The traditional approach to conservation demands segregation—a boundary dividing man and wild. Conservationists identify endangered species’ core habitats and try to fence them off from human contamination—from guns, cornfields, or shopping malls. In many cases, this strategy has worked: protected areas have been important to species and ecosystem survival around the world. But it is also limited, especially when the human landscape and the wild landscape are one and the same.
“I’ve set up a lot of protected areas in my life, and I followed them, and I saw them not working,” says Alan Rabinowitz, CEO and president of the big cat conservation group Panthera. The problem, Rabinowitz found, was that the animals he sought to protect often roamed off of protected lands and into human territories. Fencing off core areas no longer seemed enough for species survival, especially when more big cats were living outside protected areas than within them. “We’d never get enough protected areas to really save the species,” says Rabinowitz. Instead, he had to find ways to protect the cats within the human landscape. To do so, he had to address the most challenging question: how do you get the people who live around large carnivores to support their conservation?
This question has become critically important for conservationists working to save the jaguar. Threatened by dramatic habitat loss, the surviving jaguars must be able to move between their remaining core habitats scattered from Northern Mexico to Argentina. This movement is vital in preventing genetic isolation, a main cause of species extinction. Panthera is working to prevent such isolation by identifying and protecting the pathways jaguars use to travel between habitats (which they call the jaguar’s “genetic corridor”). The goal is to create the world’s most extensive genetic corridor for any species. No place will be more important to the plan’s success than the Brazilian Pantanal, a sprawling wetland where the relationship between people and jaguars has been uneasy at best.
The Pantanal, the world’s largest continental wetland, is a saturated expanse nearly ten times the size of the Florida Everglades. Persistent tropical rains result in regular flooding, nurturing an astonishing array of biodiversity. It is critical jaguar habitat, essential to the species’ conservation. But the Pantanal is also a cluttered intersection between man and nature: 95% of the land is privately owned, and most of it is used as ranchland for cattle. Up to eight million cattle roam this swampy region, and where there are cattle and jaguars, there is conflict. Many ranchers in the area see jaguars as no more than cattle-killers, and they often respond by shooting on sight.
Although this conflict might seem inevitable, Alan Rabinowitz and Panthera are working to prevent it. Together with the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute, Panthera is transforming the relationship between humans and jaguars by providing free healthcare and education to people living in the jaguar corridor. Their goal is to link a better quality of life for local residents with jaguar conservation. Rabinowitz believes that local attitudes can change if conservationists provide the right incentives. Says Rabinowitz, “When I ask people what they want, people don’t generally say, ‘I want a bigger house, or I want a TV.’ Instead, they say, ‘I want a better life for my children. I want a better life generally.’” And that, Rabinowitz learned, comes down to good education and dependable healthcare.
In the past, local ranchers have had to send their young children into faraway towns to be educated; children are sometimes separated from their parents for months at a time. The ranchers have also had to forgo medical care because the nearest hospitals were miles away. To help address these problems, Panthera is building its first school and clinic on two local cattle ranches purchased in 2007 by Panthera’s Executive Chairman Thomas Kaplan. These contiguous ranches, which cover almost 700 square kilometers, connect five nearby wildlife reserves and form a critical piece of the jaguars’ corridor. Sixty-seven workers and eighteen children live and work on these ranches, and Panthera also plans to reach out to neighboring ranches, eventually serving two to three times that number.
Providing free education or healthcare under the umbrella of conservation is not a new idea, notes Rabinowitz, but what conservationists have failed to do in the past is make an effective link between conservation and a better quality of life. Panthera plans to learn from those mistakes. Rather than simply handing out conservation-driven charity, Panthera is offering strong incentives to change behavior. As people come to value the services offered by Panthera and Mount Sinai, they will also feel compelled to value jaguars. “If they wipe out all the jaguars, and there’s no longer a viable jaguar corridor,” says Rabinowitz, “then that clinic will go away as well. We’re not just placing clinics out there in the human landscape. It’s about helping people and helping wildlife and merging those two.” Panthera hopes that this fact, which it communicates explicitly to local ranchers, will create strong social pressure against future killing. “We will be very open about this: all this goes away if jaguars go away.”
