Jaguar Could Be the Conservation Movement's Next Star, New York Times

IRENA, Costa Rica - Dr. Eduardo Carrillo, a cheerful, ruddy-cheeked man
who could charm the eyelashes off a pit viper, has had the great fortune
of seeing jaguars in the wild at least two dozen times.

He has seen them creeping along the forest floor, their polka-dotted fur
spangling through the underbrush like velvet confetti. He has seen them
hunting giant sea turtles on the beach, napping on cliffs, paddling
across rivers and lazing against the fat roots of a giant fig tree.


Each time he sees a jaguar, he says, "it is like a miracle or a dream,
the most exciting thing you can imagine."

As often as Dr. Carrillo has spotted jaguars, however, jaguars have
spotted him scores, even hundreds, of times more. Jaguars may be large,
measuring 6 feet from snout to tail and weighing up to 300 pounds.

They may live in places like Sirena, a tropical rain forest on the
southwestern peninsula of Costa Rica, where every day is an ecotourist's
Mardi Gras of spider monkeys tumbling over howler monkeys, Muppet-faced
sloths, and toucans and scarlet macaws flapping overhead like crayons
with wings. Yet even when other normally shy creatures feel free to make
spectacles of themselves, the jaguar remains aloof.

"Jaguars are so hard to find," said Dr. Carrillo, a Costa Rican
biologist who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society of New York.
"I can be standing right next to one, and I know it because I've picked
up the signal from its radio collar, and still I may never see it."

His students are well aware of the cat's elusiveness. Roberto Salon, who
is working toward a master's at the University of Costa Rica, conceded
with some embarrassment that after 18 months of studying jaguars he had
yet to see one in the wild.

As a result of its exceptionally stealthy style, the jaguar has long
been one of the least-studied members of the feline tribe. But lately
Dr. Carrillo and his colleagues at the wildlife society, together with a
scattering of Latin American environmental groups, have formed a kind of
jaguar juggernaut.

They are determined to flesh out their spotty portrait of the
neotropical carnivore and loft the cat to conservation stardom on par
with the whale, the elephant and the chimpanzee. They are gathering its
vital statistics and exploring its quirks and customs.

How many cats remain in the wild, and what do they need to prevail? How
do they find mates, choose mates and lose mates when coupling is
through? Why are they such masterly climbers and swimmers but such
miserable sprinters? How do they manage the swing shift so deftly, at
times seeking prey in the day, at others by moonlight? And why is a baby
jaguar like the vice president of the United States?

"Nobody has ever managed to film a wild female out with her cubs," said
Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration at Wildlife
Conservation Society and head of the entire jaguar program. "You'll see
the mother. You'll see signs of the cubs. But you won't see the cubs

In one sign of progress, Dr. Carrillo and the W.C.S. will sign an
agreement at the end of this month with the Panamanian government,
formalizing a commitment to protect wilderness areas in southern Panama
that may serve as cross-cultural causeways, allowing jaguars from
Central and South America to migrate, mingle and breed as they please.

The jaguar, admirers say, is born pinup material, a great cat in every
sense of the word. It belongs to the genus Panthera, the royal clan that
includes lions, tigers and leopards. Distinguishing the great cats from
the rat pack is the possession of a modified hyoid bone in the throat
that allows them to roar.

Cheetahs cannot roar. Neither can lynxes, servals, ocelots nor mountain
lions (which are also called cougars, pumas and, strangely enough,
panthers). Jaguars can, and they are the only cats to so rumble in the
Western Hemisphere.

The jaguars' range extends from northern Argentina to the Sonoran region
of Mexico, not far from the United States border. On rare occasions,
jaguars may amble into Arizona or New Mexico. Mostly, however, they
prefer the thick extravagant gloom of a tropical rain forest.

Jaguars are the top predators of their habitat and, thus, can serve as a
so-called indicator or flagship species. If the jaguars are thriving,
then chances are that most organisms lower on the neighborhood food
chain are faring well, too. If on the other hand, jaguars start
venturing out of their preferred forest cover to attack livestock, then
there is probably something out of whack in the woods.


This year, for example, at least four jaguars left the perimeters of
Corcovado National Park, which includes Sirena, and were shot dead by
farmers who feared for their sheep and cattle.

As it turned out, the jaguars were being forced to seek food beyond
their ordinary range by human hunters, who were sneaking into Corcovado
and illegally picking out packs of white-lipped peccaries, hefty
boarlike animals coveted by people and jaguars alike.

