Meeting Carnivore Outreach Challenges in Nicaragua and Los Angeles (Part 1): The Delicate Future of Jaguar and Puma Conservation in the Dry Forests of Nicaragua

The staff of Paso Pacifico and I are thrilled to have documented both a puma and a jaguar in the fragmented dry forests of Nicaragua near Rivas after just a few months of camera trapping.  However, this excitement was tempered by fear for the safety of these large predators due to an increase in conflicts with local livestock owners.  We are working with local livestock owners to protect their livelihoods while maintaining a sustainable future for jaguars and pumas of western Nicaragua.  This blog is separated into two parts with carnivore outreach being the connecting theme.

Part 1 (this blog) focuses on the recent detection of a jaguar and how successful outreach efforts may mean the difference between life and death for this individual, a recently discovered puma, and their respective populations within the Paso del Istmo (map below).  

Part 2 will compare the ecology and conservation issues facing Paso del Istmo carnivores to urban carnivores of Los Angeles while focusing on the role of youth outreach and citizen science in shaping the future of human-carnivore coexistence.

Background: Lessons Learned from 1st Field Season

We wrapped up our first field season in early 2013 in Colon, which was a wet, mosquito infested, and muddy rainforest (typical jaguar habitat).  We successfully documented a jaguar and we even captured an endangered Baird’s tapir on camera.  Our season 1 data suggested that at least the densest rainforest of the Paso del Istmo was supporting a diverse community of wildlife very close to the edge of Costa Rica.  However, we had camera traps stolen so we obviously could have done a better job at making sure more of the Colon community knew about the purpose of camera traps and goals of our study.   

We ended the first field season knowing that it was imperative to place a stronger emphasis on carnivore outreach before we moved our cameras to the more fragmented dry forests of Rivas, Nicaragua.  Unlike, the denser and more intact habitat of Colon where the community had knowingly lived with jaguars for many years, human-jaguar coexistence was a more foreign concept to the western dry forest communities.   Megafauna biodiversity was more of an unknown on the opposite side of the isthmus.  In fact, large carnivores were thought to be extirpated from that area due to fragmentation.   Therefore, an informal workshop and discussion, like the one we conducted in Colon, would not be sufficient outreach for the western dry forest communities.

In anticipation of a puma or jaguar detection, we knew that we needed to be proactive about making sure that a potential jaguar discovery was not met with an overwhelmingly negative reception.   Also, community empowerment through education would hopefully go a long way since jaguar and puma populations would possibly become more stable as Paso Pacifico continued reforestation efforts within the isthmus.  Therefore, we made outreach a large component of our study design when applying for grants for the following year. 

The integration of outreach programs had an immediate importance because there were a couple of carnivore attacks on livestock just before I arrived.  The atmosphere was understandably pretty tense and I felt a great deal of pressure with so much at stake.  We hosted a workshop as soon as I touched down in Nicaragua, followed by 4 more workshops.

I have gotten pretty comfortable with giving talks over the past few years but these workshops were humbling.  I was an outsider so I felt almost like a little kid speaking in front of class for the first time.  I mentally prepared myself for a hostile crowd but instead I was greeted by generally receptive people in each community.  More importantly it helped that I was endorsed by local Paso Pacifico staff who had local ties and were respected by these small communities.  

Also, growing up in a large family of “prideful” and tough Nicaraguan women taught me that a preachy outsider/stranger would not get very far in a discussion with Nicaraguans, especially when livelihoods were at stake.  Instead I shared advice in the form of interesting and useful facts.  But first, I explained that it was no coincidence that I happened to be Nicaraguan-American.  I made it clear that I specifically offered to help design and lead this project because I was proud of my Nicaraguan heritage and this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to help the amazing wildlife and people of Nicaragua in my own way.

Our Outreach Strategy

The workshops involved a pretty strategic design that focused on tapping into the local knowledge of the community, empowering residents and livestock owners with basic knowledge about local carnivore ecology and livestock husbandry practices.  This information was critical for keeping their livelihoods and local carnivores safe, especially because nearly all the land within our study area (jaguar habitat) was privately owned.  A huge priority throughout this process was to strengthen bonds and gain the respect of the local community.  After all, the bottom line was that I could capture as many photos of charismatic endangered species as I wanted but this did nothing for carnivore conservation if the local community didn’t value or respect these species.  In other words, their livelihoods were at stake, before and after our research was completed, not ours. 

