Stacks of yellow, all-weather notebooks line the bookshelves neatly, with dozens of batteries teetering dangerously close to the edge of the lab bench. Perched above, a large, wooden jaguar keeps watch over the compact office. The air is cool here, out of the heat and humidity of the dense jungle just outside the door.
This office makes up one of the few buildings on Barro Colorado Island, a 4,000-acre stretch of tropical forest rooted in the middle of a manmade lake in the Panama Canal. Home to thousands of species, the island is a research haven, famous for being one of the most studied areas on the planet. It is here, in this very room, where Josué Ortega brainstorms conservation applications for the data tracked from GPS-collared jaguars.
“Jaguars have been coexisting with humans for 15,000 to 20,000 years,” said Ortega, the 28-year-old scientist committed to their conservation. “But, slowly and slowly they’re turning into a ghost of a species.”
As the largest wild cats in the Americas, ranging between 120 to 200 pounds, jaguars can move 40 square miles in a single day, requiring large, continuous areas of jungle. As farms continue to replace much of their natural habitat, these felines are coming into contact with livestock more frequently, occasionally mistaking cows and sheep for prey when their natural food source is not available. As a result, in an effort to protect their livelihoods, ranchers have resorted to lethal measures against them. Over the last 30 years, 250 jaguars were confirmed killed in Panama alone because of this conflict.
At the same time, this decrease in big natural predators has opened the door for smaller predators, like coyotes, to move into new territory like never before. Having first entered Panama in the late 20th century, coyotes now have the potential to migrate even further to enter South America for the first time in history.
In Panama, the researchers working to conserve jaguars are the same ones who are tracking the coyote expansion. They have seen firsthand how the lack of big predators is mobilizing the canines – and what effects this invasive species can bring to the region including decimating smaller prey animals that don’t have the ability or experience to fight off their attackers.
“We realized that the areas where coyotes can go are places without jaguars,” said Ricardo Moreno, a jaguar specialist who has been tracking both the big cats and coyotes in Panama. “It’s very weird to see coyotes in the forests, but those forests don’t have jaguars and pumas.”
More than ever before, it is vital to track jaguars that still inhabit these jungles, and GPS technology might provide the solution. Yaguará Panama Foundation, a jaguar conservation organization based out of Ciudad de Sabre, an academic community eight miles from Panama City, has been working since 2019 to put GPS collars on five jaguars. This is a difficult process, especially as jaguars are hard to find to begin with, let alone hook up with a computerized collar. In other areas of the world, a popular method has been to use dogs to chase down the jaguar and corner it. However, the ethics of that strategy has proved controversial and unpopular with many zoologists.
As a result, jaguar scientists in Panama use a more popular and successful method called the foot trap, which gently but effectively snags the animal with a strong cable. While this method is safe, it can take months and two dozen people including more than 20 scientists, veterinarians and local volunteers for a successful snag.
It’s proved to be worth the effort, though. By tracking the movements of the animals, this technology can identify which farms, and particular areas within those farms, are the most likely to come into contact with a jaguar.
Communicating this information to ranchers can help them anticipate which sections of their farm are the most vulnerable so that they can take preventative measures, reducing the need to kill the jaguars but also saving the ranchers money in the long run. One successful strategy has been the installation of electric fences. To minimize costs, farmers can put up these fences in the highest-risk areas closest to the jungle to most effectively deter the cats from entering.
“If this is done correctly, this method is almost 80 to 100 percent effective,” said Ortega, whose involvement with Yaguará Panama Foundation has made him part of the only group in Panama putting GPS collars on jaguars.
Another strategy to minimize human-wildlife conflict is to reorient the structure of the farm. To make their livestock less appealing to jaguars, ranchers can protect the smaller, younger animals by putting the larger and stronger ones around them, essentially providing a shield from predators.
Tracking coyotes through Panama
The Yaguará Panama team has been using similar methods as they track coyotes, having put GPS collars on five individuals in Panama. First spotted in Panama starting in the 1980s, these canines have been steadily expanding their range thanks to human development. Coyotes are highly adaptable in suburban towns and even cities, so while deforestation destroys jaguar habitat, it has paved the way for the canines to infiltrate and find comfortable places to live. In Panama, deforestation is believed to take up to 123,500 acres of forest, creating a loss of almost 1% per year. This continued progression fragments the large expanses of jungle needed for larger predators, while smaller predators can use these areas as pathways. This has set the coyotes up to enter South America for the first time in recorded history, reports a study published at the end of 2019.
“They are one of the most adaptable species in the world,” said Roland Kays, one of the lead scientists of the study along with Moreno. Kays has also been Ortega’s mentor as they collaborate on these GPS projects.
