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Meager North American jaguar population faces several risks

September 25th, 2008 by Eric Owen
Jaguars once roamed from Argentina to as far north as the Grand Canyon, but those that inhabited North America have now become isolated to roughly 70 square miles of rugged terrain in northern Mexico.
To promote their conservation project, Diane Hadley, president of the Northern Jaguar Project (NJP), gave a presentation entitled “Protecting the Jaguar’s Place” at Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters on Sept. 17 at 7 p.m.
Hadley said the region in which the jaguars live “is this little pocket of land surrounded by Río Aros on one side and the Río Yacqui on the other.”
NJP is a non-profit conservation group focusing on rehabilitating the jaguar population.
James Babbitt, the owner of the store that hosted the presentation, is active in many conservation and philanthropic projects in the northern Arizona area, said Keith Harris, a manager at Babbitt’s.
“I’ve heard about the jaguars, but I hadn’t heard about an organization buying land,” Harris said. “That’s super cool.”
“We do several slideshows here a year,” said Jerry Foreman, a manager at Babbitt’s and a part-time photography faculty member at NAU. “We love involving the community.”
Hadley said NJP is trying to identify and establish safe corridors for jaguars to return to their former habitats within the U.S., particularly in southern Arizona and New Mexico.
In 2004, NJP partnered with Naturalia, one of Mexico’s most active conservation groups, to purchase the 10,000 acre Rancho Los Pavos in northeastern Sonora, in Mexico’s state of Chihuahua. This land, which is roughly 120 miles south of the United States-Mexico border, became the core of what has grown to a 70 square mile Northern Jaguar Preserve.
“This breeding population of jaguars wasn’t even known to exist until 15 years ago,” Hadley said.
This discovery was made by Dr. Carlos Lopez, a research professor at the Universidad de Queretaro, while responding to rumors of jaguar spottings from small towns and villages along the border between Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. He investigated the areas and found these rumors had some truth behind them.
Much of the impetus for the project was provided by hunter Warner Glen’s photographs of a jaguar in southern Arizona in 1996, the first photographs of a living jaguar in the United States.
Over the next 10 years, two jaguars, named “Macho A” and “Macho B,” were intermittently spotted in the area before both disappeared.
Much of Hadley’s presentation focused upon her recent trip to the Northern Jaguar Reserve.
Along the trip from Sahuaripa to the preserve — part of which involved their truck being towed across the river by a tractor — the group Hadley was traveling with took a break.
“We counted 17 mountain ridges and counted not one electric light,” Hadley said. “The landscape is undeniably rough and that’s why the jaguars are still there.”
Although rugged, the area also supports a vast array of animal and plant life.
“We have very, very dense vegetation. Right now it’s impossible to get through… (It is) amazingly, amazingly rich in biodiversity,” Hadley said.
Some of the animals on the reserve include raccoons, opossums, ocelots, mountain lions, deer, bobcat, blackhawks, military macaws and jaguars.
“One of the threats to conservation in this area of northern Mexico is mining,” Hadley said.
Mining, particularly hydraulic mining, is harmful to the area’s ecological network.
Hadley said as part of one of her trips, her group was given an “over flight” of the region by a private pilot who took pictures of both the nearby mining operation of a Canadian company and the reserve for a Mexican environmental agency.
“She was horrified by how far the mine had developed,” Hadley said.
However, within a week of this flight, the mining company announced that it would close its operation in the region. Also, a group of marijuana farmers who saw the plane fled from the area.
Another major problem facing the potential restoration of the jaguar population is poaching.
“Hunting and poaching are very illegal, but they still happen because enforcement is very difficult,” Hadley said.
Furthermore, the common image of jaguars in rural Mexico is not a friendly one.
In her presentation, Hadley showed a bottle of bacanora, a Mexican alcoholic drink that is produced, usually illegally, from the agave plant. On the bottle was a picture of a jaguar biting into the neck of a deer.
“You can see the common image of jaguars here: it’s biting into and bloodying this deer,” Hadley said.
Don Alejandro, an 83-year-old rancher from whom the NJP bought their most recently acquired land, held this view of jaguars.
“He hated jaguars, he hated mountain lions and he instructed all his cowboys to shoot them on sight,” Hadley said.
Given this problem, NJP has taken up a re-education campaign among Mexicans living near the reserve.
“It has been amazingly successful with the kids, less so with the parents, and not at all with the ranchers,” Hadley said.
However, the NJP began a program called Fotos Felinos, in which ranchers are paid for the presence of living wildlife on their land, so long as a photograph of the wild animal is taken by a camera provided by NJP.
Hadley said she believed one of the biggest successes of the project was when a rancher got pictures of 10 ocelots with a camera. When NJP went to deliver the rancher his money, Hadley said the rancher’s son said to his dad, “Well, dad, I think you should buy some more of those cats with the money because they are a lot more valuable than the cattle.”
While the presentation was relatively casual — “It’s nice to get to give a talk with a beer in your hand,” Hadley said before the presentation began — it did bring a crowd of about 20 people.
“I just love animals,” said Mimi Ney, a Flagstaff resident. “Pretty much all of it was new to me.”
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