Panthera also plans to teach ranchers how to make their ranches more profitable and their cattle safer from jaguar attacks. The traditional style of cattle ranching in the area is free-range, but the Pantanal can be a deadly place for cattle to roam unchecked. Howard Quigley, Director of Western Hemisphere Programs at Panthera, describes a common scene: the rainy season floods the land, and if ranchers fail to get their cattle back to higher ground, the cows are left stranded on small, dry islands surrounded by swamp. If they venture into the flooded grass, piranhas start biting. Quigley recalls seeing “literally scores of cattle that were completely emaciated” huddled together on these scraps of dry land, afraid to move into piranha-infested waters. Then the jaguars come, hungry and opportunistic, to finish them off. The unfair reality, Rabinowitz explains, is that, “In jaguar country, many more cattle get killed by dehydration, by parasites, by starvation, even by mountain lions, but jaguar attacks ranchers take personally.”
Panthera is now pairing experts with experienced ranchers in the Pantanal to create working models of how ranching in the area could be more efficient, more profitable, and more compatible with jaguar conservation. Already, under the supervision of jaguar expert and cattle rancher Rafael Hoogesteijn, Panthera has devised several simple, inexpensive ideas for maximizing ranchers’ profits and cutting jaguar conflict down to almost zero. One of these ideas is, literally, a light bulb. If ranchers simply hung a light bulb over cattle corralled for the night, jaguars, shy as they are, would be much less likely to attack. And if ranchers penned up pregnant cows, instead of letting them wander the forest where gawky newborns become easy targets, yields would likely increase substantially. Other simple strategies include vaccinating cattle for common diseases, installing electric fences, and integrating ornery, protective water buffalo into otherwise vulnerable herds. Says Quigley, “We are going to improve the lives of people on this ranch and improve the profits on this ranch without ever harming a jaguar, and then we can lean over the fence and say, ‘look what we did.’ That’s a credibility you can only get with muddy boots from being out there doing it.” Panthera owes some of this credibility to the man running its ranches, Joaquim Proença, one of the region’s most successful cattle ranchers and most infamous jaguar hunters. Proença sold his jaguar-hunting dogs to Panthera—they are now used to track jaguars for research—and is now watching over Panthera’s 5,000 head of cattle.
The relationship between humans and jaguars in the Pantanal is more complex than it seems. Without cattle ranching, there would be far fewer jaguars in the area. The millions of cattle grazing the Pantanal have changed plant life, making it more suitable for the jaguar’s natural prey. More prey means more jaguars, whether ranchers like it or not. And there is growing evidence that the jaguar, for its part, helps maintain human health. Mount Sinai residents and medical students, besides working as doctors in Panthera’s clinic, will be in the Pantanal studying zoonotic diseases—such as dengue fever, West Nile virus, and avian flu—spread from animals to people. According to Paul Klotman, Chair of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the Pantanal is an ideal place to study the origins and transmission patterns of these diseases. And researchers are tracing these origins, more and more, to imbalanced, unhealthy ecosystems. An ecosystem that loses its top-level predator—for example, its jaguar—becomes bottom-heavy as prey numbers explode. This instability creates a breeding ground for disease. As they uncover and publicize these facts, Mt. Sinai’s researchers are drawing a clear connection between human health and the conservationist’s battle for a whole and healthy ecosystem. They hope that this link, too, will strengthen local interest in jaguar conservation.
Panthera’s program is in its earliest stages—the first teams of doctors traveled to the Pantanal only this past summer—but already there are high hopes for expansion. “The progression here is to set the example, track the numbers, and then try to do some type of outreach,” Quigley says. “What we do over the next two to three years in the Pantanal may be expanded literally over scores if not hundreds of sites if we do this right. Conservation is no longer about creating a hard boundary between wildlife and people. It’s about finding comprehensive and long-term solutions that benefit everyone involved.”