Coyotes are generalists, he said, able to modify their diets and even their behavior to adjust to their surroundings. This can mean living off of garbage and mice in cities, while their more rural counterparts can dine on fruit and small mammals. This quality has allowed these canines to expand their range to 49 out of the 50 U.S. states and human expansion has helped them do it.
“As we eliminated the large carnivore” – such as wolves, bears and cougars – “coyotes were able to expand into areas they weren’t in before,” said Nicki Frey, a wildlife ecology professor and coyote expert from Utah State University. “Once the threat of being eaten was gone, their populations expanded.”
Turned off by dense forest and jungle, coyotes use cities as stepping stones into new territories, and are likely following human expansion through rural areas. In cities, coyotes not only have easy access to food, but shelter in the form of human infrastructure. With a continuation of deforestation, the pathways coyotes can travel through Panama will only increase.
“It does seem like the population is getting very close to the border of South America,” said Kays, one of the top coyote researchers in the world.
Poised to enter a new continent, the addition of coyotes could spell disaster for local species. Introducing a new predator can disrupt the natural order of an ecosystem, as prey species haven’t developed the means to avoid them.
“When you introduce a species into an area it has never been in before, it has huge environmental consequences,” said Frey. “They tend to exploit the wildlife that is not used to having that type of predator in that area.”
That’s especially true if that predator is constantly adapting to its environment. Coyotes have been known to breed with other canids, members of the dog family, and have created hybrids that can better fit the particular environment. This has happened throughout New England in the United States, with coyotes breeding with wolves to create a new subspecies, called a coywolf.
In Panama, Kays believes that the coyotes could be breeding with dogs, although genetic testing would be required to prove that. This ability to breed with other canids could help the species populate South America if they cross the border.
Unless they already have. While not confirmed, Moreno said there have been whispers that coyotes have already made the leap.
“Sometimes if you go deep inside a rumor, you find the truth,” said Moreno. Colleagues of Moreno’s, like Kays, note that this wouldn’t be surprising, considering the species has already expanded their range so much.
And since the presence of big predators will slow down their movement, that makes the monitoring of jaguars and pumas that much more important.
Predators captured on camera
Besides GPS collars, there are other technologies that have been helping this endeavor, including camera traps. Hidden among the trees of the jungle, cameras are tucked away along the trails in the Mamoní Valley Preserve, a 12,900-acre area composed of thick rainforest. Here, in one of the 20 ecological hotspots on earth, a two-person nonprofit called Kaminando is committed to using these traps to document individual jaguars. In Mamoní, located about two hours northeast of Panama City by car, these cameras have been able to identify seven individual jaguars.
Camera traps are being used elsewhere in Panama too, including Barro Colorado Island where Jacalyn and Greg Willis have employed them since 1994 to monitor mammals. Professors at Montclair State University in New Jersey, the husband and wife team have dedicated their lives to researching and conserving wild cats on the island.
“Our lives would be diminished without these natural systems,” said Jacalyn Willis.
Camera traps are nothing new, but the technology has come a long way since they were first developed in the 1930s and used a flash and gunpowder to create the image. Now, 26 cameras are strategically placed on Barro Colorado Island, capturing more than 80,000 pictures every six months. In their database, the Willis’ have taken 1.3 million images. Among those photos is a snapshot of the last jaguar on Barro Colorado in 2009, something no human was able to witness in person.
Science is not just for scientists
In addition to their camera trap research, the Willis’ have also been working on a program called the Rainforest Connection, an education initiative connecting researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama with students and teachers around the world.
Connecting science to the community at large is also something Moreno, who has been featured as a National Geographic explorer, is focusing much of his time on. Through specialized workshops and school talks, Moreno hopes that educating ranchers and policy makers about jaguars will have a significant impact in conserving the species.
For him, this has been a lifelong passion. From the age of 6, he was obsessed with studying domesticated cats in downtown Panama City. Moreno would wake up at 2 a.m. every morning to watch and document their behavior, inherently developing the skills he would later need as a jaguar scientist.
Just starting out with his career in the early 2000s, Moreno recognized a need for wild cat studies in Panama, getting involved with Jacalyn Willis’ camera traps before starting his own jaguar studies. Through his research, Moreno saw another need: educating the public on those scientific findings.
“If you want to change things, you need to share the information at a different level and not just in a report,” said Moreno, who wants to work with Panamanian President Laurentino Cortizo about conservation projects like this. “Otherwise, the government doesn’t know you. If they don’t know, they aren’t going to help you. You just exist inside of a library.”
Moreno has been encouraging other scientists to make their research accessible in order to educate the public and policy makers. This can include giving public presentations, seminars and talking to public outlets to get information across to the masses.
“I know it’s hard, but you can do more if you really want to save the forest. And,” he said, “save the world.”