A jaguar cub peers into a camera trap while another jaguar looks on in a Colombian oil palm plantation in April.
Taken in the Magdalena River Valley (map), the surprising picture is among the first photographic evidence that the big cats will venture onto oil palm farms, a growing type of agriculture in South America and Asia.
Such farms are the "main cause of habitat transformation, fragmentation, and loss" for jaguars, said Esteban Payan, director of the Northern South America Jaguar Program for Panthera, a big-cat conservation group that formed a partnership with the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative earlier this year. (National Geographic News is a division of the Society.)
Jaguars currently live in isolated populations scattered across North and South America, which is part of the reason the species is listed as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (See a map of jaguar populations.)
A proposed wildlife corridor stretching from Argentina to Mexico could link jaguar habitats, but it would have to pass through farms and other human-dominated landscapes. Conservationists wanted to know if jaguars would use the agricultural parts of the corridor—hence the Colombian camera traps. (Read "Path of the Jaguar" in National Geographic magazine.)
"I thought I'd be lucky if I caught a glimpse of a fleeting jaguar in the plantation," Payan said. Instead the pictures revealed several of the big cats, including a few cubs.
"In seven years of camera trapping, I have never photographed jaguar cubs," he added. "When I opened the file ... it blew me away."
Image courtesy Panthera
Cat on the Move
A male jaguar is seen prowling an oil palm plantation in Colombia. In addition to habitat loss, the big cats are declining as a result of oil mining and hunting, often in retaliation for killing livestock, Payan said.
The new photos "represent the first step toward understanding how jaguars cope with [agricultural] ecosystems in unprotected lands," he added.
The new jaguar pictures—including the one of a male cat seen above—"open up a whole new agenda of research" into how jaguars tolerate agriculture, Payan said.
Among Payan's questions: "How big of a plantation will they tolerate? What type of harvesting methods do not drive them away? Do we always need forests bordering the plantations? What on earth are they eating inside the plantations?"
Oil palm trees are pictured on a plantation in Santander, Colombia, in 2010.
An increasing demand for oil palm—used mostly for domestic products and biodiesel—has already transformed about a million acres (430,000 hectares) of Colombian forest into farmland, and that's expected to grow to 1.8 million acres (750,000 hectares) by 2020, Payan said.
As for how plantation owners feel about big cats roaming their properties, Payan claims they "love it."
"Owners and management are asking for posters to pin up in the plantation offices."
Photograph by Alejandra Parra, Bloomberg/Getty Images