Satellite collars can save big cats in the wild, say biologists

Satellite collars, though possibly detrimental to their daily activities, can save the wild cats from being killed by humans, international big cat biologists say. Domestic animals are easy prey for a carnivore. Attacks on them often lead to retaliation the world over by locals.

"While documenting the diets of puma and jaguar using GPS (global positioning system) collars, we were notified many times that 'I would have killed a jaguar I observed, but I was afraid it may have had a GPS collar on it'," Ron Thompson and Ivonne Cassaigne, North America's most experienced big cat biologists, told IANS in an email.

Although satellite GPS collars are considered by many as being detrimental to an animal's daily activities, such comments from livestock operators are indicative that GPS collars can and do save jaguars, they said.

Thompson is the founder of and focuses on human-caused mortality of jaguars and pumas (mountain lions) in Mexico. According to him, GPS at a minimum can provide an investigative tool needed in any attempt to prosecute a person suspected of killing a jaguar.

Thompson is a co-author of a study titled "The Decline of a Jaguar (Panthera onca) Subpopulation in Sonora Mexico" that recommends that as many jaguars as possible be collared in Sonora and that the reasons for this be made public in the surrounding communities where jaguars are extant. This collaring effort should be combined with educational programmes and monitoring of the wild animals by hiring private security guards.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the jaguar is considered near-threatened across its range in the Americas. The study holds lessons for India, where the mortality of wild animals, especially tigers and leopards, is common. Tiger deaths have steadily gone up in India in recent years. At least 67 have died this year -- many as a result of conflict with humans, including poachers, a BBC report said last month.

Thompson, Cassaigne and four other researchers, who have been monitoring jaguars for almost a decade, identified 26 in northwestern Sonora during the study that began in 2009. Five to 10 jaguars were present at any point in time within the study area from May 2009 to March 2012. After that the researchers saw a steady decline in the number of sightings.

By June 2015, only one jaguar was detected. Between November 2016 and May 2017 not a single jaguar was spotted. During the study they documented the illegal killing of six jaguars. The deaths of four of these animals were documented through interviews. The killing of one jaguar was validated with GPS collar data and the examination of the burnt remains of the carcass.

"We detected a 24 per cent decline of the population by the end of March 2013. We were told by area ranchers that more jaguars were being killed in areas outside of the study area," the study says. Both GPS collared jaguars on the study site were killed, one probably by poison and one by gunshot, it says. Pesticides carbofuran and sodium monofluoroacetate, which are banned in Mexico but manufactured in the US, are being illegally used by ranchers to poison the predators.

Wildlife traps are illegal but sold openly in Mexico.

The researchers photographed a puma with a missing right front paw, possibly due to a leg-hold trap. Another biologist, Nuno Soares, Monitoring and Research Coordinator with Conservacion Amazonica, said the human-wild animal conflict arises from perceptions the people have of the jaguars. "We saw great improvement in terms of attitudes and tolerance of the locals towards the jaguars through community development. They now kill them rarely and they do it only because they fear for their lives and those of their families," Soares told IANS. His organisation has been working in Bolivia's Manuripi Reserve to strengthen the coexistence of the humans with wildlife.

Kimberly Craighead, co-founder of Kaminando and the Mamoni Valley Jaguar Project in Panama, believes there is need to address the illegal global trade of the jaguar, whose population is declining owing to deforestation, habitat loss and, of course, poaching. Citing cases of jaguar poaching, Craighead said that between April and June up to three jaguars were poached in the Mamoni Valley.

Biologists Soares and Craighead were in Cartagena in Colombia to attend the Society for Conservation Biology's International Congress for Conservation Biology last month when this IANS correspondent had spoken to them IANS news agency Special Correspondent Vishal Gulati, who is based in India, is an Internews' Earth Journalism Network Biodiversity Fellow. He attended the International Congress for Conservation Biology (ICCB2017) in Cartagena in Colombia. He can be reached at [email protected]

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