By Kathryn Cawdrey
SAN JORGE DE GUANACASTE, Costa Rica —The jaguar basks in the sun, stretched out on a large boulder, with its tail twitching back and forth like a house cat’s.
In a recent interview, rancher Genaro Romero Carbonero stood near that boulder, describing this scene of his repeated encounters with a jaguar less than 500 feet from his workplace. He likes to refer to the big rock as the jaguar’s “bedroom,” as he often sees it there.
Carbonero is a perfect example of who Ronit Amit, coordinator of Gente y Fauna, aims to team up with to protect and preserve the habitat and well-being of these animals.
Amit has worked in Guanacaste for 12 years, earning her master’s degree and Ph.D. while studying wildlife management. She works with communities near San Jorge, specifically ranchers and farmers, to help them learn to coexist with jaguars and pumas around the area, even though the big cats sometimes kill their animals.
During her studies, Amit realized the solution to this issue in field conservation lies with people.
“Managing people requires getting into their heads,” Amit said. “When you get a sense of how to influence behavior, then you can start to build projects around that.”
Protected areas are not big enough to provide sufficient prey, which leads jaguars to nearby pastures. Amit and her team gathered community members to teach them that jaguars and people are part of the same world, and must depend on each other, she said.
Amit’s project breaks ranchers into four categories:
- “Risk-Neutral” ranchers who do not think they have a problem with jaguars.
- “Helpless” ranchers who suffer high rates of predation and feel there is no way to fix it.
- “Preventive” ranchers who are ideal, as they work hard to adopt preventive practices to minimize damage to livestock.
- “Cat-negative” ranchers who are angry and afraid of cats.
Carbonero is considered a “risk-neutral” rancher. He works as a guard and general overseer of cattle and horses for a property while its owners are away. He has regular up-close-and-personal experiences with jaguars but says they are neither a pleasure nor a nuisance.
“To me, it’s nothing.” he said.
Although Carbonero may not dislike the jaguars, he first encountered a “tigre” when his dog was attacked by one. The dog survived the first attempt but was fatally injured by the second. His new dog, Lassie, now sleeps in a pen to stay safe.
The dog has not been the only casualty, though. Two calves were eaten and two horses survived attacks. The horses show serious signs of caution around “spotted things” that look similar to jaguars, Carbonero said. In one incident, he saw a jaguar snacking on a mule near the river. When he passed by later that day, it had dragged the mule up into a nearby tree.
Despite attacks on livestock nearby, Carbonero has no fear. When asked if he is afraid, he simply responded, “no,” with a wave of his hand.
“Because it doesn’t attack,” he said.
He often scares jaguars away by banging his machete on the concrete or even just getting too close. Most times, though, he simply goes about his day.
“Get up,” he yells to the jaguar when it lounges nearby. “You’re wasting the day!”
Carbonero uses this relationship to entice tourists, as they can sometimes catch a glimpse of the cat, too.
“I like to see them with tourists,” he said. “They get really excited if they can see a jaguar.”
Although Carbonero’s attitude isn’t vengeful toward big cats, Amit hopes to establish a relationship with him to aid protection of land and resources.
“[The jaguar is] something he can enjoy and accept,” she said. “But he doesn’t prevent damages.”
Costa Rican culture is generally more reactive than preventative, Amit said. Attacks may be tolerated, but some residents illegally shoot local jaguars. She hopes to promote preventative measures to communities to spare jaguar’s lives. Simple tactics like electric fences or hanging strips of fabric have shown some success.
“All predators have a major role on regulation of biodiversity,” Amit said.
Predators act as top-down control of biodiversity, meaning that jaguars and pumas are responsible for the upkeep of competition and new survival strategies among other kinds of animals.
An ecosystem without jaguars would be like a tree without leaves. The trunk would simply be excess carbon, without any way to grow or further develop. The trunk needs the leaves — and photosynthesis — to continue growing and thriving, she said.
Although jaguars are more endangered, pumas need protection, too. Many of Amit’s colleagues are focused on jaguars, so pumas are being overlooked, she said.
“Protect both,” Amit said.
Edited by Holly Enowski