Corridors for Cats: Conservationists Work to Keep At-Risk Jaguar Populations Connected

ALAMOS, Mexico – This is a “pueblo magico” (magic town), rich in beauty and cultural and historic significance. It’s also near an important ecological crossroads in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

The foothills are home to the northernmost tropical deciduous forest in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s a critical connection point between jaguars that roam Sonora and its neighboring state, Sinaloa, said Ramon Ojeda, who is the geographic information system coordinator on the nearby Reserva Monte Mojino.

The Monte Mojino Reserve is a 16,000-acre patchwork of former ranches pieced together to make a private reserve in Sonora. (Photo courtesy of Ramon Ojeda)

“This is the natural protected area Sierra Alamos-Rio Cuchujaqui,” he said as we drove through a 230,000-acre, federally protected area. “Inside the federal protected area is Reserva Monte Mojino.”

The reserve is a 16,000-acre patchwork of former ranches pieced together to make a private reserve.

“What we’re trying to do is bring the level of conservation to a stricter level than they have in the federal protected area,” Ojeda said.

Because even most federally protected land is privately owned in Mexico, the government can only provide certain protections. For example, cattle ranching and some mining are being allowed in the protected area. On the private reserve, Ojeda said, those kinds of human incursions are kept out.

Residents of Alamos, Sonora, celebrate Jaguar Day every October. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Resident Cats and Visiting Cats

Until a few years ago, he said, researchers thought jaguars only passed through here. But they started a monitoring program in 2014, and three years later, one of the camera traps snapped a photo of a pregnant jaguar, La Meche. That’s a sign of a resident population.

Alejandro Sauceda (right), who has been a ranger on Reserva Monte Mojino for a decade, has never seen a live jaguar. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

As we hiked through the dry undergrowth to the spot Meche was photographed, park ranger Alejandro Sauceda said the endangered big cat was photographed for three consecutive days in 2017.

“It was the first days of April,” he said. “And she was right here, by this little pool of water.”

Sauceda has been a park ranger on the reserve for 10 years, after the ranch he used to work on was purchased by Reserva Monte Mojino. He has never seen a jaguar, he said, but he knows they’re here, both residents and visitors passing through.

The Sinaloa Corridor

“If connectivity between Sinaloan jaguars and the northernmost jaguars in Sonora is broken, in the worst-case scenario, the Sonoran jaguar could become isolated,” Ojeda said.

Cut off from genetic diversity, they would become vulnerable and eventually die out, he said, adding, “that would destroy the hopes of the United States that someday jaguars would return to Arizona.”

“The only corridor that currently has no population at the end of it is the one in Arizona,” agreed Howard Quigley, director of the jaguar program director and conservation science executive director for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. He also was co-lead on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jaguar recovery plan released in April.

Quigley said re-establishing a breeding population of jaguars in the United States depends on three things in Mexico: protecting jaguars in Sonora, protecting jaguars in Sinaloa, and making sure those two core populations can connect.

(Map courtesy of Panthera)

“You need to have core populations that are well-protected,” he said. “And you need to have corridors between them to make sure that that lifeblood of gene flow is going to maintain those populations.”

The problem is, right now there are limited protections in the Sinaloa corridor between Reserva Monte Mojino and a jaguar reserve in central Sinaloa, said Quigley, who calls it a “no-man’s land between Mazatlan and Alamos.”

Another problem: President Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Borderland Corridors

Back in Alamos – a UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with Spanish colonial buildings – Lydia Lozano drives around town showing off colorful murals of jaguars painted on the walls of schools, restaurants and other buildings. They’re part of the annual Dia del Jaguar, or Jaguar Day celebration, each October.

“You know, if you want to protect your jaguar population in Arizona, whether it’s one, two or three jaguars, you have to work with Mexico. And that’s reality,” said Lozano, Mexico director for Nature and Culture International, a San-Diego-based organization that runs Reserva Monte Mojino.

Corazon, a jaguar that was killed near the Northern Jaguar Reserve, graces a wall in Alamos, Sonora. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

The few jaguars that are seen roaming Arizona have to be able to cross the border to breed, she said. The Fish and Wildlife Service recovery plan included at least two places where jaguars can cross the border.

Many biologists would like to see many more borderland corridors safeguarded from additional border barriers.

“So you have this jaguar recovery plan made in the U.S., but everything has to be done in Mexico,” Lozano said.

