Although bullfights might be seeing their last days in Colombia, a legacy from bullfighting races of cattle might prevail and surprisingly aid in jaguar conservation. Six years ago, I was in the llanos studying jaguar predation on livestock and the resulting human-jaguar conflict. I was trying to learn more about cattle production and general livestock issues, and one day over a bottle of rum, a cowboy told me a strange story: a jaguar killed by a bull—not the narrative I was used to. As I fell asleep later that night, I felt sorry for the jaguar in the story, but also hopeful—could cattle defend themselves, repel jaguar attacks, and therefore prevent jaguars from being killed by humans in retaliation?
Conflict with humans is the second largest threat facing Colombia’s jaguars. Ranchers can lose 3-5% of their annual stock to jaguars, and with profits only around 7-10%, the loss is significant. Livestock also die for many unrelated reasons, but jaguars are easy targets and often blamed anyway.
Most of our human-jaguar conflict mitigation involves helping ranchers improve their husbandry practices—using livestock to actually repel jaguars had never occurred to me. But my colleague Rafael Hoogesteijn had included this very approach in a Panthera conflict management guide released in 2011. The cattle breed in question was the San Martinero, but as I conducted more research on the breed I found nothing about jaguar-repelling behavior. So I decided to ask people who would know: local ranchers. After hearing their stories about San Martinero bulls, I knew they were worth a shot. I teamed up with Eduardo “Lalo” Enciso, a charismatic San Martinero cattle rancher, and the adventure began.
Pure San Martinero cattle are difficult to find, but we eventually were able to buy three pregnant San Martinero cows—and so began Panthera’s first San Martinero pilot ranch. To date, these cows have produced five calves in three years—and not one cow has been killed by a jaguar.
San Martinero cattle descend from the fighting bulls of Andalucía and came to the llanos with the Spanish colonists. Here, they were bred to adapt to the extensive Orinoco savannahs and are unmatched in longevity, productivity, libido, and general resistance to parasites. Their smaller size enables them to wade through the flooded savannah half the year and their red skin withstands the scorching dry season for the other half.
Unlike other cattle, San Martineros will stand their ground in front of a predator. Females surround their calves and the bulls face the attackers, stamping the ground, bellowing loudly and charging toward the perceived threat. They literally bully their attackers!
In 2015, an international grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service approved us to evaluate the efficiency of San Martinero as protectors of a bigger Zebu herd. From a total of more than 300 Zebu cattle protected by less than 20 San Martinero, with at least 60 jaguar and puma visits logged in camera trap photos, there has only been one attack on a calf in the two years since implementation. We also captured a picture I could have only dreamt of: a mother jaguar and cub roaming inside a San Martinero paddock without attacking the cattle.
The tables are turning—ranchers are listening and demanding San Martinero. My dream is to expand into 100 hundred independently run ranches along the jaguar corridor in the llanos. With the support of big cat advocates like you, we can not only save jaguars and their landscapes, but also the last living stocks of this marvelous pure Colombian creole breed known as the San Martinero.