Ricardo Moreno loves cats. At 14 years old, he would follow around his pet cat and study its behavior—much to his mother’s displeasure.
The big cats once roamed over nearly nine million square kilometers, from the southern mountains of Argentina to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. But decades of deforestation and hunting have drastically shrunk its habitat and eliminated 40 percent of the historic population. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the jaguar as near threatened to extinction; the species is already gone from Uruguay and Ecuador.
As their homes disappear, remaining jaguars are forced to hunt livestock instead of their traditional prey—a phenomenon that often leads farmers and landowners to shoot or poison the cats in retribution, a practice that's further reducing the cats' numbers.
So Moreno, a 2017 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, has embarked on a grassroots strategy to stop the killings: Making jaguars popular with locals. (See "'Indomitable' Jaguars May Have Lessons in Survival for Us.")
In the past five years, Moreno has given more than 1,300 talks to local farmers in Costa Rica and Panama to try and convince them of the animals' worth, for instance as a top predator in balancing the ecosystem.
“Sometimes I never change the mind of the people,” says Moreno, who founded the Panama-based conservation nonprofit Yaguará.
But sometimes, he gets through. "They say 'I really don’t like this cat, but thank you … I like what you are doing with us … Just for that, I’m not going to kill this freaking cat.'"
Moreno has also worked to develop a compensation program that gives locals money for helping scientists track jaguars. For instance, if a remote camera trap captures a photograph of a jaguar on a landowner's property, Yaguará pays the resident.
This data also helps the organization track a jaguar’s movements, so researchers can alert farmers if a jaguar is approaching a farm. If that happens, Yaguará helps farmers build a small corral for livestock closer to their house. (Learn more about National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)
Moreno and his team have also taught local people how to create plaster casts of a jaguar’s tracks, and encourage them to sell these casts to tourists as souvenirs for extra cash.
“We need to create confidence with the locals,” he says. “If you never do that, it’s very hard to change the situation of those animals, not only for jaguars, [but] for every single big cat in the world.”
Tracking a Solitary Hunter
Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer of Panthera, a wildcat conservation group, says conflicts between farmers and wildlife are common.
“Wherever there is livestock and carnivores, there is this clash and this problem,” he says. “With respect to jaguars, it’s undeniably one of the key threats in areas where people exist.” (Read: "Amid Gold Rush, Jaguars Clash With Miners.")
That's why a relationship with Latin American governments is also key to jaguar conservation, said Hunter.
“Probably the most important example of that work is equipping government officers, government wildlife staff, or government forestry staff to respond to complaints about jaguars killing livestock,” he says.
For instance, Panthera provides training to key government officials so they can effectively resolve grievances from community members through sustainable methods, such as setting up camera traps and GPS collars to track movements of the solitary animals. (Read "Rare Jaguars Caught in Camera Traps—for Science.")
“This is one of the great challenges we have with species like jaguars," says Hunter, "so we use tools like camera trapping to get very accurate estimates for relatively small areas. But then being able to take those density estimates and extrapolate them across the range of the jaguar is a real challenge."
'Power of the Poop'
Several researchers are also conducting studies of jaguar scat to learn more about the predators, from their behavior to population density to how they interact with other species.
Claudia Wultsch, a conservation fellow at the American Museum of Natural History, uses professional sniffer dogs to detect the poop samples, which she then uses for genetic studies, such as how jaguar populations are related to one another. (Read about a scat-sniffing dog that works in Argentina.)
“It was very exciting because we could use these two techniques to learn more about jaguars," she says.
Moreno, who has collected more than 600 samples of scat, is working on finding a student to educate about jaguar scat so he can pass on his knowledge to the next generation. (See National Geographic's big cat pictures.)
“For me, this is very cool,” he says. “Always I say to the people, ‘You don’t know the power of the poop!’”