Crossing the Gap

07/29/17
BY HOWARD QUIGLEY, PH.D.

The Darien Gap is one of the most remote tracts of jungle and swamp in the world. It’s a morass of thick undergrowth and boggy ground so impenetrable that it draws its nickname, The Gap, from the fact that it is the only interruption in the Pan-American Highway–the great road that runs from Canada to the point of Argentina.

It’s an area rife with tropical diseases, brackish water, and stinging insects. Few humans live in this border region between Colombia and Panama, and those who do primarily occupy a series of small, teardrop-shaped villages along the coastline. I like to think of it as a mystical place, a place of almost untouched nature.

The remoteness of this region and the dearth of substantial human settlements or tourism make it ideal jaguar habitat. It is also key jaguar territory because it represents a bottleneck in the Jaguar Corridor that stretches from northern Mexico through the Amazon and into northern Argentina. Dispersing jaguars may travel hundreds of kilometers looking for food, comfortable habitat or mates, and having an unbroken corridor for them to move through safely, without dangerous interactions with humans, will be key to saving them from extinction.

Creating and maintaining this corridor of protected jaguar habitat, combined with hospitable human development, is Panthera’s primary goal in the Americas. The entire purpose of the Journey of the Jaguar is to better understand the reality on the ground at key locations along it. The Darien Gap is one of these key locations. It is not only the border between two nations—Colombia and Panama—but also the border between North and South America. It is an extremely narrow band of land, and any disruptions to it—for instance, a border wall or a surge in agricultural development—could endanger the connectivity of the entire Jaguar Corridor.

Thankfully, it is safe for now. Our visit on Monday revealed that, because the population is mostly settled in coastal villages, humans and jaguars for the most part coexist peacefully, rarely crossing each other’s paths. The Colombian Army and Navy, which operate in the region to secure the border and stop drug runners attempting to move north, keep a watchful but respectful eye out for jaguars. And in securing the border against human threats, the armed forces in the area actually help to keep the jaguar habitat secure.

On the Panamanian side, the jaguars are equally safe. This is an ideal scenario, but not every national border works so well. The border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua can be seen as a cautionary tale in this regard. While Costa Rica is internationally renowned for its comprehensive, national approach to conservation—it is the only nation in Latin America with legislated, protected wildlife corridors—Nicaragua is almost the opposite. While on one side of the border, the Costa Rican government is making heroic efforts to preserve vital jaguar territory, if one of these majestic cats wanders across to Nicaragua, its prospects plummet. The Nicaraguan government continues to promote the destruction of jungle for farming and ranching.

For now, jaguars passing between Colombia and Panama through the Darien Gap are safe from these sorts of dangers. Our hope now is to promote a small amount of ecotourism, enough to give those people who do live in the region an economic stake in preserving it as a pristine ecosystem and home for jaguars. It works in places like Costa Rica, and because of the remoteness and mystery of the Darien Gap, it could become a special destination for adventurous travelers wishing to commune with nature.

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