by Oscar Moctezuma O.
General Director Naturalia, A.C.
When we hear someone mentions the jaguar (Panthera onca), the first image we get is one of the big cat moving quietly through the tropical forest in search of its prey. Although this is a correct vision of the typical habitat in which this species lives, it doesn’t show a complete image of the adaptability of the largest wild cat of the American Continent, which has adapted to other natural conditions that have very little similarity to the tropical forest.
Perhaps we can find the most dramatic example of this adaptability in the case of the northernmost population of this species that lives in Northwest Mexico in the arid mountains of the state of Sonora. Here, surrounded by a strange combination of plants, including big cacti, fig trees, palms and oaks, among others, jaguars have lived perfectly adapted since they first appeared in this continent.
Today, however, this powerful predator has disappeared from more than half of its original range and is rapidly declining in the regions in which they have survived to this day. Habitat loss, fragmentation and overhunting, have contributed to place the jaguar among the most endangered species in Mexico and in most of its entire range.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States-Mexico borderlands where, within one human lifetime, the unique American jaguar has been virtually eliminated from its entire U.S. range. The last resident animals were hunted in Southwest U.S. more than sixty years ago. While individual jaguars continue to be documented in the mountains of Southern Arizona and New Mexico, these are dispersers from the nearest surviving population in the northern Mexican state of Sonora near the confluence of the Aros and Yaqui Rivers, just 120 miles south of the international boundary.
This unique ecological area hosts between 70-100 jaguars, as well as numerous other rare species including ocelots (Leopardus pardalis), military macaws (Ara militaris), lilaccrowned parrots (Amazona finschi), bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), Neotropical river tters (Lontra longicaudis) and Gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum), among others.
Jaguars are, along with mountain lions (Puma concolor), the top predators in the area and their natural prey include white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), javalina (Tayassu pecari) and hares (Lepus callotis). Unfortunately, the main productive activity in the area, the cattle ranching, has supplied them with an additional prey: cows.
Occasional cattle killings have increased the rejection to jaguars and mountain lions and has moved some ranchers to kill them in spite of being an illegal action (jaguars are protected by law in Mexico but there is almost no law enforcement on the ground).
Within the last four years, at least 27 jaguars, including females and kittens, have been killed by ranchers and poachers – as much as one-third of this small but critical population. It would be a shame to allow the total extermination of these magnificent predators and lose this unique population, the jaguar of the desert.
Strategic efforts are underway to stem these losses, to recover jaguars throughout a significant portion of their historic range and to conserve the unique biological diversity of this threatened borderland ecosystem.
Naturalia, A.C., a Mexican conservation group, has decided to work for the preservation and recovery of the desert jaguar. To accomplish this goal, Naturalia has partnered with several American conservation groups, including the Northern Jaguar Project, Defenders of Wildlife and the Wildlands Project, to accomplish this by building local support for conservation, acquiring strategic ranches to protect jaguar habitat, minimizing predator/livestock conflicts and implementing programs which will change the local community’s perception of the jaguar from a liability to an asset.
Our long- term goal is to recover jaguars throughout a significant portion of their historic range by expanding this population in Mexico and by preserving habitat connectivity for dispersal and re-colonization into appropriate areas in the U.S. Recovering the American jaguar in the U.S. depends on protecting the last remaining population in northern Mexico.
In July 2003, Naturalia purchased a ranch in the core area used by jaguars, establishing a foothold in the community for conservation. From this area, we’ll continue our work to preserve the biodiversity of the area and look for productive alternatives for the local community. This way we hope to find a way to build a tolerant attitude toward jaguars and increase community acceptance for them and support for its conservation.
To save the desert jaguar is a challenge that offers an opportunity for bi-national collaboration and a hope to maintain the vital role of this magnificent creature in the North-American desert.