“And it’s pretty obvious, but that’s how you know that we’re all connected. You’re talking about a species that has been forever connected through America. I’m just happy to find these partners that do understand that having a wall, it’s unnatural.”

Women in El Sabinito Sur, near the jaguar reserve, embroider cloth with images of the big cats. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

The Bigger Picture

Lozano said for a long time conservation organizations had limited collaboration in Mexico because of stiff competition for resources. But she believes partnerships, whether they’re between the U.S. and Mexico, or Sonora and Sinaloa, are the best way to protect the jaguar across its northern range.

“I think NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and also donors are shifting into the vision of protecting something bigger than just dots on a map,” she said.

Instead, they’re finding ways to share information and skills between groups and between isolated reserves, slowly stitching together pieces of the jaguar corridor.

“It’s at a very small scale compared to the jaguar corridor,” she said. “But it’s working.”

Jaguars numbers remain low throughout Mexico – there are only an estimated 4,100 in the entire country – and it could take decades for their numbers reach healthy levels, Lozano said.

Conservation and species recovery, she said, are a long-term commitment.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Big Cats, Cameras and Coexistence: Learning to Live with Jaguars

SAHUARIPA, Mexico – A century ago, jaguars roamed much of the Southwest, including most of Arizona. Today, the only glimpses of the endangered big cats in the United States are caught on cameras just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a recovery plan released in April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said bringing jaguars back to the U.S. means protecting the population south of the border in Mexico, which is estimated at 120 animals. That’s what the Northern Jaguar Reserve in central Sonora is trying to do.

Carmina Gutiérrez, a biologist with the Northern Jaguar Reserve, works beneath a jaguar painting in her office in Sahuaripa, Sonora. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Saving Big Cats in Sonora

It’s late May in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental range. Dry grasses and gray-brown twigs crunch underfoot as biologist Miguel Gómez and his colleagues trudge up an overgrown trail to check motion-activated camera traps on the Northern Jaguar Reserve, a private protected area about 130 miles south of the U.S. border.

The Norther Jaguar Reserve was created in 2003 when the Mexican conservancy Naturalia purchased the 10,000-acre Rancho los Pavos in northeastern Sonora.

The cameras are tucked into hillsides and arroyos, and fastened to trees. Gómez clicks through photos of vultures, javelina, foxes and, most important, cats: mountain lions, bobcats, lots of ocelots. Then, finally, a jaguar.

“There it is, the jaguarón,” Gómez said, his colleague whistling at the sight of the endangered cat.

Miguel Gómez adjusts the position of a jaguar camera. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Caught midstride, the jaguar’s unique pattern of rosette spots were illuminated by the camera flash as it strolled through a palm-shadowed arroyo just a few nights before.

“Just knowing that you’re walking in a place where a jaguar has been a day, two days, two hours, before is something not very many people have the chance to do,” Gómez said.

He has spent more than a decade tracking and studying jaguars in this region. But he’s still awestruck to walk in the footsteps of the huge cat.

“It’s something really special,” he said.

A Diminishing Species

Jaguars are shy, solitary animals with territories that can span hundreds of miles, Gómez said. But habitat loss, poaching and conflict with humans has meant both their numbers and range have diminished.

A century or so ago, jaguars roamed from southern Argentina all the way north into much of the southwestern United States, including parts of Texas, News Mexico, California and most of Arizona. Now, most U.S. sightings are in the mountain wilderness of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

A teacher and students with EcoGuardian Club in Sahuaripa show their best jaguar roars in front of a mural they painted. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)
The EcoGuardian Club in Sahuaripa painted this mural in their town. “We want to protect the jaguars because if not they’ll go extinct, and we won’t see them. We’ll be left all alone,” says Claudia, 11. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Both the U.S. and Mexican governments now consider Panthera onca an endangered species. But many biologists worry a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, as well as expansion and fortification of existing barriers, will threaten conservation and make it harder for jaguars to re-establish north of the border.

In its recovery plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that the best way to bring jaguars back to the U.S. is by protecting the estimated 120 jaguars that live in Sonora, expanding that population and maintaining cross-border corridors that jaguars can use to move northward.

Coexisting with Big Cats

Central to that plan are such efforts as the 55,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve, which was created 16 years ago by buying former ranch land and turning it into a haven for the northernmost breeding population of jaguars in the world. Here, jaguars and other animals can roam free without roads, mines, hunting or other human interference, Gómez said.