"Peccary meat," Dr. Carrillo said, "is very rich and tasty."

In recent weeks, guards have been patrolling the park, keeping poachers
out, peccaries in and cats unbagged. Dr. Carrillo and his colleagues are
completing a major census of the Corcovado jaguars, using the renowned
camera-trap technique that has proved so successful in tiger research.

The team set up 32 cameras along known jaguar corridors, placing them in
a grid pattern over about 40 square miles. The cameras are automatically
activated by heat and motion - the signature of a passing mammal - and
they have been clicking round the clock since August, capturing
thousands of portraits of all sorts of animals, including the desired

Individual jaguars can be distinguished and accounted for by their
singular patterns of spots. Earlier this spring, the cameras took a
picture of a black jaguar, the first one known in Corcovado.

Dr. Carrillo is reluctant to make estimates in advance of the data
analysis, but he said he expected 50 to 100 jaguars in Corcovado and its
environs, a reasonable density for a large meat eater that needs a
extensive space to earn a living.

Dr. Rabinowitz, author of the influential "eco-memoir," "Jaguar: One
Man's Struggle to Establish the World's First Jaguar Preserve" (2000),
said such numbers were on the high end of jaguar statistics and applied
to relatively pristine places like the Santa Cruz ranch in Bolivia and
his hard-won Cockscomb jaguar preserve in Belize.

Elsewhere, however, the jaguar is losing range to familiar culprits like
logging, slash-and-burn agriculture and poaching.

"We've got a two-sided coin here," Dr. Rabinowitz said. "In the last 25
years, we've lost a lot of jaguar habitat, and the human-jaguar
conflicts continue. On the other side of the coin, we have more laws in
place now, a greater focus on conservation and more protected areas set

`Where does that leave us? We don't know. But I'm glad that we're doing
the work now, before we've reached the critical point where the jaguar
is on the brink of disappearing."

In addition to the surveys at nodes throughout Latin America, biologists
are also trying to determine if jaguars migrate across the Darien Gap
along the border between Panama and Colombia, and thus whether the
jaguar populations of Central and South America are likely to be
stirring their gene pools together, or remaining in comparative
reproductive isolation.

Because countries that are cat-rich are often cash-poor, jaguar
biologists have been grateful for the largesse of one especially apt
corporate donor, the Jaguar North America car company. Several years
ago, after Michael Dale, then the company president, had helped reverse
slumping sales, he experienced a minor epiphany that inspired him to
donate $1 million to jaguar research.

"He told us, `What's the point of saving a car company, if the animal
it's named after goes extinct?' " Dr. Rabinowitz recalled.

Whether the car is suitably named is open to question. As field
researchers have learned, jaguars are neither fast nor graceful.

"They remind me of fire hydrants," Dr. Rabinowitz said. "They're
incredibly stocky and built close to the ground."

They are, however, the embodiment of power. Although smaller than the
other great cats overall, the jaguar has a comparatively huge head and
the strongest jaw for its size, capable of pulverizing bone. Its paws
are broad and its claws gothic.

The jaguar hunts by stealth and kills by leaping on an animal's back and
crushing its neck. In one South American language, the word for jaguar
means "the wild beast that can kill its prey in a single bound." Should
the prey manage to dart away, the jaguar rarely chases it.

In sum, the jaguar has evolved a two-pronged approach to fetching
dinner: stay virtually invisible until the last possible moment and then
deliver an overwhelming blow.

Yet for all its ferocity of mien, the jaguar is something of a dandelion
around humans. It is the least likely of the Pantheras to attack a
person unprovoked, and, in contrast with tigers, lions and even pumas,
it has never been documented as a man eater.

Why the jaguar has no taste for the hairless and often clueless packets
of meat that may bumble into its turf is unknown, but it is a salient
enough trait that many South Americans consider it a coward.

Jaguars also meticulously avoid other jaguars. They are extremely
solitary and go to great lengths to mark their territories and to know
who lives where. Their vocalizations carry long distances and further
guard against trespassers.

For if there is one thing a jaguar hates, it is a catfight.

In the jungle, where platoons of parasites are perpetually on the
lookout for new blood, even small nicks and bruises can prove fatal.
Best to sidestep any encounters in the first place.

Scientists suspect that jaguars also keep their courtships brief as a
form of safe sex: no hiss, no scratch, now get out of here.

Ah, yes, a return to solitude. Now that is the cat's pajamas.