Coastal Jaguar Conservation
We caught up with Ian Thomson and Stephanny Arroyo Arce of Coastal Jaguar Conservation to talk about the importance of these magnificent cats.
What was it that inspired you to start Coastal Jaguar Conservation? What have been the main hurdles for you throughout establishing your organisation?
Originally a love of nature and a desire to actively take part in conservation efforts inspired me to travel to Costa Rica to volunteer and eventually become staff at a research station in Tortuguero National Park. After completing my contract with this organisation, and after discussions with a local scientist named Stephanny Arroyo-Arce who I had been working in partnership with we decided to found Coastal Jaguar Conservation and continue as independent researchers.
One of the main hurdles we have faced is due to the fact we work in partnership with other NGO’s and are often confused as being part of these organisations.
Jaguar sightings are quite rare in the wild, however working with them for so long, have you had any interesting or memorable encounters?
Seeing cryptic animals such as jaguars in the wild is a rare privilege and I have been fortunate enough to experience chance encounters with these amazing animals from time to time. The most memorable encounter was obviously my first, after setting up a camera trap on a predated leatherback turtle an adult male approached the kill to feed. Although the encounter was over in a matter of moments, it was an incredible experience and really hit home the feeling that in protected areas such as these, amazing animals like the jaguar are still going about their daily business.
Why do you believe it is important to conserve local jaguar populations, particularly in Central America? What are some of the main threat’s jaguar populations face, and what role do jaguars play in the local ecosystem?
The jaguar is an important umbrella species and its protection can be used to support the conservation efforts of many other species and habitats. Habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as the loss of prey species associated with this is the primary threat to jaguar populations. Secondary threats such as conflict with humans and illegal poaching for wildlife tracking also play an important role.
Once worshipped as gods, jaguars are often now feared. How are jaguars currently perceived by the public in Central America, and why do you think this is the case?
I may be biased in my perspective, but I do not feel that the vast majority of people locally or internationally fear the jaguar. In fact, the chances of interaction between the majority of the population and an animal such as the jaguar is very small. In my experience communities that border areas where jaguars are present take great pride in the presence of these animals and understand that they share these areas with these amazing creatures. Overall and especially in countries such as Costa Rica where ecotourism plays such an important role in the economy, the jaguar is viewed in a very positive manner. Conflict does occur in small numbers and is generally associated with livestock farming, but NGO’s such as Panthera and governmental institutes have been working for years to implement educational and support structures to negate any negative effects.
Recently there was footage released of a jaguar preying on pets in a small coastal town. Is this a common occurrence?
Not really, the area where occurs is where our project is based. Interactions such as these are the result of the availability of seasonal prey (in this case the green sea turtle) and can easily be prevented by taking simple steps such as keeping pets indoors during night time or not allowing pets to be unsupervised.
Coastal Jaguar Conservation has developed protocols for living safely with jaguars. How did you introduce the protocols to the general public? Did you carry out any kind of consultations with local groups on the protocols or were they developed entirely by CJC? With this in mind, were the protocols warmly welcomed or has it been difficult to gain support due to the overall perception of jaguars and their behaviour in Costa Rica?
The ‘Protocols of Conduct for Wild Cat Encounters’, were originally adopted by our partner organisations as part of the agreement to work under our projects umbrella. Following this, they were then approved by the Parks management ‘ACTo’ as a ‘Resolution’ making all persons entering the Park legally obliged to adhere to them. As part of the ‘Protocols’ development, we contacted several experts who’s work focuses on conflict between large cats such as the jaguar and humans to review them and provide feedback. The ‘Protocols’ are primarily based on our own experiences, but also draw from existing literature concerning encounters with large mammals. Regarding their implementation, initially there was some negative feedback from members of the scientific community who perceived them as an attempt to frighten people about the dangers of an encounter with an animal such as the jaguar. This was an incorrect interpretation of the ‘Protocols’ aims however, a reason for their development was to support conservation efforts in our study area by combating an alarming rise in habituation of human presence by the local jaguar population.
With your continued work with the local community since your establishment in 2012, have you seen a shift in people’s perceptions or willingness to live harmoniously with jaguars? Have you observed a difference in perceptions between adults and children?
In the area where we work we are incredibly fortunate that the local community is very proud of their jaguar neighbours. The areas primary economy is based around tourism, primarily people visiting to see the nesting sea turtles. As jaguars in this area predate sea turtles the projects goal has been to provide accurate information regarding annual predation rates to these communities and the Parks management. This we hope will support the communities continued positive perception of the jaguar.
What do you think the future looks like for jaguar populations, particularly those that live close to human populations?
As with many species, especially large mammals, threats posed by human are the primary reason for their decline. Current attitudes towards expansion and development across the jaguars’ geographic range are placing increasingly more stress on these animals and it will take a coordinated effort across this range to ensure the animals future survival. Many of these areas will have to make a determined effort to ensure the protection of the remaining natural habitats and identify ways that humans and wildlife can coexist. Costa Rica is an excellent example of how industries such as tourism can be used to support conservation efforts and mitigate these detrimental effects. In the 60s and 70s large areas of Costa Rica where protected as National Parks, these now support an Ecotourism trade which sees hundreds of thousands of people coming to the country from all over the world. When conducted in a responsible manner, initiative such as this can contribute greatly to conservation efforts. As in Tortuguero National Park where our project is based, every year people come to see the nesting of Green sea turtle on the Parks beaches. These activities are responsibly managed by both the Parks management and the local community. If other countries within the jaguar’s geographic range are able to implement measures such as these, it would go a long way to supporting conservation efforts for species such as this. Overall the jaguar is an amazingly adaptable animal and if we give it a chance I am sure it will thrive.
If people reading this want to contribute to jaguar conservation in some way, what can they do to help?
I think there are essentially 3 ways to contribute directly to the conservation of jaguars; you can volunteer with an organisation. Be fortunate enough to find a paying job in this area, although don’t expect to be getting paid too much, and finally by donating to an organisation that interest you and will use your donation responsibly. Indirectly, any little step you can take in your day to life to lessen your impact on this world finite resources will help not only the jaguar, but all the species and habitats under pressure.
I am curious as to how you are funded, I note that you are independent researchers, are you all volunteers? I can see you have a number of partners listed do you manage to gain funding for specific projects from these organisations or through government support for the information and direction you provide?
Essentially yes, we are all volunteers. We consider our project to be non-profit, we generate funds by grants or by charging fee for service to some of our partner organisations, we also receive donations from other partners.
How hard was it and how have you managed to get the Government Authorities to listen and work with you? What were the main frustrations and jubilations of this process?
We have been incredibly fortunate to have a great relationship with the governmental organisations we work with, namely the Parks management and they have been incredibly receptive and supportive of our projects work. The high points of this was the Parks management and implementation of our ‘Protocols of Conduct’ and the closure of an area of the Park to tourism, based on our recommendations which highlighted this area as important for jaguar conservation and should remain as undisturbed as possible.
Photos all courtesy of Coastal Jaguar Conservation.