Predators Among Us: Protecting the Homes of Colombia’s Cats

Valeria Boron, Ph.D.

Jaguars have always fascinated me. They are powerful and elusive, but unfortunately declining due to habitat loss, poaching, and overhunting of their prey. This is why, for my Ph.D. with the University of Kent and Panthera, I decided to research the jaguars and other cats that reside in Colombia’s agricultural regions. With this new study, just published in Oryx, we hoped to gain insight into what they need to thrive in human-dominated landscapes.

Most jaguar studies take place within national parks, but I took a different approach. More than half of jaguar range extends over unprotected areas, which are often populated by humans and threatened by agricultural expansion. These spaces are important for animals to move between protected areas, which gives individuals from different populations the chance to interbreed and keep the gene pool healthy.

To understand how jaguars and other cats use these agricultural landscapes, such as cattle ranches and oil palm plantations; I, along with a team of six research assistants and field guides, withstood scorching temperatures (above 40°C/104°F), high humidity, and relentless mosquitoes to set about 50 camera trap stations across an area of 150km2.

Our days consisted of early-morning motorbike rides and treks across muddy, flooded areas—not quite as comfortable as life in a university office. But finding jaguars and other cats on camera trap photos has made it all worthwhile! Even with so many people around these landscapes, we recorded 12 jaguar individuals in just five months, as well as pumas, ocelots, and jaguarundis. We were surprised to find that many jaguars and lucky to capture several mating events on video!

After collecting the images, I wanted to determine which habitat features best explained the cats’ use of space. I combined camera trap records with land cover data and discovered that wetlands were key for jaguars. This makes sense: As their terrestrial prey seems increasingly scarce, they likely depend on the wetlands’ abundant caimans and turtles to survive. Pumas preferred forested areas and proximity to streams and water bodies. This is likely because, in addition to providing dispersal routes, riparian forests are among the last habitats to disappear in agricultural landscapes.

Among the four cat species, only ocelots were recorded in oil palm areas, albeit rarely. Ocelots and jaguarundis are considered relatively tolerant of human disturbance, as they depend on smaller prey and rodents common in areas of high human influence. However, analysis of livestock pastures suggested a strong, negative effect on the presence of ocelots and jaguarundis—the small cats may not thrive in those areas.

Contrary to what we thought, oil palm did not have a strong effect (either positive or negative) on how the four cats used the landscape. We believe this is probably because oil palm is still limited to only 20 percent of the landscape. Based on the results of recent studies in Southeast Asia and Colombia, we predict that if oil palm plantations were to take over the entire area, there would likely be very little wildlife left.

We also investigated spatial interactions and concluded that these four cat species do not avoid each other, but rather strongly overlap. This coexistence could be facilitated by different prey preferences and periods of activity. Thus, conserving these species simultaneously seems possible—even in modified landscapes.

I hope that our work will help inform land use planning and strategies to reconcile felid conservation with anthropogenic development. Pasture is the main land use in Latin America, and it has limited conservation value for felids in the region. Our research suggests that further agricultural and oil palm expansion should occur on pastures rather than on the wetlands and forests important for jaguars and pumas. This is a recommendation that we can pass on to local landowners, like Panthera’s Jaguar Program is doing in several countries, to make agricultural landscapes more wildlife-friendly.

As agriculture continues to expand across the tropics, I hope better land use planning and good agricultural practices will ensure the survival of all four of these wonderful wild cats.
If you would like to read more about this study, the paper Conserving predators across agricultural landscapes in Colombia: habitat use and space partitioning by jaguars, pumas, ocelots and jaguarundis, is now freely available until 29 October 2018 in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

To learn about Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative, click here.

Check out the Journey of the Jaguar, our scientists’ three-year adventure to secure the ancient path of the jaguar through Latin America.

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