Eight years ago, a female jaguar cub was caught on film by a motion-triggered camera trap set in the foothills of canyons, oak forest, and scrubland that make-up the Northern Jaguar Reserve, just 125 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“This first-ever glimpse of a jaguar cub revealed the importance of this area’s protective habitat and would catalyze the Northern Jaguar Reserve’s expansion to the 50,000 acres that are safeguarded today,” noted the Northern Jaguar Project (NJP) in Tucson, Arizona in a press release.
Three years later, in 2009, the jaguar reappeared on film as an adult. They called her “Corazón” for the distinctive heart-shaped spot on her left shoulder. During the next five years, she was photographed 30 times on the reserve and became an icon for those working to expand conservation efforts in the area.
“A matriarch among jaguars in this area, Corazón’s ongoing presence gave us certainty that on the reserve, jaguars were safe,” NJP, working with its Mexican conservation partner Naturalia, wrote in a press release.
In 2012, Dr. Rodrigo Medellín and PhD student Ivonne Cassaigne, researchers with the Instituto de Ecología at UNAM (Mexico’s national university), began working to safeguard and monitor jaguars as they moved across unprotected areas adjacent to the Northern Jaguar Reserve, in partnership with a group called La Asociación para la Conservación del Jaguar en la Sierra Alta de Sonora. They were thrilled when they captured Corazón (or “Jaguar Female 01”) and fitted her with a satellite GPS collar. But on February 25, 2014, the collar transmitted a mortality signal, and an email was sent to the UNAM researchers noting that no movement had been detected for more than five hours. Corazón was lost.
Using Corazón’s last known GPS location, a field technician traced the signal to her collar and found Corazón’s carcass burned to conceal the crime of her illegal killing. Her $4,000 satellite collar—the device responsible for documenting the crime of Corazón’s murder—was also destroyed, according to a UNAM bulletin. When tracking the last movements of Corazón back to her den, the footprints of a cub were found. Sadly, researchers believe this cub would have been unable to survive without its mother.
“We knew Corazón more intimately than any other jaguar who has appeared before our cameras. Corazón grew up on the reserve, and the reserve grew with her. Her death is a tremendous loss for the northern jaguar population,” NJP wrote.
But Corazón’s death may not be in vain.
“There is an opportunity for endangered species protection to become more stringent in Mexico as a result,” the group added.
The Jaguar People
Mexicans have long regarded the jaguar as sacred. Diana Hadley, president of NJP, said that jaguar conservation is important here because the great cat is considered a God in ancestral culture.
“The jaguar is part of Mexican identity,” Medellín reiterated, adding that Mexicans are known as the “jaguar people.”
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is considered Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Its habitat extends from the southwest corner of the United States to northern Argentina. Scientists have observed that male jaguars can travel 200 miles in one year making protecting them a spatial challenge.
“You can’t tell them where they should travel,” Hadley explained to mongabay.com.
UNAM reports that persecution by people is the jaguar’s main threat, though there are many other threats, including habitat loss, hunting, federal anti-predator programs, and conflicts with livestock.
Medellín told mongabay.com that while there is only one jaguar currently known in the U.S. (in Arizona), Mexico’s jaguar population remains viable at around 4,000 individuals, a number his team verified in a 2012 published study.
“We’re still in good shape,” Medellín told mongabay.com. “We have the right conditions to secure the future of the jaguar as a species in the country. But unfortunately the wheels are still turning very slowly.”
Although it has been several months since Corazón’s killing, no one has been arrested for the crime. In fact, despite the species having full protection under Mexican law, no person in the country has ever been convicted for killing a jaguar, though jaguar killing is common. Medellín, who is also a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, stressed that hunting the species “is illegal and a federal offense that is punishable by imprisonment,” adding “we are not going to permit one more death.”
However, just this month another jaguar was killed in the southern part of the country.
According to several sources, Corazón was killed on a private ranch 12 miles north of the Northern Jaguar Reserve. Journalist Isaac Torres Cruz, in a piece on May 5th for Cronica, reported that evidence suggests Corazón was poisoned and burned on the Cueva Blanca ranch in Granados, Sonora, Mexico. While there are countless similar cases, this particular case could set a historical precedent since, according to Cruz, officials have enough physical and digital evidence of a crime to persecute, but only if authorities do their job.
“What I think is important to highlight is that we have a system that is not working to protect wildlife,” PhD student, Cassaigne, told mongabay.com.
Medellín reported to mongabay.com that PROFEPA, the Mexican version of the Environmental Protection Agency, seems unable or unwilling to seek justice. Despite finding Corazón’s bones and destroyed collar (see photo) at her last recorded location, PROFEPA recently dropped her case.
