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Mar-17-2013 13:33printcomments

Jaguars, Ranchers, Loggers and Bureaucrats

“It’s a protected animal, but there’s nobody there to protect it except us” - Abner Rios, lifelong local resident


(LAS CRUCES, NM) - Last summer, Mexican rancher Abner Rios noticed a curious thing. Cows that were ready to give birth wandered off only to come back from pasture alone. “We began to notice that pregnant cattle were not returning with calves,” Rios told FNS. Months later, Rios estimated he had lost ten calves while his neighbors in the Costa Grande region of southern Guerrero state counted many others missing. A prime suspect in the mystery: Panthera onca, the majestic jaguar of Mesoamerican lore and legend.

Also a veterinarian by trade, Rios has seen the elusive cat, which is classified as an endangered and protected species in Mexico. He first spotted a large black specimen in the wild more than a decade ago. “We thought they were extinct, and I thought it would be the last one I saw, but there would be one more,” Rios said, adding that he recently observed what appeared to be a young jaguar.

Together with other rural residents, Rios and his sister Yadira reached out to authorities who might trap and remove any animal with a taste for beef. That’s when the frustration began, according to the siblings. Reconstructing a bureaucratic maze, Yadira Rios described a ping-pong like journey that had her bouncing between local, state and federal environmental offices, with one official disclaiming authority over the matter and directing her to the next one who would tell a similar story.

“There are dozens of institutions dedicated to environmental protection,” Rios said. “How is it that not one of them acts?”

By the end of last year, the Costa Grande ranchers were restive. In a New Year’s Eve letter sent to the federal Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) and the Federal Attorney General for Environmental Protection (Profepa), residents reiterated their wish to have a cattle-killing jaguar safely removed but warned that continued governmental inaction could lead to a less desirable solution.

“We have gone to state and local authorities but it seems nobody has the authority to act in this situation,” the residents complained. “It’s our intention to protect a cat species that is on the path to extinction, but if (cattle) losses keep happening and nobody helps us, we will have no other way out than by sacrificing the cat.”

More weeks passed.

In a February follow-up letter to Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre, Semarnat state delegate German Parra and other officials, the Costa Grande residents once again warned that popular sentiment for killing the presumed predator was persisting but held out hope that governmental intervention by “someone” would avoid such an end.

“It is worth pointing out that we did not know if this was about a puma or a jaguar,” the letter’s signatories wrote, “but one of the ranchers previously saw a jaguar cub and is sure that it concerns the cat that is so appreciated in Mexico not only for its environmental value but also for what it symbolizes to our ancestors,” In response, an official from the Guerrero state Profepa office wrote residents back apologizing for the confusion. Omar Eduardo Magallanes, assistant delegate for natural resources, clarified the legal responsibilities of both Profepa and Semarnat and offered to put residents in touch with individuals working with the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas who were responsible for jaguar protection. What’s more, Profepa could credential a jaguar “vigilance committee” when more local people became aware of the situation, Magallanes pledged.

According to the federal environmental official, the Costa Grande situation was related to the dispersion of the jaguar’s natural prey because of the removal of forest cover for pasture land, competition from human hunters for the same prey and the practice of some ranchers of leaving their free-ranging cattle subject to “the mercy of these little cats.”

A life-long resident of the region, Abner Rios contended that logging in the higher mountain zones was driving jaguars from their natural habitat and into closer contact with ranching communities in the lower elevations. After a local news story about the controversy was published last month, the affected Costa Grande residents finally sat down with Semarnat, Profepa and other environmental officials.

Yadira Rios was among those who attended the meeting. She later said officials discussed ways of properly managing cattle in jaguar habitat and emphasized co-existence with the predator since it is difficult to trap and relocate. The ranchers were also updated about the Mexican government’s jaguar protection work, and informed of an insurance fund connected to the National Rancher's Association that compensates for losses from predators.

As for the rash of possible predatory losses since last year, Rios said a surviving cow that was photographed with deep gashes in its side was determined to be the probable target of coyotes or dogs. Still, uncertainty prevails about other mysterious livestock losses, since jaguar markings and sightings have coincided with the problem, she said.

“We don’t know if it was a jaguar or a coyote or a (wild) cat,” Rios said. Plans for more meetings to educate rural communities about jaguars and cattle management are in the offing, she added.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how many jaguars remain in the Costa Grande of Guerrero. As in other regions of Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border states of Arizona and New Mexico where Panthera onca still roams, serious threats to the creature’s survival derive from poaching, deforestation, climate change, and human encroachment on natural habitat. Separate census counts of jaguars have been underway in Guerrero and other Mexican states where the animal still lives.

A recent report by two researchers from the Autonomous University of Mexico State, Angela P. Cuervo-Robayo and Octavio Monroy-Vilchis, estimated the loss of jaguar habitat in the Sierra Madres and Pacific coast of Guerrero could reach 2,000 kilometers during the next 24 years.

According to the researchers, 56 percent of the current jaguar habitat in the state is temperate forest while the remaining 35 percent is tropical deciduous forest. Cuervo-Robayo and Monroy-Vilchis proposed the creation of a new conservation area in Guerrero to preserve not only jaguars but 250 other species of “threatened vertebrates” as well.

“In this way,” the pair wrote, “the suggested habitat conservation may represent a local effort in Guerrero and will strengthen the biological corridor network for P. onca protection in Latin America.”

Paradoxically, it’s up to the ranchers and the people of the land to ensure the survival of the jaguar, Abner Rios said, “It’s a protected animal, but there’s nobody there to protect it except us,” he said.

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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