Published: March 2009
Path of the Jaguar
If forward-looking conservationists prevail, this wanderer will live on.
By Mel White

(Update: Big cats can protect humans from the rise of future pandemics. See more in National Geographic News.)

At dusk one evening, deep in a Costa Rican forest, a young male jaguar rises from his sleep, stretches, and silently but determinedly leaves forever the place where he was born.

There's shelter here, and plenty of brocket deer, peccaries, and agoutis for food. He has sensed, too, the presence of females with which he might mate. But there's also a mature male jaguar that claims the forest—and the females. The older cat will tolerate no rivals. The breeze-blown scent of the young male's mother, so comforting to him when he was a cub, no longer binds him to his home. So he goes.

But the wanderer has chosen the wrong direction. In just a few miles he reaches the edge of the forest; beyond lies a coffee plantation. Pushed by instinct and necessity, he keeps moving, staying in the trees along fences and streams. Soon, though, shelter consists only of scattered patches of shrubs and a few trees, where he can find nothing to eat. He's now in a land of cattle ranches, and one night his hunger and the smell of a newborn calf overcome his reluctance to cross open areas. Creeping close before a final rush, he instantly kills the calf with one snap of his powerful jaws.

The next day the rancher finds the remains and the telltale tracks of a jaguar. He calls some of his neighbors and gathers a pack of dogs. The hunters find the young male, but they're armed only with shotguns; anxious, they shoot from too great a distance. The jaguar's massively thick skull protects him from death, but the pellets blind him in one eye and shatter his left foreleg.

Crippled now, unable to find his normal prey in the scrubby forest, let alone stalk and kill it, he's driven by hunger to easier meals. He kills another calf on an adjacent ranch, and then a dog on the outskirts of a nearby town. This time, though, he lingers too long. Attracted by the dog's howls, a group of villagers tree him and, though it takes many blasts, kill him. Jaguars, they say, are nothing but cattle killers, dog killers. They are vermin. They should be shot on sight, anytime, anywhere.

This sad story has been played out thousands of times throughout the jaguar's homeland, stretching from Mexico (and formerly the United States) to Argentina. In recent decades it's happened with even greater frequency, as ranching, farming, and development have eaten up half the big cat's prime habitat, and as humans have decimated its natural prey in many areas of remaining forest.

Alan Rabinowitz envisions a different ending to the story. He imagines that the young jaguar, when he leaves his birthplace, will pass unseen by humans through a near-continuous corridor of sheltering vegetation. Within a couple of days he'll find a small tract of forest harboring enough prey for him to stop and rest a day or two before resuming his trek. Eventually he'll reach a national park or wildlife preserve where he'll find a home, room to roam, plenty of prey, females looking for a mate.

Rabinowitz is the world's leading jaguar expert, and he has begun to realize his dream of creating a vast network of interconnected corridors and refuges extending from the U.S.-Mexico border into South America. It is known as Paseo del Jaguar—Path of the Jaguar. Rabinowitz considers such a network the best hope for keeping this great New World cat from joining lions and tigers on the endangered species list.

Rabinowitz began his work with the Wildlife Conservation Society and now heads the Panthera Foundation, a conservation group dedicated to protecting the world's 36 species of wild cats. The foundation's current work represents a radical change in Rabinowitz's conservation philosophy from just a decade ago. In the 1990s, having censused jaguars across their range, Rabinowitz and other specialists identified dozens of what they called jaguar conservation units (JCUs): large areas with perhaps 50 jaguars, where the local population was either stable or increasing. At the heart of most of the JCUs were existing parks or other protected areas, which Rabinowitz hoped to expand and secure with surrounding buffer zones. "I felt that the best thing we could hope to do was to lock up these great populations in these fragmented areas," he said.

Within a few years, though, the new science of DNA fingerprinting—studying genetic material to determine family and species relationships—revealed an amazing fact: The jaguar is the only large, wide-ranging carnivore in the world with no subspecies. Simply put, this means that for millennia jaguars have been mingling their genes throughout their entire range, so that individuals in northern Mexico are identical to those in southern Brazil. For that to be true, some of the cats must wander regularly and widely between populations.

Rabinowitz and his colleagues went back to their data to see whether the preserves could still be linked with habitat adequate to support a traveling jaguar. "Lo and behold," Rabinowitz said, "while good jaguar habitat, where the cats can live and breed, has decreased by 50 percent since the 1900s, habitat a jaguar can use to travel through has decreased only by 16 percent. Most of it is intact and contiguous. These places are like little oases—very small patches that jaguars will come to, use a while, and then leave. We were writing these places off because they're not habitat where a permanent jaguar population can live. Now they're turning out to be crucial."

Rabinowitz hopes to convince national governments throughout the jaguar's range to maintain this web of habitat through enlightened land-use planning, such as choosing noncritical areas for major developments and road construction. "We're not going to ask them to throw people off their land or to make new national parks," he said. The habitat matrix could encompass woodlands used for a variety of human activities from timber harvest to citrus plantations. Studies have shown that areas smaller than one and a half square miles can serve as temporary, one- or two-day homes—stepping-stones—for wandering jaguars.

While the habitat making up the proposed network is mostly intact for now, prompt conservation action will be needed to protect it, especially in certain areas of Central America and Colombia, where some jaguar travel paths already are critically tenuous. By studying satellite photographs and airplane surveys, and walking sections of the proposed corridor to follow up on reports from local people, Rabinowitz and his team can identify the segments most in need of protection. He then can go to government decision-makers with hard scientific data, he said. "Our first challenge is looking at corridors where there's just a single tendril. We've got to lock up these areas."

Diana Hadley of the Arizona-based Northern Jaguar Project works to protect the northernmost jaguar population in Mexico, with the long-term goal of seeing the species return to the United States. Hadley said the project and its Mexican partners "fully support" Paseo del Jaguar. "If these magnificent animals are ever to reoccupy appropriate habitat north of the border," she said, "the stepping-stones in the jaguar corridor are essential." Paseo del Jaguar ranks with the world's most ambitious conservation programs, and realizing it will take many years. Rabinowitz is focusing first on Mexico and Central America, where officials in all eight countries have approved the project. Costa Rica has already incorporated protection of the corridor into laws regulating development.

Later he'll tackle South America, where landscapes and political situations are more diverse and challenging. Rabinowitz is encouraged, though, by his audiences' emotional response when he talks about jaguars—a response based on the animal's enduring aura of beauty, strength, and mystery. Indigenous peoples around Mexico's central plateau, and the Maya, farther south, incorporated the jaguar into their art and mythology. Today even mobile-phone-carrying government ministers sitting in urban offices feel what Rabinowitz calls "a powerful cultural thread binding them to their ancestors. Nobody can say that the jaguar is not part of their own heritage," he said. "What better unifying symbol can there be than the jaguar?"