by Paul Donahue

During my time working in the Pantanal I have given many presentations on Jaguars and have talked to countless people about them. Often I am asked what I think the biggest threat to Jaguars is, and my answer is always the same - Jaguars have a cow problem. There are many other threats to the continued survival of the species, but the cumulative impacts of beef production outweigh all the others.

Over the history of human interactions with Jaguars, people have persecuted Jaguars in many ways. Sport hunting was responsible for the demise of many Jaguars. As a boy I can remember copies of Field & Stream magazine with depictions on the cover of Jaguar hunting. Even the U.S. “conservationist” president Theodore Roosevelt participated in Jaguar hunting, killing many of the magnificent cats. An account of more recent Jaguar sport hunting in Brazil can be found in the book Jaguar Hunting in the Mato Grosso and Bolivia with Notes on Other Game by Tony De Almeida and Bert Klineburger. Knowing so many Jaguars as individuals, it is difficult for me to look at the multitude of photos in the book showing grinning hunters standing over a beautiful but very dead Jaguar. Since 1967 it has been illegal to kill a Jaguar in Brazil, however, the law is not often enforced. Still, sport hunting is now only a tiny fraction of what it once was, and probably does not pose a major threat to the species.

The trade in spotted cat pelts also took a tremendous toll on Jaguars and other tropical American spotted cats such as Ocelot and Margay. During the height of this trade in the 1960’s about 15,000 Jaguar pelts a year were being shipped out of Brazil. Clearly that was an unsustainable toll on the species and would have led to near extinction if it had been allowed to continue. Luckily, the 1967 Brazilian ban on both sport and commercial hunting slowed the pelt trade, and the listing in 1973 of Jaguar on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) slowed it even further. Changing trends in female fashion slowed it to a crawl. There are some signs that there is a slight reversal in the social stigma against wearing fur, especially in Italy, but hopefully this reversal can be stopped before it gains momentum.

New threats to Jaguars have emerged in the last few years. A black market has developed for Jaguar parts. The cats are being killed for their fangs (canine teeth), claws, fur, and genitals. The greatest demand is for Jaguar paste, made by boiling Jaguars down for days. These Jaguar parts and products are then being shipped to China for use in traditional medicines. Given the tremendous impact that the illegal traditional medicinal market in East Asia has already had on rhinos, tigers, and pangolins, this could become a serious threat to the survival of Jaguars.

However, despite all these perils, the biggest threats to the future survival of Jaguars come from the raising of cattle for food. This is by no means a new problem. Large cats, both Pumas and Jaguars, came under attack as soon as Europeans began raising cattle in the Americas, and Jaguars have been persecuted by ranchers non-stop, in one way or another, throughout the American tropics since then.

When I first visited the Pantanal in the 1980’s, it was common to see cowboys on horseback riding down the middle of the Transpantaneira, with a gun laying across their lap and surrounded by a pack of Jaguar hounds, a breed of dog known as Onceiro. The cattle ranches that comprise more than 90% of the Pantanal all had Jaguar hunters on their staff, and they did a good job of depressing the Jaguar population. With all the ecotourists traveling along the Transpantaneira these days, hunting of Jaguars by Pantanal ranchers is now far less obvious than it once was, but it still goes on. While it is very hard to accurately assess, some biologists estimate that ranchers are killing between 200 and 300 Jaguars a year in the Pantanal.

This depredation by cattle ranchers is hardly limited to the Pantanal. In 1999 I visited a large cattle ranch in the Beni region of northern Bolivia. The Beni is a seasonally flooded area very similar to the Pantanal where, also like the Pantanal, cattle ranching is the primary economic activity. The owner of the ranch I visited proudly showed me their pelt room. It was in a long, low ranch building and was where they stored the pelts of big cats killed on the ranch. The walls of the large room were covered in big cat pelts, and more were piled on big tables. The owner boasted that over just the last year they had killed more than 40 Jaguars and Pumas on the ranch!

Cattle ranchers never get along well with large predators, and for the obvious reason that these predators occasionally prey on livestock. Wolves were exterminated across the U.S. West throughout the 19th and first part of the 20th century, and even now, after they were brought back in some places under the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, ranchers in the U.S. West are leading a new battle to exterminate the large canids. In many areas in sub-Saharan Africa Lions, Leopards, and Cheetahs are threatened by cattle ranchers. It’s always the same story. Still, as bad as it can be, this direct killing by ranchers is only one part of the threat that the raising of beef poses to Jaguars.

In the Pantanal it would appear that there already is abundant grazing land for cattle, but Pantanal ranchers are still clearing forested land to make even more pastures. In particular, they are clearing the capão, what are known in the U.S. Everglades as “hammocks”. Much of the Pantanal savanna floods during the high water season, becoming unsuitable for cattle grazing. These capão or hammocks are islands of forest that sit above the level of the flood waters. By clearing them and planting them with grass, the ranchers are making areas where their cattle can graze when the floods arrive. While Jaguars love water, they also require forest. This forest is the habitat of the brocket deer and peccaries the Jaguars prey on during the high water season. By clearing the forest, the ranchers are eliminating the habitat of both the Jaguars and their prey. When the numbers of prey animals decline, it makes it even more likely Jaguars will turn to cattle, exacerbating the rancher-Jaguar conflict.

