On the Trial of America's Mysterious Big Cats

Wildlife Corridors Help Protect Genetic Diversity in Jaguars

by Annie Shao, age 16

Industrialization and development in any given area will inevitably lead to conflict between humans and the animals native to the area. Some countries are attempting to make accommodations for large animals; Costa Rica now has “jaguar corridors” to help animals and humans live side by side.

Although jaguar populations have declined in Costa Rica and elsewhere, these magnificent big cats still wander Central American forests. Jaguars are a threat to livestock and thus often become targets for Costa Rican ranchers. The  reaction of many farmers to the sight of a jaguar is to shoot it.

But attitudes are beginning to change. Héctor Porras-Valverdo, a dairy farmer who recently lost two cows to jaguars, admits that a few years ago his first thought would have been to shoot jaguars in retaliation. Now, his farm is part of a jaguar corridor, which allows him a first-hand view of how the jaguars operate. This contributes to a better understanding of the species.

“I understand cats do this because they need to survive,” Porras-Valverdo says.    

Wildlife corridors are meant to protect migratory animals like jaguars as they travel through areas of human development. Wildlife preserves and animal sanctuaries meant to protect endangered or threatened animal species can also reduce genetic diversity in those species. By limiting the gene pool within an endangered population, sanctuaries or preserves can ultimately hinder survival success. Wildlife corridors differ in that they ensure that animals can still migrate as they would naturally.  

Migration is essential to the survival of many species. Animals migrate to intermix gene pools and to populate new areas when their old habitat is somehow disturbed by natural disasters or disease.

Zoologists think that these corridors are a very important strategy in protecting large animals like jaguars, tigers, snow leopards and pandas. The purpose of wildlife corridors is not to prohibit new development, but to allow humans and animals to coexist.   

Costa Rica is not the only country to designate corridors for animals; China, Uganda, Brazil, the United States and Peru are all financing corridor projects for various large mammals.    

Conservationists only recently began working on jaguar corridors because valid data on migration and breeding of these elusive animals was not available until a few years ago. Today, new scientific techniques show that the jaguars of Mexico and those on the southern tip of South America have almost identical genomes. This indicates that some males regularly travel across Central and South America to mate, a conclusion that shocked scientists.

It was once believed that jaguars would never cross the Panama Canal because it was such a large body of water. The Panama Canal separates Central America from Columbia and the rest of South America. After setting up cameras to track the jaguars, it was confirmed that they do indeed cross the canal to procreate.

Fortunately, big cats like jaguars move in the night and do not hunt while traveling. This fact makes it easier for humans and jaguars tocoexist. Some people are still against corridors for jaguars, fearing that these large predators are a threat to livestock and can be dangerous when in contact with humans. But this belief is changing as more people are educated about big cats.   

Scientists believe jaguar corridors are extremely important to the survival of this species. Although there are many obstacles to creating such pathways, progress is coming. As people become more aware of jaguars and their habits, it will be easier for people to coexist with these fascinating creatures.

[Sources: The New York Times; Discover; Simpson Street Free Press Archives]