey for the jaguar.
Unlike logging in the rain forests, cattle ranching does not destroy jaguar habitat, but it changes the use of the land in ways that pose a serious threat to the cats. The land is no longer wilderness in which the jaguar can roam freely in search of prey. Instead, millions of cattle now graze on land shared by jaguars, and the cats may attack the cattle because they are easier to catch than some wild animals. If the jaguar threatens the rancher's business by killing cattle, the cat winds up the target of the rancher's shotgun. Therefore, ranching reduces the amount of land accessible to the big cat, not unlike when a forest is leveled or a wetland is flooded.
Although hunting jaguars for sport and trade has been reduced by national and international laws, most countries, excluding the United States, allow people to shoot jaguars which are threatening or attacking their livestock. The hunting of problem jaguars is permitted in Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru, according to the Cat Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union, an international group of cat experts. Other countries also allow problem jaguars to be killed. Researchers studying the jaguar diet in the Chaco region of Paraguay found that jaguars were "intensely hunted" in areas with high human and cattle populations.
When Alan Rabinowitz was researching jaguars in Belize, he often found that local Indians shot jaguars they perceived as threats to their livestock, whether or not the jaguars had actually killed any of the Indians' animals. Rabinowitz and others have noted that jaguars are sometimes shot and injured, but not killed, and become further hazards to livestock, since they are too weak to return to hunting wild animals.
Since jaguars share their territory with cattle ranches in many regions, the problem of jaguars preying on cattle and being shot for their activity is serious. It is difficult for farmers to ignore a jaguar that is preying on cattle. "To poor people the loss of just a few animals represents a major financial setback, and provides a strong incentive for extermination of cat population," write Kristin Nowell and Peter Jackson. Even ranchers who are better off financially will take action to stop jaguars from attacking the source of their livelihoods.
Outside of cattle country, jaguars rely on native wild animals for food. Jaguars need to eat at least one small animal a day. But wherever jaguars are losing their habitat, they must cope as well with a dwindling supply of prey. Many of the big cat's prey are facing the same problems as the predator, from over-hunting to habitat degradation. The cat relies on the animals of the rain forests and wetlands of Central and South America, and in nearly one-third of the jaguar's range these animals are being hunted and forced from their habitats.
Among the jaguar's traditional prey are tapirs, large pig-like mammals. They live east of South America's Andes Mountains in rain forests shared by the jaguar. Sought by hunters for its valuable hide, the tapir is edging toward extinction. Jaguars in Belize commonly eat anteaters, which feed on termites and insects, but anteaters are also disappearing as development intrudes on their rain forest habitat. Jaguars often comb rivers for the water-loving rodents, capybaras, which are threatened as well. Another prey of the jaguar, the Chaco tortoise of Paraguay and northern Argentina, continues to be smuggled and sold on the black market. And before a jaguar can attack it, the pampas deer of southern Brazil and northern Argentina is hunted for sport, food, and hides and is displaced by cattle ranches. As agriculture and the timber industry invade its habitat, and farmers persecute it for damaging field crops, the giant armadillo, which has served as food for the jaguar from Venezuela to northern Argentina, is declining. The Chaco peccary, also hunted by the jaguar, is similarly losing its habitat to development.
As its prey base shrinks and shifts, the jaguar must hunt farther and longer for food, adding further risks to its increasing fight for survival. When larger prey disappears, the jaguar seeks smaller prey, upsetting the ecological balance of the rain forest or grassland. Loss of prey, along with loss of habitat, is considered one of the most immediate causes of extinction of predators.
In many ways, the jaguar, like other threatened plants and animals, is battling the clock. The United Nations predicts the population of Latin America and the Caribbean will rise from 477 million in 1995 to 809 million in the year 2050. Brazil's population grew from 54 million in 1950 to 166 million in 1998 and is expected to reach 244 million in 2050. Population growth increases the demand for fuel and electricity, and spurs the development of roads, farms and cities, all of which threaten the jaguar's range.
Where the jaguar will fit into this expanding human presence in Latin America is uncertain. Increasingly, countries realize that time is running out for saving natural places and species like the jaguar. "Preserving and maintaining suitable habitat is the biggest problem facing conservation for all cats," stated big-cat expert Maurice Hornocker. Brazilian President Fernando Enrique Cardoso recently pledged to save 10 percent of his nation's rain forests as national parks and ecologically protected areas. But the question remains whether Brazil, and the rest of Latin America, can maintain economic growth while conserving their rich, but imperiled, biodiversity.
Source: Endangered Animals & Habitats: The Jaguar, Lucent Overview Series. Lucent Books. 2001.
Jaguar photo courtesy of Gary M. Stotz, United States Fish and Wildlife Service.