At a time when biodiversity is taking a battering in South America, one tiny population of jaguars provides hope for the species.
Incredible Iguazu Falls is a must-see attraction for visitors to Argentina and Brazil. The colossal collection of 275 waterfalls lies amongst verdant green rainforest and is a truly mesmerising place to explore. The Atlantic Forest, where the falls are located, is home to a variety of animal species, from slow-moving sloths to ambling anteaters. And the ancient rainforest, straddling the border between the two countries, also hides a secret.
Living amongst the trees is the largest wild cat in the Americas – the jaguar. Years of persecution meant that in the early 2000s, just eight individual jaguars survived on the Brazilian side of Iguazu National Park. However, a report in 2018, recently released, found that numbers are now up to 28, with a further 77 on the Argentinean side. In a world where good news is often hard to come by, this represents an amazing rebound, the only place in South America where jaguar numbers are actually on the rise.
The Atlantic Forest is prime jaguar habitat, but it is also found in a highly urbanized area, home to approximately two thirds of Brazil’s population. More than 85% of the original extent of the forest has now been cut down, and what remains is highly fragmented. Luckily for the jaguar, much of what remains of the forest is found in mountainous, inaccessible terrain, protected from human encroachment. The big cat has also benefited from political protection, including the arresting of poachers. There has been a move away from cattle ranching in the area, to soy and corn production, reducing human-animal conflict and further boosting the jaguar’s chances of survival.
The 2020 census of jaguar numbers in Iguazu National Park will be very telling. Will jaguar numbers continue to improve? Or will the species be imperiled once again? Only time will tell, but I am hopeful that 2020 is the year that we begin to protect what biodiversity we have left, jaguars and beyond. From the lemurs of Madagascar, to the tigers of Sumatra and the rhinos of Africa, wildlife needs our help more than ever. With so many species facing extinction, we must act now to save what we can.
I still remember my own visit to South America a few years ago. I was canoeing through the Peruvian Amazon, looking out for caiman crocodiles. A sudden coughing roar made everyone in my group freeze. The guide frantically shushing everyone, we floated, silently, ears turned towards where the noise had come from. The cough was heard again, closer this time. Was it coming towards the bank of the river?
Unfortunately, I never saw the jaguar that had been behind the noise. But just hearing the sound it made gave me goosebumps, and I’ve been in awe of the jaguar ever since. Species like the jaguar are crucially important and deserve our respect and protection. Whilst the increasing numbers in Iguazu National Park is obviously positive news, the jaguar and other Amazonian species are still threatened. This is especially true in Brazil, where wildfires have been devastating the rich jungle, many believed to have been started deliberately as part of ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture. Deforestation in the Amazon, the biodiverse Cerrado and the Atlantic Forest also continues at an alarming rate.
One way you can help to protect important habitats such as Iguazu National Park, is to visit them. Tourism is vital to the success of conservation, bringing economic benefit to local people and dissuading them from poaching, logging or farming important biodiversity hotspots. Our group tours in South America employ local people and make use of local eateries and hotels. Around 70% of your holiday money stays in the country you visit, meaning you are helping to combat illegal deforestation and environmental degradation, by putting money into local people’s pockets.