In Costa Rica, photographing jaguars to help save them

In Costa Rica, photographing jaguars to help save them

In Costa Rica, photographing jaguars to help save them

About 650 feet from the buildings of a remote eco-lodge in southern Costa Rica, an automatic camera last year shot a picture of a passing jaguar, a spectacular big cat that is one of the country’s most endangered animals and the focus of strenuous conservation efforts.

The photograph is prized by conservationists who are collecting pictures of jaguars and four other big cats in an effort to monitor their populations and assess the health of the natural systems that support them in and around the biodiversity-rich Osa Peninsula.

Around 80 camera ‘traps’ are now in operation on 13 Costa Rica properties belonging to eco-lodges, ranches, conservation organisations and private individuals who are cooperating to create a more accurate picture of big-cat populations in an area that draws ecotourists from around the world. In its first two years of operation, the camera-trap network has helped conservationists understand that four of the big cats (puma, margay, jaguarundi and ocelot) are doing well in the dense tropical forests of Costa Rica’s Pacific coastal region but that the jaguar remains critically endangered within the region, and in the country as a whole, according to Osa Conservation, a nonprofit organisation that runs the camera-trap programme.

The last formal estimate of the jaguar population was in 2005, when about 50 of the animals were believed be living on the peninsula, according to INOGO, a joint US-Costa Rica conservation programme facilitated by Stanford University.

Although there are no precise numbers for the current population, there is little doubt that there are fewer jaguars than there were a quarter-century ago when biologists started monitoring them, said Juan Carlos Cruz Diaz, wild cat programme coordinator for Osa Conservation.

Strong numbers

Even with the increased surveillance provided by the camera traps, there have been few sightings. “That tells you a lot about the population status of them,” he said. “It has not been possible to do an estimation because we haven’t had the minimum number of pictures needed to run the model.”

Guillermo Mulder, a guide at the Lapa Rios Eco Lodge at the southern end of the 700-square-mile Osa Peninsula, said, “It’s safe to say there are between 10 and 20 jaguars left on the peninsula.” Guillermo, whose cameras have shot only one picture of a jaguar at Lapa Rios since the programme started, attributed the animal’s decline mostly to hunting by local farmers whose livestock are sometimes killed by the cats, and who see the jaguar as a traditional enemy. “They just believe the jaguar is bad, they kill your animals, they could kill you,” he said.

Stress on big cats, especially the jaguar, is increased by human hunting of their natural prey such as the peccary (a wild pig) and the agouti (a rodent) for food, making it more likely that the cats will attack livestock, Guillermo said. The rarity of the jaguar explains the excitement at Saladero Ecolodge, an isolated resort that can be reached only by boat from the eastern edge of the Osa Peninsula, when one of its own cameras photographed a passing jaguar on the evening of April 28, 2015.

As part of its effort to save the jaguar, Osa Conservation is trying to create a contiguous ‘corridor’ of territory on the northern shore of Golfo Dulce between the Corcovado and Piedras Blancas National Parks, to increase the amount of undisturbed forest that is available for the animals to roam. “Wildcats need really big territories to fulfill all their ecological needs,” Juan said.

The camera-trap network is bringing together naturalists and the eco-tourism industry in a way designed to benefit both, he said. “By supporting our initiative, they have information that benefits their business in ecological activities,” he said, “and provides a baseline for monitoring the population status of these species.”

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