Jaguars in Colombia: Mapping Pathways for Coexistence
Northern Colombia is one of the many Jaguar Corridor areas where persistence and on-the-ground field presence continue to pay off, though the steps forward are sometimes difficult and tiny. A recent field day in December was a good example.
Esteban Payan and I drove north through the Magdelena Medio valley, an area we finished ground-truthing for jaguar presence last year to better define the jaguar passage potentials. Esteban is our regional director, and over these days in the field, our objective is to review our process to further define the best corridor connection between the San Lucas Mountain Range to the west of us, and the Catatumbo Mountains to the east. This is one of the few corridors – of the 68 identified – where one can stand in the corridor and see the nodes, or core areas, where jaguar populations exist, in this case, San Lucas and Catatumbo. After three years of persistent pushing, the discussions about the proposed San Lucas National Park have gathered some important momentum. Catatumbo, on the Venezuelan border, is a jaguar haven, for now. The key – and pressing priority – is the connection between San Lucas and Catatumbo, allowing jaguars the east-west crossing, one of the critical connections between the Amazon JCU, across northern Colombia, and into the wilderness Darien and into Mesoamerica.
In Aguachica, we meet up with Angelica Benitez, a Jaguar Research Grant recipient. As a young Colombian Masters student, Angelica did an exceptional job with the ground-truthing of the area, and now is the biologist in charge of compiling the subsequent information on land use. After reviewing the maps with Angelica, and the plans for the day, the three of us head out to the community of Palmares. After about 45 minutes of driving northwest on rough, unpaved roads, with the San Lucas Mountains in the background, we arrive at an area about the size of two football fields, with a small soccer field in the middle, and about 8 wood and mud houses around two sides.
Under a thatched roof used for meetings and keeping boats stored outside, we meet Gabriel Canes, the leader of the village, a man of maybe 55 or 60 years old. He introduces us to an additional five men of about the same age, and we sit to discuss the village and the work of Panthera in the corridor. For nearly two hours, we get a history of the community from the men, all of whom have the weathered look of people who work the land. As they explained, there are 25 families in the Palmares community, on about 4,000 hectares. They have been on the land for about 24 years, but have not been formally recognized by the government as the owners of the land, despite the fact that they have petitioned to this legal recognition. This is not uncommon in Colombia, largely due to the constant upheavals and displacement of people as a result of guerilla control and movements, as well as paramilitary operations. In fact, this community is relatively stable compared to some areas, and the group seems well organized, cooperative, and economically stable. The primary income for the residents is from the sale of milk. Daily, a truck from Aguachica comes to pick up the production from the day.
After a large lunch supplied by four women, we put on our rubber boots and take a walking tour of the land with the men. For an additional two hours, we walk through fences, underbrush, pastureland and swamps to get a better feel for the use of the land, all the while talking with Gabriel and the others. There were definitely jaguars in the area, though fewer reports than we would expect, given the proximity to the Catatumbo and San Carlos core areas, and especially the proximity of the Magdelena River forest edge. Although we didn’t reach the edge of the Magdelena River, we did reach the dense riparian gallery forest that goes to the river, and the many rivulets that braid along it. This is optimum jaguar habitat.
After sipping tea and some local fruit juice with the group back at the houses, we bade farewell to all of them and headed back to Aguachica. On the way back to town, with the Catatumbo Mountains turning orange with the setting sun, Esteban, Angelica and I discuss the day, and the next activities with Palmares. We all agree that this community is very important in the patchwork of lands that will make up this corridor for jaguars. Angelica will write a report, and return the following week with camera traps to place around key points of the land, and begin some mapping. Primarily, though, she will begin to further develop the potentials with the people for making the Palmares lands more compatible for jaguar passage, and for the protection of the valuable forests that run the edge of the Magdelena River. It was a good day. And, tomorrow we’ll visit another of the local communities, and ultimately, over the coming months, develop the corridor maps and the partners that will allow for jaguar passage through the area.