Field Work & Departures

By Esteban Payán, Ph.D.

As we headed to the airport in Barrancabermeja, a city of roughly 200,000 people built up around a major oil refinery, I couldn’t stop thinking of the jaguar we saw on camera trap the day before.

That jaguar, walking along the trail, had not only traveled through an often inhospitable human landscape, but had done so without harming the rancher’s water buffalo. It didn’t kill the buffalo because this was a Panthera Antipredator Model Ranch with specially-designed anti-predator electric fencing. The whole reason we were visiting this ranch was to see the fencing in the real world, and we found actual evidence it was working on the frontlines where the fence meets the forest. Developing this sort of understanding of real world jaguar conservation efforts is the entire purpose of the Journey of the Jaguar.

The Panthera team has seen many jaguars on camera traps before, but it was nevertheless heartening to see that our techniques for protecting the creatures were working. And the excitement of our local partner, Professor Florez from Universidad de La Paz, as well as the ranchers was a testament to the cultural and social significance of having wild jaguars in Colombia, even so close to developed areas such as Barrancabermeja. When peaceful coexistence between people, livestock, and jaguars is achieved, the great cats become a point of pride for ordinary people.

As we boarded the airplane for Bogota, I was struck by the great diversity of landscapes and ecosystems we had explored during this first Colombian leg of the expedition. In the Darien, we discovered the importance of mangroves and estuarine beaches for jaguars. We climbed and swam along that pristine jaguar home on the border with Panama. In Cartagena, a tourist town largely devoid of any wildlife, we launched a new, comprehensive book of research on human-jaguar conflict to the world’s foremost experts on conservation biology at the International Congress for Conservation Biology.

The pinnacle of the Journey of the Jaguar was our trek through the San Lucas Mountain Range. We saw a thriving ecosystem and a key link in the Jaguar Corridor connecting Central and South America. And we saw the great potential of a national park in San Lucas. Already, the jaguars in these mountains are supporting economic improvement for impoverished communities nearby. By caring for San Lucas’ jaguars, local coffee growers are also improving the quality of their product and boosting their profits.

And finally, not far from this industrial city, we spoke with a conscientious oil palm grower who’s creating a home for jaguars and other wildlife in his fields. By limiting the hours of harvesting and the types of machinery he uses, he has helped give jaguars safe passage through his plantation. It is yet another instance of human industry and the needs of jaguars safely coexisting.

The Journey of the Jaguar expedition isn’t ending in Colombia, though. This is really just the beginning. Coming up in September, the team will be traveling to a very different part of the Jaguar Corridor: the Pantanal in Brazil. And they’ll get to see how jaguars, people, and industry live side-by-side there, what works, and what doesn’t. As we have always maintained: There’s no replacing field work when it comes to conservation biology. And what the team learns in Brazil will in turn help us work even better on behalf of jaguars here in Colombia.

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