BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
Of all the predators in the world, it’s hard to deny that cats are some of the most effective and memorable carnivores. Almost every continent has at least one big cat roaming the forests, jungles, and savannahs. From African lions to Indian tigers, North American pumas to South American ocelots, the big cats command respect. Sadly, these awe-inspiring creatures are also among the most threatened animals and frequently top the list of most endangered species. Apex predators like lions and tigers require large territories and ample supplies of food, and as humans continue to spread across the world, there’s a lot less of both.
Even in North America, big cats are in trouble. The jaguar, for instance, may have enjoyed a recent surge in popularity as a sports car mascot, but these cats have roamed the jungles and woods of the Americas for many thousands of years. Long ago, they enjoyed a vast territory that stretched as far north as modern Las Vegas. Their adaptability and ability to survive is based on their opportunism. Jaguars will hunt just about anything large enough to catch their attention; zoologists have observed them hunting deer, peccaries, large fish, and, since the advent of humans, non-native animals like cattle and sheep. These last two menu options have brought them into conflict with human ranchers, who generally opt to protect their flocks and herds with lethal force. Between their dwindling habitats and the increasing human populations, it doesn’t look good for jaguars.
Is there hope? This December, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) revealed a new plan to rehabilitate jaguar populations. Rounding up every jaguar and putting on some Barry White to encourage procreation is out of the question, of course, so how can we protect these species while also protecting ourselves? The answer: a lot of good old fashioned grunt work combined with some cutting-edge data collection.
FWS began their efforts by conducting an exhaustive study of all known jaguar observations and sightings in the northern hemisphere, from simple visual sightings to circumstantial evidence such as tracks or carcasses. The FWS pieced together a massive compendium of various sightings that ranged as far back as the 16th century to determine where the jaguars had once roamed. Taking into account the veracity and accuracy of the oldest accounts – which might include misidentified sightings of other animals – the organization sought to establish a large compendium that tracked the past and present range of the jaguar.
The project then examined potential jaguar habitats across the northernmost territories to find the best places for jaguars to live free of human interference. These new plots of land show significant support for jaguar populations south and north of the Mexican border. Even so, researchers are taking care to install some preventative measures to preserve the cats once they’re moved to protected lands. Most notably, these plots will include road crossing structures that will allow jaguars and their prey to make the trip across upcoming road developments without becoming roadkill themselves.
Active nature lovers can get involved and submit their own wild jaguar sightings, where they will be analyzed and documented to help provide support for this noble animal.