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A jaguar sleeps in a tree with drool hanging from its mouth

Floods, predators, prey: Understanding human-jaguar relationships, animals’ movements

When a GPS collar drops off of a jaguar, you have to go find it.


Often, this means hiking through brush until you stumble upon it in the woods. But for Wezddy Del Toro Orozco, a doctoral student in the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, this meant a jump into the water. Specifically, at the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve, a part of the Amazonian forest that floods for several months out of the year. Here, as part of the Research Group in the Ecology and Conservation of Felines of Amazonia from Mamiraua Institute, Del Toro has been tracking jaguars native to this area. 


When the river waters cover the ground, the only way to get around it is by boat. And that means if one of the cats slips a collar, you have to dive into the flooded forest to find it.


“The water is very dark, very muddy,” said Del Toro, who worked in this area of Brazil for seven years before enrolling in the Integrative Conservation Ph.D. program at UGA, which includes Warnell. “My team and I were just feeling around for it; at one point somebody grabbed my leg and I tried not to scream. … You can’t think about the other things in the water, like the piranhas or the caimans.”


The team found the collar, though. It’s one of many small success stories she’s uncovered in this uniquely harsh environment, where both people and animals have learned to live with about 30 feet (10 meters) of flooding for a time each year.


In this region, small villages exist in houses that float, or are built taller to account for flooding. Residents primarily farm, fish or hunt, but do have small flocks of domestic animals, such as cows. When the flooding season begins, the animals are moved onto floating barges until the flooding subsides.


The region is also home to jaguars, causing some negative interactions with the people who live there. The jaguars have adapted to the flooding by living and hunting in trees, but occasionally will kill residents’ animals. That’s why Del Toro has been navigating these waters for about a decade—she wants to better understand how jaguars move about the area, and how these interactions can be reduced.


“When jaguars are predating on the livestock of local communities, that means someone is losing their life savings. It’s like you went to your bank account and suddenly there was nothing,” she said. As a result, sometimes residents kill the jaguar in retaliation. “But we don’t want to be just saying, ‘You can’t kill the jaguars.’ They have to live with them. So, part of my work is focusing on understanding these types of relationships, understanding or characterizing where the conflict or where the predation events are occurring. We also want to look for alternatives to reduce the number of jaguars that are being killed while reducing the number of livestock that people are losing due to the jaguars.


“We are trying to see both sides. We want to try to do something that is a win-win, or at least reduce the losses.”


Arboreal life

Historically, jaguars’ range extended from the southern United States through the northern portions of Argentina.. But the Amazon has one of the densest, healthiest populations, said Del Toro, which is why it’s crucial to protect it.


In this area of the Amazon, a combination of the snow melting from the Andes Mountains and rain increases the level of the Amazon River, covering almost 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) with about 10 meters of water (about 30 feet) for several months. Working with residents was key to studying the jaguars. Local people had already observed that jaguars lived on the trees during the flooding season, but researchers also wanted to understand more about the jaguars’ movements.


Researchers wanted to know: Did jaguars leave the area? Did their movements change during this timeframe? And how did this overlap with people in the area?


By capturing jaguars and fitting them with GPS collars—an already difficult task complicated by the ability of jaguars to seamlessly disappear into their environment—Del Toro said they determined that jaguars don’t relocate when the rivers rise.


Instead, they go up as well.


“None of them left the area during the flooding, and that’s probably because there is a high abundance of prey, like sloths, monkeys and caimans,” she said. “It’s very interesting to see how the animals have adapted to the area.”


This area is also unique among jaguar populations because of the high prevalence of black, or melanistic, jaguars. This might reflect the habitat, Del Toro noted, as their dark coats make them particularly well suited to camouflaging under shady limbs and sliding into dark waters.


Still, she said, both the freckled and the black coats are difficult for human eyes to find. When the team heads out on boats to follow GPS and VHF signals, it can take some time to find their target.


“We know there are jaguars there because we are tracking them with a VHF antenna and it is beeping. Sometimes it takes 20 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour to find them. When you are super close the signal goes all over, and you know they are looking at us but we can’t see them,” she said. “We have monitored them during the night as well, and it’s impressive. With a flashlight, you can kind of see the spots and the eyes shine. But, if it’s a black jaguar, they would blend into the background. If they have their eyes closed, you can’t see anything.”


Local lessons

While Del Toro has been monitoring jaguar movements, she has also been collecting information on residents’ perception of jaguars in the flooding region. Understanding their situations and needs is an essential part of finding a solution that satisfies the long-term viability of the jaguar population as well as the livelihoods of the people, with the final goal of achieving coexistence.


While she is still analyzing her data, she’s seen a trend emerge during transitional times—for example, areas of slightly elevated land that tend to be the last places to flood and the first to emerge as the waters recede. Here, both people and jaguars find refuge. It’s also a large source of interactions.


“I won’t say we’re going to find a solution, because these types of interactions have been going on since predators and humans have coexisted,” she said. “But I will say that through our interviews, we have found that most of the predation events happen at night. A lot of people raise their animals free-range, so maybe we can invest in a confined space for keeping the animals when they are most vulnerable and pay more attention to these periods.”


She has been working with the Mamiraua Institute for Sustainable Development and the Uakari Lodge on one of their ecotourism initiatives, The Jaguar Expedition. The organization brings in tourists during the flooding season to see the jaguars and take part in the research. The profits benefit the research, the lodge, which is community-based, and the communities themselves, which see an advantage in keeping jaguars alive. “We’re trying to show people that there are some benefits we can get from the jaguars as well,” she added.


Understanding and working with the residents is key, said Del Toro, because they are the experts in the area. In her years working there, she has visited 300 communities and conducted more than 400 interviews.


As a result, she had a large collection of social and ecological data, and she wanted to find a way of integrating it. That’s when she received a scholarship from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which would pay for her first year of doctoral studies. The organization also put her in touch with Nate Nibbelink, a professor of spatial ecology and associate dean for research at Warnell. Nibbelink is affiliated with the ICON PhD program, which offers an interdisciplinary approach to science.


By taking classes in anthropology and geography, as well as wildlife and ecology classes at Warnell, Del Toro could find a way to pull her interviews and spatial data into one project.


Granted, her data could satisfy several doctoral degrees. But working with Nibbelink has helped her focus on one piece of the puzzle. “I know I can do more later,” she added with a laugh.


Benefits for both

Jaguars are an integral part of the Amazon ecosystem. They help control populations of their food species, such as caimans and monkeys. Their presence signifies a healthy system, said Del Toro, because it means there is a variety of species. And, they act as indirect gardeners—by eating animals that have eaten seeds, jaguar excrement can disperse these seeds even farther.


They are what Del Toro calls a charismatic animal, one of a handful that many Brazilians identify with. With such a vibrant, dense jaguar population, this creates opportunities for greater public buy-in for larger conservation efforts in the region.


Still, added Del Toro, it doesn’t matter what laws are put in place to protect jaguars. Rather, it’s by working with the residents who are directly co-living with jaguars that we can create change and achieve coexistence.


By understanding the full scope of residents’ issues, as well as the behavior of the jaguars, Del Toro said she is hopeful she and her research team can work toward more sustainable solutions for both.


“I say, if you always use pineapple, you will always end up with pineapple pie,” she said. “But if you want something different, you need to try different ingredients. That is where I am trying to look—are there any alternatives where we might get different results? That is part of the project.”


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