We hoped that a few people would begin appreciating big cats as much as we did by the end of the workshop but we knew that was not our main mission.  Instead, our goal was to make even the livestock owner with the biggest grudge against big cats able to understand that it was in the best interest of his livelihood to refrain from killing or even attempting to kill a jaguar or puma.  A couple facts that resonated were that wounded (e.g., shot) predators were more likely to kill weaker and slower prey (i.e., a fat cow) and that if someone killed a jaguar that was not a livestock killer that person just killed a predator that was protecting its territory (your pasture) from an injured or older jaguar that may move in and attack cattle.  

Step 1-Introducing Community to Local Carnivore Ecology:

Going from village to village setting up our presentation, which sometimes required using our own generator for electricity.  

We started each workshop with an introduction to local carnivore ecology (e.g., important role of predators within local food web, dependence on natural prey, habitat connectivity is important for these wide-ranging species) and the main differences between jaguars and pumas.  We gave them the basics and included some cool facts that grabbed their attention and provided good advice for preventing conflict (e.g., ambush predators that prefer to travel and hunt in thick vegetation).  For instance, pumas kill their prey differently, feed on prey differently and typically go after smaller prey species than jaguars.  Click here to read about a great example of a puma hunting small prey. 

Step 2-Carnivore Species Identification and Livestock Protection:

In this photo I am introducing the community to local carnivore tracks including how to tell the difference between the wider jaguar track and the narrower puma track. 

Part of gaining trust is being an open book, sharing all knowledge and tools at your disposal to enable the community to change their livestock management practices based on facts.  For instance, instead of saying that cougars and jaguars never attack livestock we tell them what increases and decreases the likelihood of their livestock being attacked.  We knew that this would be the most popular portion of the workshop due to local priorities and the demand for knowledge and tools for alleviating conflict.  We then showed them how to identify the culprit through track identification, carcass remains, and a variety of techniques that have protected cattle under similar situations.


Step 3-Community Mapping:

At the conclusion of each presentation, we provided some refreshments and worked together with the local community to map out their villages and neighboring open space.  The mapping exercise usually started with breaking the ice and getting someone to volunteer to be the first drawer.   The first features drawn were either the main road or river to provide a nice point of reference, which were usually followed by the mapping of schools, farms, and livestock grazing areas.  Finally, we asked them to point out where they’d seen livestock attacks, where people had hunted native prey species, and where people had killed or sighted a carnivore.  We usually used this discussion as an opportunity to request permission on people’s property.  The map helped guide where we set up camera traps and reforestation efforts. 

I was looking on as the community enthusiastically mapped out their village while examining the map for the best places to set up camera traps.

Step 4-T-Shirts!!!:

A simple but effective technique we used to encourage more attendance and participation was to offer t-shirts at the end in exchange for their participation throughout the process.  The t-shirts also ended the workshops on a happy note and jaguar t-shirts are great advertisement for human-jaguar coexistence.

 

Taking these photos were particularly proud moments because most of these people went from being very unfamiliar and wary of local carnivores to being directly involved in carnivore conservation.

Taking these photos were particularly proud moments because most of these people went from being very unfamiliar and wary of local carnivores to being directly involved in carnivore conservation.

It was a busy trip because we also had 32 camera traps to install but we made it work thanks to teamwork between Paso Pacifico staff and very accommodating communities within our study area.

Puma Discovery Very Early On

I was personally thrilled that we detected a puma because this is the second time I have documented a puma in a surprising location, which speaks to the elusiveness and adaptability of pumas throughout their range.  The puma was a surprise to many because it was documented on the edge of one of the main fishing villages in the region.   Unfortunately, some local livestock owners had horses killed by a puma just before we arrived so the word spread about a puma in the nearby forests.  On the plus side, the community was at least knowledgeable of its presence for many years due to random sightings, so the presence of the animal in the region did not really take too many people off guard.  My personal impression is that a history of puma stories, sightings, and the smaller size of Nicaraguan pumas compared to jaguars potentially limited the amount of surprise and local fear.  Unlike jaguars, pumas are not an endangered species; however they are also vulnerable to local extinction due to habitat loss and persecution by livestock owners.  For instance, a puma was killed just outside our study area just before I arrived.  Fortunately, the photos below were taken after the reported death of a local puma.