This loss of habitat to cattle pasture is a widespread problem throughout the American tropics, from one end of the Jaguar’s range to the other. Just in Brazil, not only is the Pantanal forest being cut for pasture, but other forest lands are falling to ranchers, as well. Across the Brazilian Amazon, forest destruction to create cattle pasture is one of the largest sources of deforestation in the world. South of the Amazon, and north of the Pantanal, the cerrado dry forest and wooded savanna, an area originally almost as large as the Amazon, has also been decimated to create pastureland.

Habitat destruction for pasture is still not the end of the impact that beef production has on Jaguars. As of this writing, Brazil is number one in the world in both the production and export of beef. It is also number one in the world in the production and export of another commodity - soy. The vast majority of this Brazilian soy production, somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of it, is not going into soy milk and tofu for vegetarians, it is going to feed livestock. In essence, a soybean field is just another type of cattle pasture - a sort of packageable, portable pasture.

Much of the cerrado that has not cleared for pasture has been cleared for soybeans. Soy production is also eating away at the Amazon, especially along the drier southern edge, and soy production is now impacting the Pantanal. Formerly the Pantanal was considered too wet for soybeans, but diking and draining is allowing more and more of it to be turned into soybean fields. As of 2017, one study found that 1.5 million acres of the Pantanal already had been converted to soy production, and that amount is growing. To the southwest of the Pantanal, in western Paraguay, southeast Bolivia, and northern Argentina, the Gran Chaco, a large region of dry forest, has seen some of the world’s highest rates of habitat destruction for agriculture, primarily for soy.  The combined deforestation of Jaguar habitat for cattle pasture and soybean production is mind-boggling.

The soybean production is responsible for another problem impacting the Pantanal. Vast quantities of toxic pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and other agricultural chemicals are used in the production of soy. Soybean fields occupy much of the higher ground surrounding the Pantanal, and the rivers that drain these areas flow into the Pantanal carrying with them a load of agricultural chemicals. Some of these chemical compounds, like the widely used herbicide Roundup, are known to impact wildlife.

Virtually all of the soy grown in Brazil is Roundup Ready soy, a type of soy genetically engineered to be immune to the herbicide. That allows farmers to dump massive quantities of Roundup on their crops to kill weeds without having to worry about impacting their soy. POEA, the surfactant in Roundup, is known to be toxic to many forms of aquatic life, and Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the product, is known to be carcinogenic to higher forms of animal life and to have a deleterious effect on their immune systems.

With Paraguayan Caiman forming a major part of their diet, Jaguars essentially sit at the top of the Pantanal’s aquatic food web. Toxic chemicals coming into the Pantanal’s aquatic ecosystem work their way up through the food web, bioconcentrating at each step along the way. Paraguayan Caiman already occupy a high position in this web, several steps removed from the green plants that absorb chemicals from the water, and then the Jaguar’s eat the caiman, ending up with ten times the concentration of toxins that the reptiles are carrying. While at this point I know of no scientific studies documenting the impact of pesticides on the wildlife of the Pantanal, it is impossible to dump that quantity of dangerous toxic chemicals into an aquatic ecosystem without having deleterious effects.

Still, that is not the end of the impacts of beef production on Jaguars, there is also climate change. Climate change is already having a big impact throughout the range of the Jaguar. This is perhaps most noticeable along the southern edge of the Amazon Basin, where conditions are growing drier and drier.

Much of my time working in South America was spent in Peru’s southern Amazon, in the Department of Madre de Dios. When I first began working there I could not imagine forest fire posing a threat. The forest was like a sponge, even in the dry season. You could drop whole packs of burning matches without worry. Nothing would happen, it was too moist for a fire to start. That is no longer the case, and significant forest fires have burned in this area. I have also spent time working in the southern Amazon forest of the northern part of Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso, the opposite end of the state from the Pantanal. When I worked there these forests had a rich undergrowth avifauna with antthrushes and leaftossers, birds that make a living foraging for invertebrates in the moist leaf litter on the forest floor. These birds are now all but gone from the area, with the forests drying out and the leaf litter too dry to support the prey the birds need.

As climate change worsens and the climate continues to warm, we can expect to see more and frequent wildfires, drying and shrinking forests, and reduced rainfall and wetlands over much of the Jaguar’s range - all things that will have a negative impact on the species and the other creatures with which it shares its environment. As for the Pantanal in particular, climate models show the area growing significantly warmer, by up to 7° C by 2100. A temperature shift on that scale would likely cause a reduction in rainfall, and that could prove disastrous for the wetland ecosystem on which the world’s largest Jaguar population depends.

Clearly, all of climate change can not be put on the shoulders of the cattle industry, but it does carry a very significant part of the responsibility for the problem. First, massive amounts of carbon dioxide are released when the forest is cleared and burned to create pasture or soy fields. Combined, clearing for pastureland and soy fields is the largest driver of deforestation in the world. Not only does the burning of the forest release carbon dioxide, but then there is less forest available to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Second, the burning of the forest sets up a positive feedback loop. Burning the forest to make pasture releases carbon dioxide, which contributes to additional climate change, which makes conditions on the ground warmer and drier, which leads to more wildfires, which release still more carbon dioxide, which contributes to additional climate change, which makes conditions on the ground warmer and drier, which leads to more wildfires...and on it goes.

Lastly, the cattle themselves contribute directly to climate through the production and release of methane, which is at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

A Colombia indigenous myth states, “ The Jaguar was sent to the world as a test of the will and integrity
of first humans.” So far we have massively failed the test, but maybe the situation can still be reversed. Moving away from beef production would be an important part of that reversal.

Pacifica, California
30 March 2019