Interview with Dr. Leandro Silveira

Interview with Dr. Leandro Silveira, President of the Jaguar Conservation Fund (JCF). The interview was conducted by the Southwestern Jaguar, swjags, blog.

1. Please tell us a little about your background and education.

I was raised in central Brazil, in the city of Goiânia, State of Goiás. However, almost all my school holidays were in the countryside. The wilds were thus part of my childhood and inspired me to carry a lifetime dedication to conservation of our natural resources. During college I went back and forth to the US for training at places such as The American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Harvard University and others. This not just gave me some experience in the field of science but as well gave me opportunity to meet key people that would later help me plan and execute research projects.

2. How did you end up working with jaguars?

Jaguars have been my passion since childhood. When I learned that this cat could be found roaming freely in the countryside where I often spent my holidays I was thrilled with the idea of studying them. In the beginning it was very hard to find a professor interested in giving me support in this endeavour. There was virtually no information on the species in the wild nor scientist to consult.

3. How did the Jaguar Conservation Fund come about and what are some of its activities?

My wife Anah and I started working with the carnivore community in the Cerrado grasslands in 1996. However, we both have always had a strong passion for jaguars. This cat, up until a decade ago, was the least studied of the five big cats – in spite of its wide distribution, from the southwest of the US all the way down to Argentina. As it is a secretive species usually occurring at low densities, it needs a lot of dedication to study this species, and even more so to protect it. From what was known about the jaguar back then, it was already obvious that the species needed protection – it had disappeared from large parts of its distribution due to habitat loss and direct persecution. What was surprising, though, was the fact that in spite of the difficulties to study the species and the threats it was facing throughout its range, there was no single organization dedicated exclusively to the jaguar. All these factors led us to founding the Jaguar Conservation Fund (JCF; in Portuguese: Instituto Onça-Pintada – IOP), first in Brazil, in 2002, and later, in 2004, in the United States. Our institutional mission is “to promote the conservation of the jaguar, its natural prey and habitat throughout the species’ geographical range, as well as its peaceful coexistence with man, through research and conservation strategies.” Today, we have long-term jaguar research and population monitoring programs running in the Cerrado, Pantanal, Amazon and Caatinga – four of the five Brazilian biomes that hold jaguars. In addition, we support research projects in the Atlantic Forest. JCF also implements several Brazil-wide projects regarding jaguar distribution and conservation status, epidemiology, and genetics.

4. What is the general attitude of the ranchers in the Pantanal towards jaguars and has JCF’s program to bring medical care to the area helped to soften it?

In the Pantanal, jaguars have coexisted with extensive cattle ranching for a long time. Cattle predation by jaguars causes financial losses for the ranchers and jaguars are often killed in retaliation. There is no easy solution to this conflict, especially not in an area where cattle are bred over large areas that are often difficult to access. The JCF Jaguar Social Project tested an approach to soften this conflict between jaguars and livestock ranchers – ranchers agreed not to kill or allow the killing of jaguars on their properties and in exchange, received financial compensation for each head of cattle lost to jaguar predation. In addition, the farm workers received free medical attention during pre-scheduled campaigns. The program was well accepted – 13 properties joined this agreement – and results of the project show that this approach is feasible on a local scale. In a recent study of how the jaguar is perceived by rural communities, we found that in the area where the Jaguar Social Program had been implemented, people understood the ecological value of jaguars and had an overall positive attitude towards jaguar conservation. While this is a positive result, jaguar hunting is still the principal threat to the species in the Pantanal.

5. What are some areas of research currently being looked at by JCF staff?

While JCF research interests are multi-faceted, they are principally focused on information that is of importance to jaguar conservation – which habitat types do jaguars use and prefer, and which anthropogenic land use forms can they tolerate. What are the prey species the jaguar depends on in the different ecological settings it occurs in. Which diseases are present in jaguar populations. What is the relationship between jaguars and people. What are the major threats to jaguar populations and how can these threats be eliminated. All these aspects are likely to vary from location to location and have to be investigated on a local or regional level. Therefore, we have established projects studying and monitoring focal jaguar populations in the different Brazilian biomes. On a national level, we want to identify remaining jaguar populations, we want to understand what influences the distribution and abundance of the species, and be able to indicate priority areas for its long-term conservation.

