Stories of co-existence
Of the genus Panthera, which includes the tiger, the lion, the leopard and the snow leopard, the jaguar is the only one that is still found in America, where ancient cultures worshipped it as a symbol of strength, power, and connection with the underworld.
Since ancient times, the jaguar has broken his solitary way of life only to mate. The rest of the time, it remains crepuscular and golden-eyed, using its powerful muscles to hunt much bigger prey. It remains the king of the jungles in the Americas.
In the Maya Forest, the most extensive tropical forest of Mesoamerica, covering parts of Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, lives the second largest population of jaguars on the continent. However, this population of jaguars face many threats. Hunting, collisions with vehicles, and a shifting agrarian border devastates its habitat and threatens this iconic species.
One of the main conflicts that endanger the jaguar's survival is the clash with cattle farmers. Contrary to popular belief, humans often encroach into jaguar habitat and, due to diminished resources, jaguars can attack cattle. Because of this, cattle farmers often kill the jaguar in retaliation, disrupting the delicate balance that hold the ecosystems together.
To address this, WWF focused on addressing the issue in the Maya Forest, considering that it is a critical stronghold of jaguars, and developed the tri-national conservation project, "Saving the Jaguar: An Ambassador for the Americas".
To promote human and jaguar coexistence, there are various interventions already in the place, such as installing electric fences to prevent predator attacks and increasing awareness about protecting biodiversity in the region. In Mexico, the WWF team is employing another method of turning cattle farmers into jaguar conservation allies; giving advice on how to file a claim for compensation of lost cattle with the Insurance Fund of the National Confederation of Livestock Organizations (CNOG), in case of predation.
Fernando Contreras is a biologist specializing in wildlife, who is working with WWF on jaguar conservation, and participates in several activities in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, in Campeche, which is protected by the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (CONANP).
"I started working in Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in 2018, through a project of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), then went on to a conservation project for the jaguar and, in 2020, I became part of the team at WWF,” shared Fernando.
"In Calakmul, I'm in touch with all the cattle farmers. We initially wanted to create model ranches that allowed better production on a smaller area. Then cattle farmers had to face the fact their animals became prey to jaguars. To address this growing problem, we began by protecting small groups of cattle and installing electric fences consisting of a solar panel, a power source, and several feet of conductive wire. We also identified the spots where jaguar attacks were common. Currently, I monitor predation events. When a jaguar attacks cows or sheep, I am the first responder. I verify the predatory attack and establish a link between the reserve and the farmer, easing access to the Insurance Fund." Fernando explained.
Margarita Martínez and Narciso Cruz are a local couple from the ejido, or common land, of Bel-Ha, in Calakmul. They manage a ranch where conflict with jaguars arose between 2019 and 2020.
"The jaguar is a very clever animal," explained Margarita, "it marks its territory and knows how to reach cattle with agility, and in silence. We had trouble with a particularly clever one; you couldn't even see it with the lamp. It killed big animals such as calves and horses. Usually, jaguars return to where they have attacked and fed. But not this one. It ate once and went to the next ranch."
"When this happened," continued Narciso, "we immediately sought help. We had already thought of an electric fence, but they are costly. Then Fer offered us one, and we delightedly accepted. The fence has worked perfectly."
Jacinto López, originally from Chiapas, settled in Calakmul almost 30 years ago. In 2015, he took an interest in sheep farming. His ranch, located at the ejido Nueva Vida, was working at a good pace until 2018, when jaguars attacked his cattle. Every two weeks, the toll of dead sheep reached between 5 and 15.
"Before Fernando, we didn't have anyone to help us with compensating our losses. When I met him, he supported me to write the Insurance Fund reports and provided an electric fence," says Jacinto.
The installation of electric fences not only preserves each rancher's cattle, but it also contributes to the conservation of the jaguar and, consequently, its habitat.
"I think we as a community, as an ejido, have a responsibility to preserve, because it's the jaguar's home, and we must respect that. Even though we practice cattle farming, we preserve the forest. The jaguar is the keystone. WWF has helped us find solutions to address the conflict in my ejido and the whole region. My perspective changed, and I even climbed the mountain to bring water to the jaguar, so that it can drink from large clay jars. They have a right to this land, we are the ones invading their home."
Jacinto got so enthusiastic after the experience that now he is a community technician and collaborates with WWF to respond to predation cases, install fences, and convince other cattle farmers to adopt them.
The work of WWF in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve doesn't limit itself to the fences and the necessary reports to collect the cattle insurance, as Margarita knows.
"We have been working for a year on workshops for the conservation of the jaguar, understanding that if we keep the habitat and its wildlife safe, it will benefit us. Without jaguars, we will lose other animals too. Where you find jaguar, you find deer, tapir, wild turkey, pheasant. For me, the jungle is like my home."
The initiative has even generated additional benefits. The arrival of solar panels for the fences brought electricity to the communities, which revolutionized their quality of life. Now there's a power supply for lamps, mobile phones, and refrigerators, which means that local also have light after the dark hours and can keep predators away.
Although it is necessary to involve more farmers and diversify strategies to prevent and mitigate conflicts, jaguar attacks have diminished by practically 100% in places with electrical fences, since they were installed. Cattle farming has significantly improved as well, and coexistence between humans and jaguars in this part of the Maya Forest starts to seem like an attainable reality.