A Critical Connection

by Alan Rabinowitz, PhD

I’m excited about our trip to Colombia. One of the three anchor points of the Jaguar Corridor (along with Mexico and Brazil), Colombia is a connection between all jaguars in Central America and points north and all jaguars in the Amazon and South American populations.

We’re heading to the most important piece of real estate in this vital corridor–San Lucas, which we’ve been working to establish as a national park for eight years. It’s a delicate negotiation, with deep political, economic, and human rights implications that need to be considered alongside its critical environmental ones.

We’ll meet with campesinos, local people farming coffee and cocoa on the edges of the protected area who will be critical to maintaining the corridor there, and visit an oil palm plantation in the nearby Magdalena Medio through which jaguars also must be able to pass.

With each visit to San Lucas, we both better understand the complexities of defining the park and what we need to do to accelerate the process. Working with our local partners, we hope to finally push it over the finish line this year.

But first, we’ll explore the Darien’s mangroves, where jaguars ply the saltwater mangroves in habitat unlike any other in their range in South America. A few years ago, jaguars here killed several people in a cluster of rare, apparently unprovoked attacks, and we were called in to help. I’ve seen this behavior before with tigers in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. I hope to bring some of that insight as we learn more about why these attacks occurred and discuss a follow-up conflict-prevention project here.

Next, we’ll visit the remote Darien Gap, on the border with Panama. The conditions that make this place so difficult for humans to traverse (and, for now, also difficult to develop) is what makes it perfect for jaguars. It also makes it perfect for conducting illegal activity under the dense cover that allows movement across the border to take place undetected. We’ll hike up a mountain to heavily fortified army posts, and get a sense of the challenges to cross-border conservation.

Our visits to the Darien’s secluded coastal villages and San Lucas’s farm communities will help us to understand one of the biggest challenges we face along the Jaguar Corridor: how to help people living on the very edge of subsistence co-exist with jaguars.

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