How to Save Jaguars at San Lucas

08/21/17
BY ALAN RABINOWITZ, PHD

Right now in Colombia, Panthera’s single biggest conservation priority is ensuring that our partner, the Colombian government, designates San Lucas—a key region of jaguar territory—as a national park.

Making this designation here will not only protect the incredible biodiversity of the region, but also provide clean water in a place where many of the waterways have already been highly degraded, plus economic opportunity for the people who live on its border. It will guarantee the jaguar and every other species living in San Lucas the highest level of protection.

The San Lucas landscape encompasses more than 2,600,000 hectares (about 10,000 square miles) of jungle that straddles Bolivar and Antioquia departments. It’s the single most important jaguar habitat in northern Colombia, and the only connection between the Darien jaguar population to the west, and the jaguars in the Catatumbo and the Llanos to the east.

A view of the area that would become a national park. Photograph by Ben Reeves

Not having an inviolate core area (national park) for the jaguars—and losing San Lucas to human development, deforestation, and hunting—could not only break the Jaguar Corridor that runs from northern Mexico to deep into the Amazon and beyond, but also destroy what is, in its own right, a stable core jaguar population in San Lucas.

On our recent trek, the lush biodiversity of the region was immediately evident. Within half an hour, we saw not one, but two different species of sloths (the brown-throated sloth and Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth)! These are usually some of the first animals removed by wildlife traffickers when they enter a new region, so their presence indicates a remarkably intact jungle ecosystem.

And it’s not just sloths. On the drive in, we saw a troop of the endemic and critically endangered cotton-top tamarins. And we know San Lucas also supports large and key populations of the critically endangered blue-billed curassow and threatened brown spider monkey, harpy eagles, and spectacled bears. It is truly a unique habitat that must be preserved, and it must be preserved properly, as a national park with a large buffer zone for sustainable, jaguar-friendly, and wildlife-friendly development. Economic development is an essential part of protecting the jaguar here.

Meeting some of the families in the San Lucas community. Photograph by Ben Reeves

When this park is created, it will not only help preserve the jaguar, the apex predator in Colombia, but also every species that lives alongside it, including the human beings who inhabit neighboring communities like Serranía, a town close to the San Lucas peak. San Lucas is the only source of good, clean water in this region, while other watersheds have been dangerously contaminated by illegal mining. The people of communities like Serranía know that by creating a national park to protect the jaguar, they are also protecting access to clean water for future generations of Colombians.

Alberto Pabón and Cristian Pabón, coffee growers in Serranía de San Lucas; Carlos Mario Wagner, a Panthera researcher; and local residents. Photograph by Ben Reeves

The park can also provide economic benefits. Serranía has been making a special effort to cultivate coffee in a jaguar-friendly way—avoiding pesticides and herbicides whenever possible, restoring forest where they are able, and planting other beneficial crops like avocados to shade their coffee plants. This not only helps the jaguar on its journeys through the coffee plantations—coffee and other campesino plantations serve as great buffer zones for the Corridor—but it also means the coffee itself is higher quality. A park would help regulate the rains and give this coffee business a boost.

There is no reason to delay designating San Lucas as a national park. As a protected area, it will be a natural legacy for future generations of Colombians, guaranteeing economic opportunity, clean water, and the preservation of the nation’s incredible biodiversity. Without San Lucas, the likelihood of extinction of the jaguar is increased immeasurably.

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