There are wild jaguars in Panama, but few remain. Because Panama is the land bridge between North and South America, it is biologically diverse and important in the transfer of species between the landmasses.
Jaguars range from Arizona to Argentina. They are the largest feline predator in the Americas. The majority of jaguars can be found in rainforests throughout Central and South America. As rainforests decline, so do jaguars due to habitat loss.
Save The Rainforest has a chance to help save jaguars and it all began with our student trip to Panama in 2004. That is where I met our guide, and now life-long friend, Alvaro Perez. Alvaro captured the attention and imagination of my students. Several have returned to Panama to visit with him, as have I.
Alvaro no longer guides and has moved on to other ventures, but his heart never left the deep commitment to conservation. He has been telling me for years about how the wildlife corridor, that connects North and South America, is shrinking due to human encroachment. I found that hard to believe because I thought this area near the Panama Canal was protected by national parks. Specifically, Chagres National Park, which Save The Rainforest trips visit. But what he taught me is that their national park system is much different than ours.
The issue is that squatters have moved into the national parks unchecked and cannot be removed because by law they have Rights of Possession. These laws were an attempt to reduce poverty and help the landless. If the settlers are not removed from unoccupied land within two years, they may remain. The squatters set up farms and small communities right in the national park. The Panamanian government lacks the resources to police the activities of all the people that are encroaching into the forests. There are thousands of square kilometers to monitor, and very few forest rangers. So, the damage continues.
In Chagres National Park the settlers are beginning to infringe on the most remote area that is the last remaining wildlife corridor that connects the continents that are used by jaguars and many other species. The corridor in the Boquerón Valley is down to 6 miles wide. Think of that, the entire corridor for biological transfer of species between North and South America is only 6 miles wide, and shrinking!
Poachers are hunting peccaries and tapirs right inside the national park. Jaguars may begin to look for food on farmer’s land with their main food source reduced. The farmers then kill the jaguars to protect their livestock. According to Ricardo Moreno, an expert on jaguars and big cats and recipient of the National Geographic’s Emerging Explorer award, dozens of jaguars have been poached last year alone in Panama. Alvaro and others estimate they have 10 years to preserve this area before it closes and isolates jaguar genetic populations.
Alvaro wrote, “Pascual has lived deep in the rainforest all of his life. He makes a meager living from a small herd of cattle and from poaching in the forest. He has cleared a large area of forest alongside the Boquerón River in Panama. Pascual’s cleared land is surrounded by beautiful forest-covered hills which is home to lots of wildlife including deer, tapir, peccaries, sloths, monkeys, capybara and jaguars. It should be a tropical paradise, but each year Pascual cuts down additional forest for land to support his cattle. This is because the land, once the trees have been destroyed, soon becomes infertile. So, more land is needed. When trees are cut down, wildlife of all sizes vanishes. Plant species are wiped out too. When it rains on treeless ground, topsoil is washed into the rivers. Streams that were once crystal-clear become dirty and polluted. The land becomes sterile and infertile. Even cows cannot survive on it. So, more land has to be cleared and more trees cut down. Pascual shoots any tapir and capybara that he sees. Not for pleasure or for sport, but for eating. Jaguars – finding that their natural prey is vanishing – occasionally take one of his cows. Pascual has said that if he sees a jaguar, he will shoot it. And so soon, the jaguars will be gone. Pascual is a good man, but he has no idea of the damage that his way of life, his cows and his poaching, are doing. It is a horrible cycle of destruction.”
So, what did Alvaro Perez, Ricardo Moreno, Caleb Duckworth, and Rick Morales do when they learned about this? They created Green Rainforest and the Jaguar Paw Project. Their goal is to acquire a farm near the wildlife corridor so they can build an anchor location to expand from and a buffer between the farms and the pristine rainforest. It sounds odd to us, but they have to buy land inside a national park to create a reserve to protect the wildlife. Their plan is to turn the cleared cattle pasture of the farm back to rainforest. They intend to train poachers to be guides and rangers. They want to bring ecotourism and scientists to the area to help make the communities on the fringes more profitable so they will not have to keep moving into the interior. High school groups, exactly like those from Save The Rainforest, could come to the small town inside the park to share in community service projects with the locals, to establish trust, and generate some needed revenue.
Save The Rainforest facilitated the first university to come to the Boquerón Valley and start establishing a research presence and talk to the locals about ways their expertise could be beneficial to the community. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater had trail cameras put up to begin a wildlife inventory of the corridor. What they discovered was the area was much more biodiverse than expected. Several species of wild cat were present including two jaguars that had not been recorded before. Jaguar spots are like fingerprints and Ricardo has a record of all known jaguars in Panama. One of the new jaguars was named “Agua Blanco” for the university.
Besides land purchase, education is a vital ingredient to their plan. Fear is huge component to the farmer’s decision making, so they share facts to help them make good environmental choices. Some of these include:
– Jaguar attacks on cattle are rare. Many attributed jaguar attacks are actually from other things, like cattle rustlers stealing cows.
– Jaguars prefer small natural prey to a large cow.
– Jaguars will eat cattle when their food has been poached.
– Many jaguars that kill livestock have been shot with shotguns and are weakened so they turn to cattle or goats for food because it is easier to catch. So, poaching jaguars actually causes more jaguar attacks on livestock.
– Jaguars do not like to go into open spaces, like cattle pastures. They want to stay in the forest rather than expose themselves to danger.
– Attacks occur when farmers use poor cattle management practices, like just letting cows or goats roam through forest.
One of Green Rainforest’s plans to reduce the risk of a jaguar attacks is to help farmers build simple enclosures to house livestock at night. Just this past month a farmer asked Green Rainforest for financial help to build a hutch to protect his goats from jaguar encounters. He didn’t have the money to buy the lumber. Unfortunately, Green Rainforest did not have the couple thousand dollars to grant the farmer for his structure. The farmer was given the building plans and choices to help his livestock, but he told them a bullet is cheaper. These are the harsh realities. This presents an opportunity for Save The Rainforest to do what it does best.
Save The Rainforest has given financial support to Green Rainforest. But there is SO much more we can do. With more cash we can provide the help to buy the land, pay rangers, build jaguar resistant livestock shelters, and educate the community. With our trips we can bring in sorely needed eco-tourism dollars and be ambassadors of hope, friendship, and trust.
Alvaro has been loyal to our cause and students for decades. It’s time to meet the challenge and be a positive agent of change in a place where we can make a difference now. Let’s protect Agua Blanco, future generations of jaguars, and the beautiful diversity of life that surround him in his rainforest. Let’s live by our title-Save The Rainforest. Your donations to Save The Rainforest will help Green Rainforest and our friend Alvaro protect jaguars and the grand diversity of life that is so important.