A jaguar caught on camera moving through an oil-palm plantation in Colombia. Image: Panthera

Last year, conservationists working for big-cat charity Panthera took a DNA sample from the scat of a very special jaguar in Pico Bonito, Honduras. That she was a four-year-old female cat, weighing in at an average 70 kilograms was not too significant. More important was her DNA. It matched the DNA that the same conservationists had taken from the scat of a younger, male jaguar in another territory ... over sixty miles away.

Here was the evidence the conservationists had been looking for: jaguars from the two territories were breeding ... which also meant they were moving between the two sites. It was proof that the cats were using the special jaguar corridors that Panthera had been fighting to establish for so long.

The organisation's carefully planned conservation strategy designed to secure the future of the Western Hemisphere’s biggest and most powerful cat was working.

"It's vital for their future that jaguars breed with others from different territories," says Howard Quigley, Panthera’s Jaguar program director.

If jaguars stay within small, isolated areas, inbreeding will follow. The offspring of genetically related animals are more likely to have congenital birth defects that make them weaker and more prone to disease. Quigley explains that it’s the interchange of genetic material that keeps a species healthy. "If jaguars stay in one area only, it will only take ten years of interbreeding before they go extinct in that area. The genetics allow us to say that this corridor is functioning."

“Here was the evidence the conservationists had been looking for ... proof that the cats were using the jaguar corridors that Panthera had been fighting to establish for so long.”

Jaguars were once widespread from the southernmost parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California all the way to eastern Argentina. These days, they live mainly in protected areas dotted around the central parts of South America and Central America. They’ve vanished from the northern, southern and eastern parts, and overall, from forty percent of their former range.

Jaguars are big animals and need large territories – 25 to 40 kilometres for females and up to twice that for males. That means they'll move outside of these core areas looking for food, territory and breeding partners. And that's where they run into trouble.

It's the usual story. Forests are cleared for agriculture and development, leaving less room for jaguars and their prey. Cats stray into inhabited areas, causing conflict with humans, trapping, hunting and rows between conservationists and commercial interests.

"Jaguars are in a similar position tigers were [in] a hundred years ago," Quigley says. He explains that although they've lost a big portion of their historical range, the cats are still considered abundant in some areas – but the threats to their long-term survival are there and need tackling, now.

This is where Panthera's Jaguar Corridor Initiative comes in. Jaguar corridors aren’t pathways through the forest, manned by cameras and guarded by wardens, along which jaguars can sneak, safely, at night. In fact, a corridor is any area where a jaguar can move, freely, without being harmed. A plantation, a ranch, even a backyard.

Jaguars are big animals and need large territories, and Panthera's jaguar corridors create much-needed links that connect the fragmented parts of the cats' habitat. Image: Panthera
Panthera has now established corridors throughout the jaguar's range, in 13 of the 18 countries in which the predators are still found. Image: Panthera

Panthera's plan is straightforward enough. Work out where the jaguars are, where they need to get to in order to reach other jaguars, and then work with locals in those areas to secure safe passage for the cats.

To do this, conservationists interview locals to identify jaguar movements and those of the jaguar's main prey animals, like peccaries, deer and tapir. Locals also provide valuable information about land use (current and planned), how people feel about living alongside jaguars and whether local interests might be amenable to working with conservationists to provide a safe haven for the cats. 

Next, Panthera conservationists draw up an action plan that identifies the key individuals and organisations whose cooperation will be needed to establish and maintain the corridor. Then, they conduct an extensive education programme, aiming to encourage key local decision-makers and stakeholders to support their efforts. A big focus is protecting the jaguar's natural prey, so that the cats are less likely to prey on livestock. Panthera experts also help ranchers to make their livestock pens jaguar-proof.

Panthera has established corridors throughout the jaguar's range, in 13 of the 18 countries in which the predators are still found. They estimate that thousands of jaguars use the corridors every year, and knowing more about the cats' movements makes it easier for Panthera to target other important aspects of its conservation work.

"When we know where the jaguars are, we can use camera traps and DNA analysis of their scats to find out more about their behaviour and predatory habits in those parts," Quigley explains.

This is information conservationists urgently need. Prove scientifically that jaguars eat peccaries, not cattle (and certainly not children), and there's a chance that locals will stop seeing these cats as a threat over time, reducing direct hunting and trapping. Then, perhaps, this beautiful feline predator will have a good chance at long-term survival.

Top header image: Bart van Dorp, Flickr