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a jaguar almost camouflaged
Nayarit, Mexico

Jaguars Versus Shrimp

Amid the darkness of night, a scene unfolds in the La Papalota reserve on the Mexican Pacific coast in Nayarit state. A female jaguar and her cub are engaged in play, with no one to witness the spectacle. Only the almost imperceptible click of an automatically activated reflex camera interrupts the action.

The resulting image shows the animals frozen in time, the cub’s paw resting on its mother’s back. The beautiful portrait captured by the hidden lens of a camera trap may appear to be the product of sheer chance. But it is not.

A female jaguar and her cub in a mangrove forest at night. Credit: Víctor Luja
A female jaguar and her cub / Credit: Victor Luja.

The image results from the obsessive efforts of Victor Hugo Luja, a professor and researcher at the Autonomous University of Nayarit, who has documented the lives of jaguars in this protected area of just 368 hectares for almost fifteen years. It won first prize in the Mangrove Action Project’s 2020 photography contest. 

"The image is the product of at least three years of trying,” says Luja. “I tried and tried for the image, visualized it in my mind before taking it, and it turned out much better."

Beyond its artistic value, the snapshot is scientifically noteworthy. It is atypical in that it shows jaguars in a mangrove forest, the ecosystem forming an interface between the land and sea. Jaguars here have surprised scientists by finding space in the mangroves to move, hunt, and reproduce. However, a threat is silently advancing, preying on a habitat already under significant pressure: it may seem antithetical to nature, but that threat is shrimp.

Following the jaguar's trail

La Papalota reserve occupies land in the villages of Toro Mocho (Municipality of Santiago Ixcuintla) and Boca del Asadero (Municipality of San Blas). The region has been historically affected by tobacco cultivation and is today impacted by livestock and agriculture, but it has managed to preserve various ecosystems. Located at the mouth of the Santiago River in the Pacific, this small reserve still has mangroves, forests, and grasslands rich in biodiversity.

Luja arrived there in 2010 to study amphibians and reptiles. However, after finding numerous jaguar tracks, his curiosity soon shifted towards the behavior of these big cats. "It was a big surprise to detect not just one jaguar but several individuals in such a small reserve," he recalls.

The biologist and his team began to monitor the jaguars systematically using tools including camera traps and GPS collars. This effort has increased understanding of the distribution and behavior of jaguars in western Mexico. It also highlighted the crucial role of small reserves in conserving biodiversity — the remarkable density of jaguars in the region, at six and ten individuals per 100 square kilometers, is comparable to that in Mexico’s largest reserve with jaguars, Calakmul on the Yucatán Peninsula.

"The small reserve [La Papalota] functions like a core area, where jaguars return every nine or ten days because they have water, hiding places, and food,” says Luja. 

The researchers have also discovered that the reserve is an ideal refuge for pregnant females, says Mauricio Cortés Hernández, the regional coordinator of Pronatura Noroeste in Nayarit and Jalisco.

La Papalota's small area of high biodiversity serves as a ‘bridge’ that connects with the Marismas Nacionales Biosphere Reserve. The reserve, spanning almost 134,000 hectares along the Pacific coast, encompasses 15 to 20% of Mexico's mangrove ecosystems, according to the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas.

But the wetland faces tangible threats, which Luja has observed: "We have witnessed the urbanization of areas where jaguars had previously been recorded and the expansion of roads in zones that were habitats for these cats."

Luja's primary worry is the expansion of the shrimp farming industry. The region's ecosystem greatly supports this activity, which started in the 1990s and has seen a significant increase lately. "Seeing a new farm emerge with each visit to that area and a mangrove vanish is concerning," he says.

The shrimp boom

Mexico's shrimp production in 2023 has solidified its status as the second-largest producer of captured and cultivated shrimp in Latin America and the seventh globally, per preliminary data from the fisheries and aquaculture sector. The country's prominence in shrimp production is evident, surpassing 200,000 metric tons in 2021 with approximately 80% being farmed, according to the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fishing (CONAPESCA).

Nayarit is a small state but is crucial in farming white shrimp (Litopenaeus vannamei), particularly in municipalities such as San Blas, Santiago, Rosamorada, and Tecuala. Damián Pablo Rosas, a biologist and coordinator of health projects in the Aquaculture Health Committee of Nayarit, says the state’s production has stabilized at 15,000 tons annually.

This abundance comes with a high environmental cost. The impacts include mangrove deforestation and land-use change to create shrimp ponds; water pollution due to the use of antibiotics, pesticides, and fertilizers to maintain conditions in the ponds; and soil salinization due to changes in water flow patterns in mangroves, which can cause saline water to intrude into surrounding soils.

Agriculture and shrimp farming is encroaching on jaguar habitat / Credit: Victor Luja. 

Environmental degradation has been extensive because of the industry's excessive and disorganized growth in Nayarit. Research published in 2022 by Luja and his team in a paper called ‘Jaguars in the Matrix’ quantified recent changes in land use in the two villages where the La Papalota reserve is located. Between 2009 and 2019, agricultural land increased from 39% to 50% of the total area. Mangroves decreased from 35% to 25%. The replacement of mangroves by infrastructure and land-use change signals what Rosas recognizes: "The carrying capacity of aquaculture crops in Nayarit is at its limit."

