Can Humans and Jaguars Coexist? A Wildlife Biologist Uses Technology and Education to Reduce Conflict

From tracking large felines across the continent to helping rural communities protect biodiversity, Panamanian biologist Ricardo Moreno turned his childhood dream into a mission

Ricardo Moreno on the field
Ricardo Moreno has dedicated over 20 years of his career to biodiversity protection. Mauro Colombo

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the biggest feline native to the America continent, and the third largest in the world after the tiger and the lion. They are considered key predators because they maintain a balance in the ecosystem by regulating the population of other species. Jaguars can be found anywhere from southern parts of the U.S. to Argentina. Panama, the bridge between Central and South America, is part of the Mesoamerican biological corridor, or the “jaguar corridor”, and thus an important part of their habitat.

But jaguar populations in the continent are diminishing, and it is now a critically endangered species. The greatest threats to their survival are loss and fragmentation of their habitat, diminishing preys, being struck by vehicles, poaching, illegal captivity, illegal trafficking of pelt and other parts, and misinformation. In Panama, jaguars are also often killed by cattle ranchers, a short-term solution to deter jaguars from preying on their cows.

Wildlife biologist and research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Ricardo Moreno has dedicated more than 20 years of his career to biodiversity conservation and to the jaguar’s protection. A graduate from University of Panama in 2002 with a degree in Biology, and a Masters in Conservation and Wildlife Management from the Universidad Nacional of Costa Rica, Moreno started researching Panamanian felines, including the jaguar, as early as 1996, and learning about the situation this species faces in the region.

That is why in 2006 he started the Yaguará Panama Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of jaguars and the forests where they live. To reduce the human-jaguar conflict, the foundation focuses on educating and working with people and communities that coexist with jaguars, developing environmentally sustainable alternatives and economic activities that will help preserve the species and habitats.

in 2019, Moreno and the foundation managed to capture Chucunaque, a jaguar in the Darién Province, and fitting her with a GPS collar.  Courtesy Ricardo Moreno
Camera traps are often used to monitor and track mammals, like this female jaguar and her pups.  Courtesy Ricardo Moreno
Monitoring jaguars and other large felines with GPS collars and camera traps helps researchers determine where jaguar-human interactions may occur, and therefore where conflicts may arise and how to deal with them.  Courtesy Ricardo Moreno

“Jaguars are a very important part of the ecosystem. They need to be out there, so that they can fulfill their role in nature,” Moreno points out. “Respect the jaguar’s territory and hunting instinct.”

By using scientific information and technology, such as tracking and monitoring the movements and behaviors of jaguars and other large felines by using GPS collars and camera traps, Moreno and fellow researchers can know where there are potential interactions with humans and therefore where conflicts might arise. As recently as 2019, Moreno and Yaguará finally managed to capture and put a GPS collar on a jaguar in the Darién Province, which Moreno referred to as “a historical moment for science in Panama”.

In farming communities where there are jaguar-cattle conflicts, Yaguará works with cattle ranchers to implement tried-and-true systems such as installing solar-powered electrical fencing for the cattle enclosures, putting water tanks in the pastures so cows don’t wander into the forest (the jaguar’s territory) to drink from rivers and streams, and putting collars with bells and lights on cows to startle and keep jaguars away.

The foundation also collaborates with rural and indigenous communities, such as Quebrada Ancha in the Chagres National Park, to teach them about the jaguar’s role in the ecosystem and how to benefit from their conservation, with activities such as casting jaguars’ pawprints and selling them as souvenirs and managing ecotourism in their area to help prevent destruction of the biodiversity.

Moreno and Yaguará use technology, such as camera traps and GPS collars, to monitor the movements and behaviors of mammals, including jaguars and other felines.  Elliot Brown, Yaguará Panamá
Ricardo Moreno sets a camera trap in an area of the forest, to capture images of wildlife.  Josue Ortega, Yaguará Panamá
Yaguará helps cattle ranchers implement systems to avoid jaguar-cattle conflicts.  Leonardo Pretelt
Moreno and Yaguará work closely with members of rural communities to educate about how to avoid human-jaguar conflicts.  Mauro Colombo

Moreno and Yaguará also spread knowledge and awareness by training environmental developers and creating projects to engage communities in biodiversity protection, offering seminars, webinars, and workshops, publishing scientific papers, and through media campaigns and interviews. Moreno himself has written and co-authored over 120 articles of scientific disclosure, participated in international conferences, and appeared in documentaries for National Geographic, the Smithsonian Channel and more.

His passion and dedication have not gone unnoticed: he was named Emerging Explorer by National Geographic in 2017 and is a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. On behalf of Yaguará Panamá Foundation, he received the Environmental Excellence Award from Panama’s Ministry of Environment (MiAmbiente).

He still feels disheartened when he hears news of another jaguar killed, but he continues working and encouraging others to do the same.

“Anything helps, and anyone can do it, planting trees, caring for the environment. We as human beings have the ability to destroy, but we can also build,” he says. “I know change is possible and it’s happening.”

Moreno was named Emerging Explorer by National Geographic in 2017 and is a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations.  Courtesy Ricardo Moreno