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Northern Jaguar Conservation

Zoo New England supports the Northern Jaguar Project, whose innovative work is mitigating conflict with ranchers and protecting jaguars across a wide swath of northern Mexico.

Jaguars Under Threat

The jaguar is a member of the big cat group that also includes the lion, tiger, and leopard. Although somewhat similar in look to the leopard, the jaguar is larger and heavier, and it has rosettes (open circular spots), as compared to the leopard’s solid spots. The jaguar is also only found in the Americas, while the leopard is only found in Africa and Asia. The jaguar takes a variety of prey, from peccaries and deer to tapirs and even caiman, relatives of the alligator. Their powerful jaws can easily crush turtle shells. When food is scarce, they will take cattle.

Found throughout Central and South America, jaguars are considered ‘Near Threatened’ with extinction. Although the jaguar is still fairly common throughout the South American tropics, it has disappeared from roughly half of its original distribution, which once included the southwestern United States.

In Mexico the northern jaguar population as long been highly threatened. Habitat is patchy and poaching of these big cats is quite heavy in the region. Only about 14% of Mexico’s land is considered suitable habitat for jaguars, and there are likely less than 5,000 of the animals left in the country. Cattle predation, or the threat of it, is probably the jaguar’s biggest danger, as ranchers will kill jaguars that they believe may threaten their cattle.

Northern Jaguar Program

Zoo New England supports the Northern Jaguar Project in northern Mexico, 125 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Although normally thought of as rainforest cats, jaguars can do well in arid scrub as long as there is cover, wild prey, and access to water. Here, jaguars move freely across a remote, rugged landscape that includes the over 56,000 acre Northern Jaguar Reserve, created by this initiative. Interestingly, due to its close proximity to the US border, the Northern Jaguar Reserve is a natural bridge for jaguars to return the the United States.

The Northern Jaguar Project helped create the Northern Jaguar Preserve in 2007. They are now also working outside the reserve with participating ranchers, who sign contracts not to hunt, poison, bait, trap, or disturb wildlife. This includes the area’s four wild felines – bobcat, ocelot, mountain lion, and jaguar – and the deer and javelina (peccary) they prey upon.

The project places motion-triggered cameras on ranch properties, and ranchers receive monetary awards for wild cat photographs, creating a monetary incentive to coexist with jaguars. The area under this initiative (called Viviendo con Felinos) now covers 125,000 acres, more than twice the size of the Northern Jaguar Reserve.

During a recent drought, staff assisted with water infrastructure and restoration projects, expanding the network of earthworks to slow stream flow, curb erosion, stabilize soils, and help re-vegetate habitat.

Prior to this program, a ranch owner would have instructed ranch hands to kill jaguars on sight. Today, ranchers and vaqueros are eager to contribute to the survival of these big cats. These reactions illustrate the value of this kind of community incentive to write a new conservation-oriented narrative, where people’s hearts are changing and big cats are finding safe places to thrive.