6. Are the Pantanal’s jaguars the largest in the world? What’s the largest jaguar you have captured in your research?

Jaguars inhabiting open habitats, like the Pantanal, or the Cerrado savanna of central Brazil, tend to be larger than those inhabiting closed habitat areas, like the Amazon rainforest. The largest jaguars ever recorded come from the Pantanal and the Venzuelan Llanos, a habitat similar to the Pantanal. The largest individual JCF ever captured in the Pantanal was a 112kg male.

7. How many jaguars has JCF collared in the Pantanal and how were they trapped?

During the entire project, JCF has already captured 22 jaguars on the Caiman Ecological Refuge and one recently on the Barranco Alto ranch; both areas are located in Mato Grosso do Sul state, but in different regions of the Pantanal. Of these, only four individuals were not radio-collared, as they were juveniles in their prime growth phase. The project currently monitors 11 radio-collared jaguars on the Caiman Ecological Refuge and the female jaguar on the Barranco Alto ranch. Captures are realized using trained hounds of the institutional Jaguaretê Kennel. This is the first kennel in Brazil that breeds and trains dogs exclusively for scientific purposes. Jaguar tracking hounds follow fresh jaguar tracks and tree or corner the jaguar, so that it can be anesthetized with a dart gun. This is an efficient methodology for capturing jaguars that also allows researchers to target specific individuals.

8. What are the main prey species of the jaguars in your study?

JCF researcher Grasiela Porfírio recently finished her Master’s thesis on jaguar diet in the Pantanal and she found that jaguars on the Caiman Ecological Refuge, where we run our long-term Pantanal jaguar monitoring program, feed mainly on agoutis, armadillos, deer and capybara in the wet season, and agoutis cattle, deer and white-lipped peccaries in the dry season. In the Pantanal and other areas where these reptiles are abundant, jaguars also feed on caimans, but generally prefer mammalian prey species.

9. What are the greatest threats facing the jaguars of the Pantanal?

Jaguars have coexisted with extensive cattle ranching in the Pantanal for hundreds of years. While natural prey is very abundant in the Pantanal, in many regions jaguars prey considerably on domestic cattle and are killed in retaliation to that, although jaguar hunting is illegal in Brazil (as in most other parts of the species’ distribution). Characterized by large properties where cattle is bred extensively and often in areas with difficult access, few management options to solve this conflict seem feasible. While the potential of spotting a jaguar has strengthened ecotourism, this is also not an economically viable alternative for the entire region. So this jaguar-cattle rancher conflict continues to pose a threat to jaguar populations in the Pantanal. Apart from that, loss of habitat is becoming an ever growing problem. While until recently the seasonal flooding regime of the Pantanal favored extensive cattle ranching and consequently, low human densities, cattle breeding is becoming more intensive and with advanced technology, agriculture is now moving into the flood plains. Only a small fraction of the Pantanal is legally protected.

10. Speaking non-scientifically, what does the jaguar mean to you?

For me the jaguar means a challenge to go through. Putting the impressive beauty aspect of this cat aside, the existence of the magnificent cat in nature depends solely on our actions. We can easily extirpate a jaguar population from a site and at the same time we can hardly protect in areas surrounded by human settlements. This is because jaguars compete directly to human interests. They prey on domestic cattle, they eat game species and they represent a threat to human life as they could easily kill a person. This said, it becomes very challenging to keep this competitor alive in healthy reproductive populations in a world eager to sell timber, produce food and implement the so called progress. If we are to protect a creature such as a jaguar we need to re-think some of our values and analyze the costs of maintaining this species alive. If we value it as a living species we then need to distribute the costs associated to this decision. After all we will all need to pay for the preserved jaguar land, jaguar food and eventual jaguar predation impact on domestic livestock sitting on the surroundings. Brazil holds 50% of the remaining jaguar habitat but at the same time is living an euphoric moment of agricultural expansion for a worldwide demand of food and bio-fuel. Therefore, under this scenario the protection of the jaguar is a challenge that we have little remaining time to face.