01 Oct

A View from Above: The Corridor and The Future of the Jaguar


‘Boots on the ground’ is a term commonly used to describe Panthera’s jaguar scientists. Representing the first, and arguably the last, line of defense for the jaguar, these researchers carry out intense and physically challenging fieldwork to protect jaguar populations across Latin America. This conservation work often involves trudging through thick jungle on foot, in trucks and by boat to set camera traps and monitor jaguar populations, assess and mitigate threats facing jaguars and partner with local communities. Interestingly, one of the greatest resources shaping this groundwork is aerial surveys carried out within Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative – a program working to connect and protect jaguar populations from Mexico to Argentina to ensure the species’ genetic diversity and future survival.

Offering a unique perspective of the jaguar’s range, and a level of detail unmatched by satellite imagery, aerial surveys allow Panthera’s scientists to truly view connectivity of the Jaguar Corridor, identify encroachments on the jaguar’s range and pinpoint habitat in which to focus Panthera’s future conservation efforts. One of the main threats targeted through these flights is habitat loss and fragmentation caused by increasing human populations and developments. To identify the current state of the Jaguar Corridor, Panthera’s scientists conducted 17 aerial surveys across Central America earlier this year with the help of LightHawk - a volunteer-based environmental aviation group that donates flights to help organizations fulfill their conservation missions.

Two surveys of the Central Belize Corridor were made to identify new sources of habitat degradation, observe the recovery of jaguar range following the devastating fires of 2011 and assess the overall state of the Corridor. The flight also included the newly-appointed Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, Lisel Alamilla. This allowed Panthera’s scientists to visually demonstrate how the Central Belize Corridor connects jaguars throughout the country and between Belize, Mexico and Guatemala, and even point out illegal logging activities. Thanks to this survey, the Minister has offered her full cooperation in pursuing violations within the CBC, such as prosecuting those responsible for the construction of an illegal trench built through a protected area in the Central Belize Corridor.

As established through the recent signing of a Memorandum of Understanding, Panthera is also working closely with the government of Honduras to shape the development of land in and around the Jaguar Corridor that benefits both the country’s economic growth and the connectivity of the Corridor. Joined by a number of government and NGO representatives, Panthera’s scientists recently conducted aerial surveys over 13 natural reserves in Honduras, which serve as ‘stepping stones’ connecting the country’s jaguars. The surveys revealed extensive conversion of jaguar habitat for African oil palm and coffee plantations, and illegal logging activities, even inside the reserves. However, since consulting with government representatives, one illegal settlement in Honduras’ Jeanette Kawas National Park has been shut down. Local communities and local violators are recognizing the potential of aerial surveys to uncover otherwise unidentifiable illegal activities, and allow improved enforcement of forest protection laws.

Oil palm plantations in Honduras’ Jeanette Kawas National Park.

Moving south, recent wildfires brought on by atypically dry forests have scorched large swaths of jaguar habitat in Santa Rosa National Park, one of Costa Rica’s prime Jaguar Conservation Units. Flights were conducted over Santa Rosa to observe the condition of areas burned in previous years, identify new habitat burned in 2012 and assess the magnitude of this fire damage to jaguar habitat. These data are currently being analyzed and will be used by the System of National Conservation Areas (SINAC) to develop prevention strategies for the spread of wildfires. With the collaboration of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), further surveys were also made in several of Costa Rica’s remaining jaguar strongholds, including San Juan-La Selva Biological Corridor and Maquenque Mixed Wildlife Refuge, to classify the types of land use dominating the regions, threats they pose to jaguars and their prey populations and connectivity between the areas.

This year, Panthera is also exploring jaguar habitat within Guatemala and Nicaragua where less is known about the vitality of jaguar populations and the connectivity of protected areas. During several aerial surveys, Panthera’s scientists were pleased to see that much of Southeastern Guatemala seems to contain some important forest patches and corridor potential, but only ground-truthing can confirm the level of connectivity and dispersal potential for jaguars. However, the surveys also indicated that Guatemala’s connectivity with protected areas in Honduras may only be feasible through the ecologically-rich forests of Sierra Caral. As found in the other surveys, widespread slash and burn agricultural techniques were identified in Guatemala, along with extensive land conversion for African oil palm and banana plantations. These flights also corroborated data gathered through on-the-ground research in Nicaragua’s Jaguar Corridor, revealing extensive habitat degradation in regions thought to maintain some of the country’s last jaguar strongholds.

Taken together, these data will provide a framework to help shape and prioritize Panthera’s jaguar conservation initiatives throughout the Meso-american Jaguar Corridor. Panthera will continue to share survey results with key government decision makers and NGOs to prevent and halt illegal logging operations, extend government-supported forest protection patrols to areas in need, and strategically shape human development, while also assuring a vibrant and sustainable Jaguar Corridor.

Panthera is indebted to LightHawk for the generous aerial surveys donated to help ensure a future for the jaguar. Learn more about LightHawk.

LightHawk Photo Gallery