What happens to jaguars when oil palm plantations encroach into their habitat? Panthera’s Esteban Payán and Valeria Boron have co-authored a new paper studying the impacts of palm plantations on mammals in tropical regions. Consider these three key points:
Regulating how and where new plantations are established is key to preserving mammal populations
Native habitat is irreplaceable and new plantations should only be planted on degraded habitat
For jaguars to survive alongside oil palm plantations in the tropics, forest must be present
Ten years ago, when Panthera began establishing the Jaguar Corridor, we immediately identified the threat that palm oil plantations pose to jaguars. Most of us probably associate this type of agriculture with tiger habitat in Asia but Latin America is also home to many habitat-disrupting palm oil plantations. In fact, Colombia is the fourth biggest palm oil producer in the world, with Honduras, Perú and Guatemala all close behind. If the goal of the Jaguar Corridor is to provide connecting habitat for these big cats, we must consider the impacts of oil palm plantations on this habitat.
In 2017 during the Colombia Jaguar Journey with the legendary Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, we explored further the threats and potentials for oil palm as corridors for jaguars. We visited some well-managed oil palm plantations where jaguars crossed and reproduced in the neighboring well-conserved wetlands in Magdalena Medio—the critical hinge that connects these big cats between Central and South America. We originally found that only the smallest plantations that are surrounded by natural habitats will be crossed by jaguars. In fact, most plantations are actually barriers to jaguar connectivity. While big cats may cross these landscapes, they’re definitely not ideal habitat for them to thrive.
In a study published recently in the journal Frontiers in Forest and Global Change, together with former Ph.D. student and now colleague, Dr. Valeria Boron, we give new perspectives on the complexities of survival prospects not just for jaguars, but for all mammals in oil palm landscapes of the Neotropics. Many of these lessons are derived from those learned in Southeast Asia where oil palm plantations are one of the main drivers of local tiger and orangutan extinction. If we don’t manage these plantations appropriately across Latin America, will the jaguars share the tiger’s fate?
Most plantations cannot sustain jaguar connectivity, however; those built in already degraded or over-grazed lands will have significantly less of an impact on wildlife. It’s especially important to preserve native forests that are already identified as reservoirs for a diversity of mammal species. Ideally, plantations would remain under 2,000 ha to minimize loss of habitat for jaguars and other animals. When considering locations for future palm oil plantations, riverine forest habitat must be respected.
It’s imperative for palm plantation managers do the following to maintain wildlife:
Do not remove all forest cover
Maintain wetland integrity
Use hand and animal-based harvest techniques
Prohibit hunting on the land
Train laborers on wildlife regulations
Enforce speed limits and working hours
Like their Asian counterparts the tiger, jaguars seem to be the main victims of oil palm plantations since they can not thrive in these environments. This is because all big cats require large home ranges to thrive. Jaguars, in particular, need well-conserved forests for cover to hunt and raise their young. These oil palm plantations are homogenous landscapes that can be used by food only by rodents and those animals that eat rodents – like snakes and other mesopredators. They don’t provide the cover or the food sources required to be considered successful jaguar habitat.
If the ecosystem loses these big cats then their role as apex predators is also lost. This would mean that mesopredators, smaller carnivores such as foxes, jaguarundi and opossums, would be unchecked and could over-consume their own prey communities. Without a balanced ecosystem, the plantations themselves would suffer and likely become overrun with pests like rats and snakes. These large, unregulated oil palm plantations also create pollution as chemicals wash-off downstream, poisoning the surrounding waterways.
In order to preserve the integrity of these rainforests and prevent ecosystem collapses, measures of control must be put into oil palm expansion in Latin American landscapes. We must ensure that forest and wetland habitat remains intact across landscape mosaics with oil palm plantations. This, nested within proper planning of where future plantations are developed, will preserve, as Alan called them, the ultimate symbol of wildness: the jaguar.
While our conclusions are helpful, they remind us that the situation is not ideal for wild cats. The majority of oil palm plantations in Colombia don’t comply with even half of these recommendations. We’re seeing more and more lowland rainforests and savannas becoming replaced by new oil palm plantations across Latin America. If we want to mitigate the impact of these plantations on wildlife like jaguars, we must make sure we’re preserving habitat that promotes connectivity.
Panthera is continuing our on-the-ground work to demonstrate best practices for agriculture, especially oil palm, plantations. We hope that by studying these ecosystems, our written recommendations can influence policy as well. Our three local anti-predator ranches (one of which is actually within an oil palm plantation) shows that humans can co-exist with jaguars. By working together with local residents and educating the world about choosing ethically and sustainably grown oil palm products, we can protect these critical places jaguars call home.