“The goal of the Northern Jaguar Project is to safeguard jaguars in this region,” he said. “And because the jaguar is an umbrella species, we’re protecting the rest of the plants and animals in the ecosystem at the same time.”

The 55,000-acre Northern Jaguar Reserve is 130 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

But it’s not enough just to buy up land for the reserve, he said. Jaguars live in and roam much larger areas. And once they leave the reserve, one of the biggest threats to the northern jaguar in Sonora is retaliation, he said. A jaguar kills a rancher’s cattle – or the rancher thinks it has – so the rancher traps and kills the cat.
“The perception here that the jaguar is a predator to cattle is one of the primary problems we have,” Gómez said.

So to break that cycle, in 2007 the reserve started Viviendo con Felinos, or Living With Cats, a voluntary program for local ranchers. If they allow biologists with the reserve to place and monitor cameras on their property, the reserve will pay them every time a picture of a cat is taken on their land. Ranchers also have to agree not to hunt cats or their prey, and reserve biologists work with them to manage their livestock in a way that discourages depredation, or cats killing cattle.

For ranchers like Diego Ezrré, it seems to be working.

Changing Perspectives

Every week, Ezrré drives his well-worn 1989 Toyota 4×4 up the mountainside from his home in the little town of Sahuaripa to his 2,000-acre Rancho El Calabozo, just south of the jaguar reserve.

On a good day, the 45-mile trip takes him four hours, he said. It took us six, crawling up the rocky dirt road overlooking deep canyons and towering rock formations. It’s hot and barren at this time of year in this part of the Sierra Madre. But as soon as the monsoon storms start, everything changes, turning lush almost overnight.

Ezrre has been part of the Viviendo con Felinos program since the beginning.

“At first, the attraction was the money,” he acknowledged. “But most of the ranchers who are in the program, our perspective has changed. We realize that the jaguars aren’t such a threat. They don’t cause nearly as much damage as illness and other things.”

Diego Ezrré runs cattle on his land just south of the Northern Jaguar Reserve. He is part of the Viviendo con Felinos program, which helps protect the endangered cats. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)

Ezrré calls the Northern Jaguar Reserve a “good neighbor.” Since the reserve blocked off the land to hunting and worked with other ranches to do the same, jaguars passing through his property are less likely to target cattle because there are plenty of deer and javelina, he said.

It’s that kind of change that has made the Viviendo con Felinos program popular, said Carmina Gutiérrez, a biologist for the Northern Jaguar Reserve.

“There is a big waiting list,” she said with a laugh. “At the beginning, in 2007, nobody wanted to work with us. But now they know that it’s better to have wildlife than to kill wildlife, so they are realizing they want to be part of this.”

Seventeen ranches covering more than 88,000 acres are part of the program, Gutiérrez said. That’s more doubled the area where biologists can track, study and protect jaguars.

But change is slow, she said, and a lot depends on the choices the next generation of cattle ranchers make for their land.

“We don’t want them to decide not to be a cattle rancher, no, but to be a good cattle rancher,” she said.

Hope for the Future

As the morning bell rang at the local secondary school in Sahauripa, a group of kids ran across the street to a nearby basketball court to show off a mural they painted. Rolling green hills covered with trees, flowers, birds and, of course, a pair of jaguars.

Conservationists have dubbed this big cat Zapatos. (Photo by Kendal Blust/KJZZ)
Libelula saunters past a camera. (Photo courtesy of Nothern Jaguar Reserve)

“We want to protect the jaguars because if not they’ll go extinct, and we won’t see them. We’ll be left all alone,” said 11-year-old Claudia, one of a couple dozen members of the EcoGuardian Club.

The reserve hosts workshops and campouts where these students learn that having jaguars in their midst isn’t a threat but an asset. And it’s making an impact, teacher Ramón Córdova said.

“They have a different perspective than my generation,” he said. “Little by little, they’re learning that it’s something special, that their home is like a sanctuary for these animals, and that they should want to take care of them.”

Still, there’s a long way to go to fully protect the northern jaguar even just in this corner of Mexico, Gutiérrez said.

“The work to try to change the mind for the whole community will be very, very difficult, and maybe I won’t see the results,” she said. “Maybe that will be my son, my grandson, something like that. But I think we’re doing what we can.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.