“[PROFEPA] has no power…that’s the situation at this point in Mexico,” said Medellín.
Instead, the case was turned over to the Federal Special Unit of Environmental Crimes (a special Unit from the “Procuraduria General de la Republica”—PGR). This special unit is supposed to determine if the bones are indeed from a jaguar and then look for suspects.
Not accepting this delay, Medellín and Cassaigne sent samples of the bones to the University of Arizona and are awaiting results from genetic analysis presently underway. If a genetic determination cannot be made through the federal investigation, the University’s determination may help sway the government to prosecute.
“We have the evidence. No case before has had the physical evidence. Now the federal government needs to do its proper work to relate the evidence with the suspects. And for the very first time, we may be able to set an example of the consequences for killing a jaguar in Mexico,” said Cassaigne.
Outrage over the killing has spread with media reports of the incident. A change.org petition demanding justice for Corazón to date has gathered over 2,747 online signatures.
“Unfortunately, the authorities have not yet shown any resolve to apply the law to the fullest extent, and this is why we’re putting the pressure on the media and with whomever we can,” Medellín said.
In late April, conservation and government leaders in the Mexican Senate organized a forum to promote the creation of a stronger government agency to represent wildlife. At the forum, the killing of Corazón and Medellín’s demands for justice were specifically mentioned as catalysts for reform.
According to Medellín, lawmakers are promising to bolster the budget, boost staff qualifications, and improve the enforcement power of Mexico’s wildlife management office. The office was created by Medellin in the 1990s, but has not been as robust as its creator hoped.
The Senate is currently discussing a reform motion to elevate Medellín’s office several notches of power within the Mexican government, increasing its influence by creating a Comisión Nacional de Vida Silvestre (National Commission for Wildlife) to handle all issues related to endangered species.
“I am hopeful that this is actually going to have an impact,” said Medellín.
He also hopes that Mexico, as well as the U.S. and Canada, might finally become signatories to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, which would protect jaguars and other migrants across national borders.
Legacy of Conflict
Corazón’s killing is an example of human-wildlife conflict, a phenomenon seen around the world as wildlife habitat is fragmented and increasingly lost by conversion to agriculture or other human purposes. In Mexico, where jaguar habitat and human settlement overlaps, the competition over space and resources can lead to deadly consequences for both jaguars and livestock.
“Preferring unpopulated pockets of nature and avoiding contact with people, the ever-shy jaguar poses virtually no risk to humans. Yet indiscriminate hunting of carnivores persists,” said the NJP.
The clash often occurs because ranchers view jaguars as deadly pests to their livestock.
“Due to economic losses that livestock predation represents to ranchers, jaguars and pumas are considered threats to the very economic well-being of livestock owners. These apex carnivores are therefore killed illegally in all areas where livestock and large predators coexist,” Cassaigne explained.
Researchers have estimated jaguars could disappear from Mexico in the next 30 years if conditions do not change, as more than 90 percent of land in Mexico remains unprotected.
“To protect jaguars and pumas, we need to create different alternatives that will allow livestock and predators to co-exist,” noted Cassaigne.
Protecting Jaguars Locally
While many who care about wildlife wait for a stronger response from the Mexican government, action is being taken at the local level.
For her PhD project at UNAM, Cassaigne works cooperatively with local ranchers to develop favorable conservation options. She is currently researching the effects of restoring native prey as a way to decrease predation on cattle, testing the hypothesis that if jaguars have other food sources to eat, they will not go after cattle.
“We will first determine predation rates of pumas and jaguars on livestock so as to either dispel or confirm the beliefs of area ranchers that predators are the major cause of their livestock losses,” she explained. “We will test the hypothesis that good densities of prey will reduce livestock predation. Once proven at a local level, we can expand it to an ecosystem level.”
Medellín and Cassaigne hope their project will become a conservation approach that allows cattle and wildlife to co-exist while providing real protection for jaguars and pumas.
“We’re trying to harmonize a coexistence between cattle ranchers—who are the original landowners, we don’t want to kick anybody out—and jaguars,” Medellín said.
The researchers were using Corazón’s data to prove that when jaguars are offered alternative prey, such as deer and javelina, they leave cattle alone. But with Corazón’s death, the study was interrupted.
“We did get some data but it would have been more complete if we had been able to follow her for a longer time,” said Cassaigne. “Then we could show the ranchers how natural prey is important to decrease their livestock depredation. This would have been of great value for all ranchers.”
But in the meantime, stories like Corazón and her orphaned cub go a long way toward fortifying the argument for the creation of additional protected areas such as the Northern Jaguar Reserve.
