Jaguars under threat in Brazilian Amazon; new study indicates priority sites for their protection

Jaguars under threat in Brazilian Amazon; new study indicates priority sites for their protection
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The largest felid of Americas — jaguar (Panthera onca) — already lost half of its historical distribution, which spanned from Texas to northern Argentina. Currently, jaguars only thrive in large remnants of habitat located in wildlands, while threats to this majestic species continue to increase. For the first time, researchers identified priority protected areas for the conservation of the species across the entire Brazilian Amazon.  The Amazon represents the largest stronghold for the species, holding 2/3 of its current range (~9 million km2), most of which is in Brazil. Brazil alone hosts over 50% of all wild jaguars.  Since jaguars are a flagship (act as an ambassador) and umbrella species (selected for designing conservation-related decisions), many co-occurring species can benefit from conservation efforts focused on this felid. With jaguar home ranges reaching hundreds of km2, their long-term conservation requires large-scale planning approaches that include networks of protected areas (PAs) and connectivity corridors, especially in a shrinking Amazon biome, increasingly threatened by fires, hunting pressure, and deforestation driven by cattle ranching, agriculture, mining, and infrastructure expansion with synergistic combinations between these threats. For instance, pasture-dominated landscapes become demographic sinks for jaguars, where as many as 110–150 large felids can be killed annually through poisoned carcasses and direct persecution by bounty hunters and ranch staff. This has been worsened by the relaxation of environmental law enforcement during the Bolsonaro administration.

 The study quantifies the main threats to jaguars (i.e. human population density; roads; pastures; fire hotspots; deforestation; and mining areas) across 447 Brazilian Amazon PAs including 330 indigenous reserves and their buffer areas and identifies PAs that need short-term conservation action to safeguard jaguars due to their large jaguar populations and high threat levels. The 447 areas analysed amount to 1,755,637 km2 which represents 41.7% of the Brazilian Amazon, and host 26,680 jaguars, as predicted by models in the study. Indigenous reserves cover 1,120,738 km2 and were estimated to host 63.2% of the total estimated number of jaguars across all 447 PAs, and low level of threats, comparable to strictly protected areas, and lower than in sustainable use reserves, highlighting their importance for jaguar conservation.

The study identified the top-10 protected areas that should be prioritized for immediate jaguar conservation efforts and 74 additional areas that should be prioritised for short-term action. Many of these are located at the deforestation frontier or near important boundaries with neighbouring countries (e.g. Peruvian, Colombian and Venezuelan Amazon) and are among those most pressured by deforestation, fires, and other threats with no time to spare. The 10 top priority PAs amount to a total of 25,254 km2 (1.5% of the overall PAs area) but they can support a conservative estimate of 3,511 jaguars — 13.2% of the total estimated jaguar population size for all 447 PAs. If we consider the 10 top priority areas plus the 74 short-term priority areas, these 84 areas could protect 53.1% of the total jaguar population estimated to occur within all 447 PAs.

The future of jaguars, even in the most intact Neotropical regions, such as the Amazon, is only secure in protected areas where land-use restrictions can be strictly enforced and relentless political pressure to downsize, downgrade and degazette PAs can be resisted. PAs are central to safeguarding biodiversity, yet they are under multiple geopolitical pressures and their buffer zones are typically as degraded as the wider unprotected countryside. Currently, the Brazilian government invests less than one dollar per km2 across all protected areas under state and federal jurisdiction, not including indigenous lands.

With the recent elections and the change in presidency, there are new hopes for the Brazilian Amazon and jaguars, thanks to greater political will for environmental protection. The authors recommend increased funding for protected areas, especially those identified as high-priority; a strong and integrated group of policies and legal frameworks that leave no space for protected area downsizing, downgrading and degazettment; increased funding, mandate, and support for environmental agencies such as IBAMA and ICMBio, which suffered significant cuts in recent years; an adequate support to indigenous lands that strengthens participation of indigenous people in the decisions and management of their territories,  which are understudied from a biodiversity perspective. It is critical to establish participatory and robust jaguar and biodiversity monitoring frameworks in such areas feeding locally owned governance.

Considering jaguars are a wide-ranging species vulnerable to human persecution due to livestock depredation and fear, awareness raising and human-jaguar conflict mitigation actions inside PAs and their buffer zones are vitally important, as well as maintaining connectivity between protected areas through robust land use planning to ensure genetic flow. With worsening climate change, fire prevention and management will also become increasingly crucial. Lastly, conservation has no future unless local communities benefit from it, hence we need to continue increasing the benefits people perceive from jaguar and their forest habitats, for example through tourism or non-timber forest products. Conserving jaguars means conserving the Amazon, with important planetary benefits.

Synthesis: The study identified the 10 top priority areas that need immediate conservation action for jaguars in the Brazilian Amazon:  YANOMAMI, MARAIWÃTSÉDÉ, APYTEREWA, URU-EU-WAU-WAU, ARARIBOIA, CACHOEIRA-SECA, KAYAPÓ, XINGÚ, TERRA DO MEIO, MAPINGUARI. As opposed to protection without the effective support of the nation (and the sequel of the last 4 years that aimed to reduce, downgrade, declassify and put Brazilian protected areas and indigenous lands in crisis), the application of the law “de facto” to protect the Amazonian ecosystems and their predators (and guardians) will require far greater political commitment and investment than we have witnessed recently. The results indicate areas that need immediate action and highlight the key role of protected areas and indigenous lands in jaguar conservation. This increases the importance and pressure on Brazil (and neighboring countries) to expand the implementation of conservation, moving away from the narrative of recent years (in the most naïve interpretation) that simply “holding the ground” (which was not done) could represent a triumph for conservation.

Manuscript link: https://www.nature.com/articles/s42003-023-04490-1

Authors: Juliano A. Bogoni (USP/UEA; bogoni.ja@gmail.com), Valeria Boron (WWF-UK), Carlos A. Peres (University of East Anglia), Maria Eduarda M. S. Coelho (WWF-Br), Ronaldo G. Morato (ICMBio), and Marcelo Oliveira-da-Costa (WWF-Br).

Credits jaguar photos: Jaguar recorded by camera-trap at Ecological Station Maracá Jipioca (Amapá, Brazil). Credits: ICMBio-BR; Jaguar recorded by camera-trap at Resex Chico Mendes (Acre, Brazil). Credits - WWF-BR.

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