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Keeping an eye on the cat

Researchers mobilize to increase the jaguar population in the Atlantic Forest by 20% in five years

America's biggest cat: low genetic diversity and threatened by intensive hunting

ADRIANO GAMBARINIAmerica’s biggest cat: low genetic diversity and threatened by intensive huntingADRIANO GAMBARINI

From Atibaia (CF) and Campinas (RZ)

Veterinarian Ronaldo Morato plans to go out soon looking for jaguars—in May, if possible, when the early-year rains have passed. His plan is to fit a special collar on five jaguars (onça-pintada) living in the forests of southern São Paulo State, so he can monitor their movements remotely and find out their favorite habitats. The identification of high-priority conservation areas for these animals is one component of a plan, drawn up at a September 2013 meeting held in Campinas, to increase the population of jaguars—the largest felines in the Americas—in the Atlantic Forest, the forest environment where they are the most rare.

The plan is to reduce hunting, monitor the remaining populations, and use techniques such as artificial insemination and creation of an Atlantic Forest jaguar semen bank. Participants at the meeting held in Campinas—researchers from academia and representatives of companies and government agencies—recognized that concentrating the effort on a single ecosystem with short-term goals should make that job easier and increase the chances for the success of the plan. Brazil already has a national jaguar conservation plan, which was published in the Official Gazette in December 2010 and called for activities to continue until 2020. In a recent assessment, specialists confirmed that some of the goals had been met, and concluded that working separately in different Brazilian environments could be more productive.

“If we succeed in reducing the current pressures, such as hunting and forest fragmentation, that may already be enough to increase the population of jaguars in the Atlantic Forest,” says Morato, who heads Brazil’s National Center for Research and Conservation of Carnivorous Mammals (CENAP), at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. In his work space in a two-story building with wide glass windows and wooden beams near the Dom Pedro I Highway in Atibaia, he uses a computer to monitor the movements of eight jaguars in the forests of the northern Pantanal wetlands. On several occasions in the field, he has felt both fear and fascination in the presence of these felines, which can grow to as large as 2.7 meters in length and may attack when cornered. The first time was in 1992 when, as a recent graduate from veterinary school, he anesthetized a jaguar and helped other researchers place a tracking collar on the animal. He was still a trainee under biologist Peter Crawshaw, one of the pioneers in the conservation of wild felines in Brazil. “And I’ve never been able to let go of them since then,” says the 47-year-old Morato.

“We have to work together and believe that the plan will work,” he points out. Reducing hunting and fragmentation, as he proposes, will require the ongoing attention of the environmental monitoring agencies of the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo and Bahia, the area over which the Atlantic Forest extends. Hunting, either to obtain and sell skins or as retaliation when jaguars attack livestock, is still a frequent practice throughout Brazil, even though it is prohibited and classified as a nonbailable crime. In 2013, Morato and Elildo Carvalho Jr., another CENAP researcher, in collaboration with the Pro-Carnivore Institute, confirmed that at least 60 jaguars (Panthera onca) and cougars (Puma concolor) have been killed by hunters in the past two years, based on information from 100 managers of environmental conservation units administered by the Brazilian federal government. It is estimated that 5,500 representatives of this species are hiding in the Brazilian forests, mainly in Amazonia and the Pantanal. Nevertheless, jaguars are considered to be in jeopardy of extinction due to population decline.

At the September 2013 meeting in Campinas and in a letter published in the journal Science in November of that year, researchers from several institutions in Brazil warned that without any action taken, the Atlantic Forest could be the first Brazilian forest environment to lose this feline species. In that area, the jaguar is already classified as critically endangered. Estimates indicate that the Atlantic Forest is home to only 250 jaguars, a number considered too low for population maintenance. In addition to the small number of animals, another problem is low genetic diversity. Studies by the group led by Eduardo Eizirik of the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC) in Rio Grande do Sul have indicated that the 250 animals are the effective equivalent of only 50 genetically distinct individuals as a result of interbreeding.

Jaguars occupy only 7% of the total area of the Atlantic Forest. If there were more animals of this species—and also a larger supply of their favorite diet of white-lipped peccaries, a wild boar species heavily hunted for its meat but unwelcome because they run in packs and destroy crops—the occupied area could be three times as large, according to research by the group headed by Mauro Galetti of the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp). Their research indicated that the lack of jaguars, which are predators at the top of the food chain, can result in several types of ecological imbalances, thereby enabling herbivorous animals such as tapirs—or even rodents—to proliferate freely, or promoting the growth of grasses and other low plants instead of trees.

The region of Boqueirão da Onça

CLAUDIA B. CAMPOSThe region of Boqueirão da Onça CLAUDIA B. CAMPOS

Valéria Conforti, a professor at the University of Franca (Unifran), says that she felt optimistic after the September meeting in Campinas. “Everyone was shocked at the situation of the jaguars in the Atlantic Forest and showed a willingness to take risks and test what we think might work,” she observed. One of her plans for this year is to test jaguars kept at zoos in São Paulo State, using an artificial insemination technique that she employed experimentally in female domestic cats and other felines at the Cincinnati Zoo. The method consists of measuring hormonal changes in female jaguars through fecal analysis, identifying the most appropriate time, inducing ovulation and then artificially inseminating the animal by depositing semen via laparoscopy into the uterine tube instead of the uterus, as is already being done, to make it easier for the spermatozoa to reach the ovum and increase the chance of fertilization. Artificial insemination has been used in other felines, but not yet in jaguars. If the tests work, Conforti plans to use this technique on free-living animals in 2015, as a way of increasing the probability of producing healthy offspring and avoiding the risk of interbreeding among related animals.

