Outside his outpost, a Colombian Navy guardsman wakes from a quick nap to see a jaguar inches from his face. A scrap ensues. The cat bites the guardsman’s thigh, but the man defends himself with the butt of his rifle. In seconds, the jaguar disappears into the night. The man lives to tell the tale.
His story mentions how the big cat tried to eat him. But an expert called in to review the case, which took place at the end of 2012 on the Uraba Coast, where the Colombia jungle gives way to a gnarled mass of saltwater mangroves, isn’t so sure about that.
“If she wanted to kill the man, she would have just bit his head off,” says Esteban Payan, director of the Colombia jaguar program for Panthera, a big cat conservation group. “A jaguar could have broken his neck in a minute.”
Payan believes the clash was a freak occurrence. Sadly, other events that took place after this run-in—events that resulted in the deaths of two men and four jaguars—were probably not.
The following day, the same jaguar returned and attacked another sentinel, but this time she did go for his neck. The soldier’s helmet is likely the only thing that saved him. Others wouldn’t be so lucky. A few months later, in April, a jaguar fatally attacked a heavy machine operator cutting mangroves across the bay from the naval base. Then in May, a few miles from the base, a jaguar killed a fisherman collecting worms beneath a mango tree.
This behavior was highly unusual. Payan says jaguars almost never attack people unless provoked—actions that would include shooting but not killing the big cat, surprising it in the middle of mating, scaring the animal off a kill, or attempting to grab one of its cubs. (“That’s easily relatable to anyone,” says Payan. “You don’t mess with someone else’s kids.”)
Figuring out what was going on in Uraba was important for Payan because he is working on an ambitious project: the creation of a two-million-square-mile migration corridor for jaguars that spans 10 countries. Connecting wildlands between Argentina and Mexico would ease habitat fragmentation brought on by development and keep the jaguar gene pool diverse. But in order for the corridor to succeed, humans and jaguars will have to coexist relatively peacefully.
Panthera has a lot of experience managing conflict between big cats and people. In India, it builds predator-proof corrals to protect livestock from snow leopards. In Tanzania, it’s working on a program that rewards herders for tolerating lions instead of killing them, and similar projects are underway for mountain lions in Chile and leopards in Namibia.
Of course, a passage across the Americas is no small undertaking, and Panthera’s CEO, Alan Rabinowitz, has been laying the groundwork for some 16 years. In doing so, he and his group have won the support of countless local communities and governments—and people like the families and neighbors of those killed in Colombia.
“If you want to save jaguars and you want to reduce conflict, then you need to make sure people are happy with them,” says Payan.
There isn’t a lot of prey in Uraba for a jaguar, but Payan says the cats get by with hunting turtles, caimans, and the occasional goat snatched from the navy’s livestock holdings on a nearby peninsula. On the night of the first attack, the goats were safely penned, leading Payan to think the cat in question was seeking out other options when it stumbled on the sentinel. That scuffle, Payan figures, introduced the jaguar to the taste of human blood, which led to the subsequent and more serious attacks.
One of the fatal incidents occurred beneath a fruiting mango tree; these trees are known to attract small, fruit-loving prey animals like agouti and capybara. The mango tree also stood just 20 to 30 yards from the cat’s den. At the time, the jaguar had been nursing two cubs, something that requires a lot of extra calories. So she may have felt extra pressure to make a kill. And if the fisherman was collecting worms, he would have been crouched down in a vulnerable position, just like the first sleeping sentinel had been.
During the other fatal attack at the mangroves, a man came to investigate his friend’s screams. When he arrived, he saw two jaguars on top of the victim’s body. Payan suspects it was the female and one of her cubs. She had begun teaching her litter how to hunt people.
In areas where human and wildlife habitat merge, lives can be at stake in both populations. Only one cub was with its mother at the time because the community had already hunted down the other. In the end, the second cub, the mother, and an adult male jaguar would also be killed.
Although Payan has dedicated his life to saving these animals, he says removing these cats from the population was the right thing to do. “You can’t risk another human life when you’re dealing with that,” he says―not when you have evidence that a female is teaching its cubs that people are a meal option.
You might think an organization specializing in predator conservation would want to sweep such unsavory stories under the rug in order to protect other jaguars from vigilante hunters. Instead, Panthera is embracing the Uraba region and its conflict.
After the attacks took place, the group helped local communities erect solar-powered floodlights and barbed wire around their homes in order to prevent conflict. It also encouraged locals to make small changes in their lifestyles that would lower the chances of a jaguar encounter. Such measures include cutting down brush and trees that creep too close to homes and not traveling at night alone. In ranching areas, Payan has helped farmers raise a breed of cattle called San Martineros, which are descended from Spanish fighting bulls and more likely to stand their ground against an attacking jaguar. The idea is that any jaguar that tries to take one of these steers down will realize quickly that the prospect isn’t worth the injuries.
Managing human–jaguar coexistence takes finesse, says John Polisar, who coordinates the jaguar conservation program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, another group that works internationally to ease tensions between human and wildlife communities.
These cats live at extremely low densities—just two adult jaguars for every 38 square miles—so every conflict that ends in the loss of an animal can create a gap in the population. Polisar says, “This can completely eliminate smaller populations isolated in increasingly fragmented landscapes.”
In these situations, it’s crucial that conservationists look to ranchers and farmers as allies in the fight to save endangered species. In an approach similar to Panthera’s, WCS works across Latin America to help farmers make their herds less vulnerable to jaguar attack. The strategies can be anything from keeping cattle away from the forest edge to using new technology such as night enclosures and flashing electric lights.
“The objective is livestock operations that are so well managed that jaguars will never learn to take livestock in the first place,” says Polisar.
This month, Payan and several other members of Panthera’s team are traveling back to Uraba as part of its Journey of the Jaguar. It’s the beginning of a three-year tour aimed at raising awareness of the jaguar corridor. Other stops will include Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the Brazilian Pantanal, and the Sinaloa corridor on the Arizona–Mexico border.
As for that last one, yes, jaguars do still occasionally journey into the United States—remember El Jefe?—but that trip will become impossible if President Trump gets his ill-considered and offensive border wall.
“A higher, bigger, better border wall will make higher, bigger, and worse problems for wildlife, including jaguars,” says Howard Quigley, executive director of Panthera’s jaguar program.
Perhaps we’d all do well with a little more connectivity and understanding—jaguars and humans alike.
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