Jaguar Detected (Well-fed Male or Pregnant Female?)

Jaguars had not been seen in this region for more than 30 years prior to our footage.  Therefore, their presence inevitably sparked a much stronger reaction from the local community.  Honestly, I still hadn’t learned my lesson from finding a puma in the middle of Los Angeles, so even I was a little skeptical that we would document anything bigger than a puma and a few ocelots.  I thought the degree of fragmentation in the area, more restrictive habitat requirements, and larger space and resource needs of the jaguar compared to pumas would be too much for jaguars to overcome.  Nonetheless, I was still hopeful because it would mean just as much to this ecosystem as the presence of P-22 means to the health and importance of the Griffith Park ecosystem of Los Angeles.  The entire isthmus was also disregarded by some biologists as an important linkage or habitat for jaguars so that also added some extra incentive to heavily survey this potentially critical linkage for jaguars and other carnivores.  The video has been passed around to a few biologists and veterinarians because it also might be a pregnant female.  A pregnant female would increase the conservation significance of the jaguar footage as it may be the beginning of a new population.  However, we are waiting to get more footage to attempt to confirm the sex and pregnancy status of the individual. 

Just before we collected the footage, there was a horse killed that had characteristics of a typical jaguar kill (large kill bite to the back of the head).   We quickly came together and used both local knowledge and lessons learned from neighboring countries and distant places about human-carnivore compensation programs to devise a plan to mitigate tensions between livestock owners and cats.  I hope our efforts created the foundation for a sustainable peaceful relationship between large carnivores and livestock owners in this region.

First documentation of a jaguar in over 30 years within the dry forests of the Paso del Istmo. 

Conflict Mitigation

Prior to the recent detection of the jaguar, we received information of a horse that was killed by a large predator.  I will spare you the cell phone video but it had pretty typical signs of a jaguar kill such as a bite and severe damage to the back of the skull.  Instead of killing prey through suffocation, jaguars kill their prey by crushing the skull.  They also use their strong bite force (strongest of all cats) to pierce through turtle shells and caiman skulls.  Also, pumas in Latin America are smaller than pumas out here in the United States and rarely go after large prey such as an adult horse.  In any case, the livestock owners (community just outside current sampling area and workshop outreach) were discussing whether or not to kill the jaguar.  We started creating a compensation program and then had to quickly implement and advertise the program once we detected a jaguar video on one of our camera traps.  We researched previous compensation programs and consulted with local Nicaraguans to come up with a fair compensation amount.  Unfortunately, there have been more attacks but fortunately Paso Pacifico has been proactive about getting the news out first before the news spread too far with a negative undertone.  Instead Paso Pacifico worked closely with news stations to make sure the news was spread with a positive spin (i.e., endangered species, maybe beginning of new population).  Also, being open about the jaguar’s presence further strengthened our connection with the local community. 

In addition to the compensation program, Paso Pacifico has worked with the local government to reach out to the affected communities about the compensation program and human-livestock protection techniques by offering workshops in affected communities.  In order to receive payment, the livestock owners are required to sign a contract that prohibits them from killing any jaguars or promoting the capture or death of a puma or jaguar in any way.  Finally, we also reward land owners if we capture camera trap photos of jaguars or pumas within 5 kilometers of their property after there has been an incident.

View our advertisement for our compensation program here.

The responsiveness of the communities to our conservation efforts and advice has been inspirational.  I am also impressed with how knowledgeable both adults and children are with local nature due to their dependence on the local environment for food and income, despite having an education system with limited resources.  In my next blog I will be discussing some striking similarities between carnivore conservation issues in my study site in Nicaragua and issues facing carnivores in Los Angeles, despite the distance and social/ecological differences.  I will also talk about the role of Paso Pacifico’s junior ranger program and how youth outreach and citizen science may have the biggest impact on the future of carnivore conservation. 

Please consider supporting our conservation efforts and Nicaraguans by donating to Paso Pacifico.