This is nothing new for the environmentalist Iván Restrepo, director of the Ecology and Development Center. A decade ago, he warned in an article about the environmental damage of shrimp farming. At the time, shrimp farms were advancing with support from local authorities and institutions such as the World Bank "under the pretext of promoting aquaculture, creating jobs, and obtaining foreign exchange from shrimp exportation," wrote Restrepo.

Today, Rosas confirms that little has changed, pointing out that only 60% of the farms comply with federal regulations. The most urgent issue, he says, is that "there is no specific state law to regulate the farms.”

The situation is similar in neighboring states such as Sinaloa and Sonora, both major shrimp producers. David González of the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana—Iztapalapa analyzed satellite imagery and showed that, between 1993 and 2022, the area covered by shrimp farms increased from 8,367 hectares to approximately 125,000 hectares, an increase of 1,400%.

The predator under siege

The prize-winning photograph by Víctor Hugo Luja shows a mother called Janis, a jaguar distinguished by a J-shaped mark on her shoulder. Before she was captured in the iconic image, she was already a reference for the conservation team, which had studied her since 2015. "She has been fundamental to our research," explains Luja. We have compiled about 230 photographs of her, which have allowed us to observe her interaction with other jaguars, as well as to have evidence of her pregnancies."

These records are vital for biologists, as they provide information not only on an individual's health and behavior but also on the general state of the ecosystem. As the jaguar is the largest feline in the Americas and a top predator, its well-being directly indicates the environment's health. If the jaguar thrives, the wider ecosystem must be in fairly good condition.

However, the impact of aquaculture’s expansion into jaguar habitat is tangible, says Mauricio Cortés Hernández, Regional Coordinator of Pronatura Noroeste in Nayarit and Jalisco, who has observed a significant change in the jaguars' movement patterns. 

"Five or six years ago, jaguars took refuge in the mangroves and now, with two farms, those natural refuges have been drastically reduced," he said.

This change in the landscape is just one of the many challenges the felines face. Gerardo Ceballos, a researcher at the Institute of Ecology at UNAM and a prominent advocate for jaguar conservation in Mexico, recalls “the massive hunts” in the mangroves of Nayarit in the last century.

However, Ceballos emphasizes the jaguars' remarkable resilience. "Despite habitat loss, the conservation of 'small spots' of mangrove and tracking via GPS have shown movements of up to 12 kilometers, demonstrating the jaguar's capacity for adaptation and survival in an increasingly hostile environment," he says.

In this context, the reserve where Luja works plays a crucial role in conserving the jaguar. According to Ceballos, the area's connection to the Sierra Madre is a corridor facilitating movement between the jaguar populations in the southern part of the country and those in Sinaloa and Sonora. However, "if we continue with the habitat predation, the coastal connection will end up completely fragmented," Ceballos warns, emphasizing the pressing need to preserve these ecological corridors.

Illegality, the true predator

Many of Nayarit’s 980 shrimp farms not only lack regulation but, according to anonymous sources consulted for this report, some are also laundering money from criminal activities. This exacerbates the social and economic problems of the entire region and hampers conservation work.

This situation challenges environmental governance, creating a virtual no-man's land. However, the extent of illegality needs to be clarified. The National Commission of Aquaculture and Fishing (CONAPESCA) has yet to respond to requests for information about regulated farms and their surveillance procedures. It also failed to respond to repeated requests for interviews with its technicians working in the area.

Despite the authorities' silence, experts agree that effective regulation is urgent. Mauricio Cortés, Regional Coordinator of Pronatura Noroeste in Nayarit and Jalisco, emphasizes: "It is the responsibility of the Mexican State to regulate, sanction, and be super vigilant."

Valeria Towns, director of Conservation of Pronatura Noroeste, highlights the need to balance productive activity with environmental protection and suggests certification processes for farms that mitigate their environmental impact.

Luja is concerned about the lack of effective collaboration among communities, economic sectors, and authorities in the fight against mangrove deforestation.  

"Despite recent interest from Semarnat [Mexico’s environment ministry], we continue to face a lack of response and concrete support," says Luja, who points out the legal complexity and links to narcopolitics. "Our efforts to denounce illegal activities such as mangrove logging and drug trafficking have not had the desired impact."

Víctor Hugo Vázquez Morán, director of the Marismas Nacionales Biosphere Reserve about 100km north of La Papalota on the Pacific coast, believes there is still time to save the region's jaguars through awareness-raising and collaboration with communities. He says a critical success in the reserve he oversees has been "zero tolerance for the construction of farms that have not undergone an environmental impact statement", adding that the regularization process has been challenging but vital.

Unhappy ending

Luja is less optimistic: "I don't want to sound catastrophic, but I don't think we have another eight years to act and try to mitigate this."

The fate of Janis, the mother jaguar in what Luja calls the “studio-like” image he captured, has shaped his perspective. Forced to seek new routes due to fragmentation of her habitat, Janis died after being hit by a car on a road late in 2020.

"It was a great frustration,” he recounts sadly. “Because we were precisely trying to place speed bumps and signs that surely would have been enough to prevent her from being run over, at least in that event."

For Luja, the death of the jaguars was a hard emotional blow and an incentive to continue the fight: "It was something quite sad that at the same time served me as fuel to say: I want this to be preserved and for it not to happen again."

Iván Carrillo produced this story with a grant from EJN’s 2024 Reporting Fellowship. It was first published in Spanish in El Universal on 15 April 2024. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: A jaguar in La Papalota reserve / Credit: Víctor Luja.