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Given a safe passage, jaguars will wander hundreds of miles to breed, even swimming across the Panama Canal. (Steve Winter / Panthera)

The Jaguar Freeway

A bold plan for wildlife corridors that connect populations from Mexico to Argentina could mean the big cat's salvation

Under Hoogesteijn’s supervision, the conservation ranches are testing various ways to protect livestock. One measure is to graze water buffalo among cattle. Cows tend to stampede when a jaguar comes near, leaving calves vulnerable. “For jaguars, it’s like going to Burger King,” Hoogesteijn says. Water buffalo encircle their young and charge intruders. Panthera is testing water buffalo in the Pantanal and will expand the test herds to Colombia and Central America next year. Another Panthera experiment will reintroduce long-horned Pantaneiro cattle, a feisty Andalusian breed brought to South America centuries ago by the Spanish and Portuguese. Like water buffalo, these cattle defend their young.

Because jaguars tend to approach cattle under cover of forest, some Pantanal ranchers corral their pregnant females and newborns at night in open, lighted fields surrounded with electric fences packing 5,000 volts—strong enough to discourage even the hungriest cat.

To figure out where the corridors should be, Rabinowitz and other biologists identified all the so-called “jaguar conservation units” where breeding populations of the cats live. Kathy Zeller, a Panthera landscape ecologist, mapped pathways linking the populations, taking into account proximity to water, distance from roads and urban settlements (jaguars shy away from people), elevation (under 3,000 feet is best) and vegetation (cats avoid large open areas). Out of 182 possible corridors, 44 are less than six miles wide and are considered at risk of being lost. Panthera is securing the most fragile tendrils first. “There are places where if you lose one corridor, that’s it,” she says. Researchers are now checking out the pathways, interviewing locals, tracking collared cats and ascertaining the presence—or absence—of jaguars.

Rabinowitz has met with government leaders about drawing up zoning guidelines to protect corridors. “We’re not asking them to throw people off their property or create new national parks,” he says. The goal is not to halt development, but to influence the scale and placement of mammoth projects like dams or highways. The strategy has worked on a smaller scale for cougars in California and grizzly bears in the western United States.

In April 2009, Costa Rica incorporated the Barbilla Jaguar Corridor into its existing wildlife corridor system. Panthera regards the initiative as a possible model for the Americas. It’s overseen by a 25-person Costa Rican corridor committee of ecotourism operators, indigenous leaders, cowboys, cilantro farmers, villagers, businessmen, university researchers and others. They helped identify an imminent threat: a hydroelectric project on Reventazón River that would bisect the Barbilla corridor and block the passage of jaguars. With advice from Panthera, Costa Rica’s electricity utility is considering creating a buffer zone by buying adjacent forest and reforesting along the reservoir’s edge to keep a pathway intact.

Perhaps the most critical link runs through Colombia, where only a few Andean passes are low enough for cats to cross. Losing this corridor would split the trans-American population in two, and the jaguars on either side would no longer interbreed.

The region is as important to the illegal cocaine trade as it is to jaguars. Last fall, Panthera’s researchers in Colombia were setting up camera traps when a killing spree in their hotel and on a nearby road left four people dead. There are ongoing battles among guerrilla and criminal groups for control of cocaine fields and trafficking routes. Targeted kidnappings and murder are commonplace, and the landscape is riddled with land mines. It’s nearly impossible for biologists to study jaguars here, or protect them.

There are challenges all along the jaguars’ range. Sinaloa, Mexico, is a haven for Mexican crime bosses. A notorious gang, known as MS-13, rules parts of El Salvador and is spreading throughout Central America. Huge soybean and sugar cane plantations are denuding the Brazilian Cerrado, a dry grassland, washing pesticides down into Pantanal rivers and potentially severing the route to the Amazon. Then there’s the proposed eight-lane highway that would run from Honduras to El Salvador, linking Pacific and Caribbean ports. “I can almost guarantee you that it’ll stop the passage of jaguars, just like the fence that we’re building along the southern U.S. border,” says Panthera’s Quigley. There hasn’t been a breeding population in the United States in 50 years, but at least four jaguars were spotted in Arizona and New Mexico in recent years. Only one jaguar has been seen in Arizona since the fence was erected.

Still, he adds, roads can be made less deadly by limiting the number of lanes and incorporating wildlife-friendly underpasses like those used in Florida to protect panthers and other wildlife.

Rabinowitz is encouraged that in some places, jaguars are gaining support. In Belize, where jaguars serve increasingly as an attraction for ecotourists, Maya who once killed the animals are now their protectors. “It’s not born-again enlightenment,” says Rabinowitz. “It’s economics.” Jaguar tourism is also bringing money into the Pantanal. Carmindo Aleixo Da Costa, a 63-year-old rancher, says that hosting a few foreign tourists doubles his annual income. “Now is the time of the jaguar!” he says, beaming.

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