“[A] small group of conservationists and biologists formed NJP in 2003 because we saw a great opportunity to start a reserve and partner with Naturalia for a relatively small expense, compared to conservation purchases in the U.S.,” Hadley told mongabay.com. Moreover the reserve’s “Jaguar Guardians” maintain an extensive network of motion-triggered cameras, inventory the ecological health of the land and water, and work with ranchers to support local wildlife.
NJP and Naturalia instituted a program called Viviendo con Felinos (Living with Cats) to actively create a buffer zone around the reserve. Participating ranchers must first sign a pledge not to harm large carnivore then NJP and Naturalia provide motion-triggered cameras. Ranchers receive payments for photographs of the area’s four large felines—jaguar, mountain lion, bobcat, and ocelot. NJP and Naturalia also assist ranchers in implementing habitat restoration strategies on their properties.
“Viviendo con Felinos is the best way we can envision to build local tolerance for jaguars and minimize human-wildlife conflicts,” said NJP.
Cassaigne added that “the future of wild jaguar populations stands at a crossroads. If ranchers’ needs and concerns for losses due to predation are not addressed, illegal killing will continue to be a driving force in the extirpation of jaguars.”
A Future Landscape for Jaguars
Following a rewilding conservation model of “Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores,” NJP and its partners in academia, government, and civil society are working to support the jaguar (carnivore) by expanding protected areas, such as the Northern Jaguar Reserve (core), and connecting disparate fragmented areas of its range (corridor). Such a model also benefits the habitat of other less charismatic species within protected jaguar range.
“The reserve acts as the centerpiece of regional conservation efforts and as a jaguar stronghold linking protected areas in Arizona, New Mexico, and Sonora,” said NJP.
Cassaigne’s and Medellín’s project, which collared Corazón, is based in such a core study area that has been defined as part of the Terrestrial Priority Regions for Conservation in a nation-wide management plan to conserve jaguars.
While individual jaguars have been documented in the mountains of southern Arizona and New Mexico, field investigations have determined that the nearest breeding population of 80 to 120 jaguars exists in Sonora, Mexico, approximately 125 miles south of the border. Medellín told mongabay.com that he hopes to connect these small pockets of northern jaguars with larger populations to the south, across the country, all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula.
But, a major obstacle for jaguars and other terrestrial wildlife moving internationally to the north is the U.S.-Mexico border wall, which prohibits the free movement and genetic mixing of animals across their full range.
“In places where there aren’t any border walls, wildlife are obstructed by excessive border patrolling,” explained Hadley to mongabay.com.
“The U.S.-Mexico border wall stops jaguars and other wildlife species dead in their tracks,” added NJP. “It wreaks havoc on animal habitat, disrupts migratory wildlife patterns, and alters fragile ecosystems.”
NJP noted that it is working to protect the source population for jaguars returning to the U.S. so that “when the border wall is no more and the obstacles are removed, the cats will be there.”
With such an ambitious vision of jaguars and people living harmoniously together across a much broader range, these jaguar guardians are looking to the future.
“We hear many stories of wildlife reserves around the globe that have been successfully established but later flounder because the caretakers lack the means to properly maintain them, surveillance is inadequate, there isn’t enough management, and sometimes no restoration,” said the group. “We are committed to making sure the Northern Jaguar Reserve grows into a model sanctuary.” According to Hadley, jaguars need “more funds for reserve expansion in Sonora, reserves in other parts of the country, and better education regarding conservation in Mexico.”
Many hope the gruesome death of Corazón and the anger it has caused worldwide may ironically end up producing these very things. But Medellín sees a long road ahead in the push to create better protections for wildlife.
“I’ve always said that the Mexican public is 20 years behind the United States in terms of environmental conscience. We see that there are more people engaging in the issues and starting to find out about the fate of [the environment], but this is still very incipient in Mexico.”
Though justice for Corazón is far from served, Medellín remains determined to bring about a brighter future for wildlife in Mexico. Instead of submitting to despair, his advice to anyone who is frustrated with the slow process of change is to turn inward and take responsibility.
“Can you do something? Can you manifest your disgust for this? Can you say something to your authorities? To your friends? To whomever you have around about this issue?,” he asks. “As the world advances it is more evident to me that the power of one is the sole thing that can really change the world. If you think that your power as an individual has no bearing, no influence whatsoever on the results of whatever you’re trying to pursue, then the battle is lost. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that power resides in ourselves. And we all have things to do: from talking to our friends and families, to engaging the authorities and demanding that the authorities do the job that we put them there to do.”
Until then, he and others will continue to seek justice for Corazón and for all wildlife in Mexico.