Transferring animals from one forest to another is a possibility under consideration for repopulating the forests with jaguars. It is, however, an alternative that involves high cost and many obstacles, and requires the support of rural communities and ranchers who will accept the presence of a jaguar near their houses or pastures. A number of studies, such as one by biologist Sílvio Marchini, a researcher at the School of Amazonia and the University of São Paulo (USP), have shown that the support of residents of rural areas near forests occupied by jaguars is key to making action plans work. In the Pantanal, a pilot experiment by CENAP in partnership with an inn has bolstered the argument that profits from tourism built around jaguar-watching could exceed the cost of losing a head or two of cattle.

There are stories of successful transfers of felines in the United States and Spain, but in Brazil the few attempts to date, in forests about to be covered by hydroelectric reservoirs, have failed. The transferred animals did not adapt. They started eating cattle, were killed by hunters or returned on their own to their original habitats dozens of kilometers away. In one of the discussions at the September meeting in Campinas, researchers observed that in the next five years, the creation of connections, or corridors, between forest fragments may be a more viable alternative than artificial insemination or transfer of animals for increasing the jaguar populations in the Atlantic Forest. Everyone agreed that the problem is urgent. “We can’t wait any longer,” Conforti says. The jaguar is already considered extinct in Uruguay and in the Pampa of southern Brazil.

Manuel Silva, a resident of the region of Boqueirão da Onça, Alessandra and daughter Sara (at left), Cailane Ferreira (in back) and Claudia Campos: a continuing dialogue

ALEXANDRE ANÉZIOManuel Silva, a resident of the region of Boqueirão da Onça, Alessandra and daughter Sara, Cailane Ferreira and Claudia Campos: a continuing dialogueALEXANDRE ANÉZIO

A well to save the jaguars

Feeling more apprehensive than when she faced the examiners on her doctoral committee, biologist Claudia Campos looked at the 50 backlanders in front of her in the church in the village of Queixo Dantas, in northern Bahia State, one Sunday afternoon in July 2012. Nervously but with a firm voice as she stood alongside friends Claudia Martins, Carolina Esteves and Alexandre Anézio, she suggested to the men that they build enclosures for keeping their goats and sheep instead of letting the animals run free in the Caatinga scrubland during the dry season and risk attacks by jaguars. The farmers reacted with questions about how they could leave the animals penned up without food or water if it hadn’t rained for the past three years. If they agreed, she said, they could build a well to draw the water needed to grow plants to feed the animals. Eight of them agreed to the plan.

The drilling of the artesian well was set for the end of December 2013. The plants that would provide the food for the goats would be planted soon afterwards and the new enclosures would be built beginning in February. If everything went well, the animals would have food throughout the year, as they do in other parts of the Northeastern backlands, and they would no longer need to graze on the native vegetation during the dry season, thus reducing the chances of encounters with jaguars. The residents kill them to prevent attacks on their livestock.

Campos arrived in Petrolina, Pernambuco, in October 2006 as a researcher with the Center for Research and Conservation of Carnivorous Mammals (CENAP), at the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation, a former arm of the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), to do an in-depth study of the geographic distribution and habits of jaguars in a 900,000-hectare area known as Boqueirão da Onça. When they saw the stranger arriving in a car with an IBAMA logo, the residents said immediately that they didn’t hunt any animals. After much conversation, she overcame their distrust. “They’re all tired of hearing the government talk about things that could help their lives, but then nothing happens,” she commented. “I’ve now visited 140 of the nearly 150 villages in the area.”

She gradually came to the conclusion that she would have to deal with the conflicts between residents and wild animals. In 2009, 76-year-old zoologist George Schaller, a world pioneer in the conservation of large carnivores and vice president of Panthera—an organization that supports that work in Bahia—traveled through the region and lent support to her theory, saying that it would be impossible to save wild animals without the participation of local residents. Campos estimates that 50 jaguars live in that area. She has not yet seen any of the animals, only their tracks during the daytime, but she senses them passing nearby when she has to sleep in the midst of the Caatinga. 

1. Use, habitat selection and jaguar movement in the Atlantic Forest and Caatinga biome: a comparative analysis (2013/10029-6); Grant mechanism Regular Line of Research Project Award; Coord. Ronaldo Gonçalves Morato – CENAP; Investment R$110,627.80 (FAPESP).
2. Noninvasive monitoring of ovarian function in jaguars (Panthera onca) via enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and characterization of the fecal steroid metabolites through high performance liquid chromatography (13/12757-9); Grant mechanism Regular Line of Research Project Award; Coord. Valéria Amorim Conforti – Unifran; Investment R$35,780.00 (FAPESP).

Scientific articles
CARVALHO Jr., E.A.R. de and MORATO, R.C. Factors affecting big cat hunting in Brazilian protected areas. Tropical Conservation Science. V. 6, No. 2, p. 303-10. 2013.
CONFORTI, V.A. et al. Laparoscopic oviductal artificial insemination improves pregnancy success in exogenous gonadotropin-treated domestic cats as a model for endangered felids. Biology of Reproduction. V. 88, p. 112.105353. 2013.