To Save Jaguars in Cerrado: Connect their Protected Areas

David Waite via Upsplash

To Save Jaguars in Cerrado: Connect their Protected Areas

Small, isolated protected areas fail to sustain healthy jaguar populations in the Cerrado biome in Brazil. Scientists find that building wildlife pathways and introducing new individuals are crucial to the long-term survival of large carnivores. 

Finnegan, S. P., L. GalvezBravo, L. Silveira, N. M. Tôrres, A. T. Jácomo, G. B. Alves, and F. Dalerum. Reserve Size, Dispersal and Population Viability in Wide Ranging Carnivores: The Case of Jaguars in Emas National Park, Brazil.” Animal Conservation 24, no. 1 (2020): 3–14. 


Jaguars (Panthera onca) are a large cat species. In the wild, you might find one lounging in a tree as the sun glints off its yellow spotted coat. Jaguars roam across the Americas with no natural enemies, but face increasing pressures from habitat degradation and fragmentation. Due to their declining populations and shrinking ranges, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed jaguars as Near Threatened in 2017.  


The Cerrado biome in central Brazil is home to over 14,000 species, but farmers have dominated the land to grow crops. Jaguars must disperse to survive in the confined land patches. Currently, the Brazilian government only protects two percent of the Cerrado, and does not have any current plan to protect more land. Scientists question if the current park space is sufficient to support jaguars in Cerrado and, if not, how they can save the population. 


In a recent study published in Animal Conservation, Shannon Finnegan and her colleagues assessed jaguar populations in and around the Emas National Park in central Cerrado. Scientists photographed 10 jaguars using camera traps within a month of 2010. Based on camera detection capability and jaguars’ home range characteristics, they calculated a population size of 10-60 felines in the park. This density estimate is remarkably low compared to estimates across the entire jaguar range. Finnegan and her team also tested the survival success of jaguars in the park under different scenarios. They concluded that such a low population faces a 70-90 percent chance of extinction by 2050.  


Scientists attribute the near-inevitable extinction partially to the small, isolated park size. Emas National Park covers an area of 1,320 km2. It is only one-eighth of the minimum range a jaguar population needs to survive. However, researchers recognize that building a protected area of over 10,000 km2 in Brazil is neither logistically nor economically feasible. Another solution is to bridge small prowls of jaguars together by creating connecting pathways between the Emas National Park and nearby habitat patches.  


These cat corridors are beneficial in several ways. Jaguars within the park will be able to branch out beyond the park boundary. Immigrants entering Emas will enlarge the size and improve the age and sex structure of the current jaguar population. The increasing encounters among jaguars improve the chance of mating and lower the chance of inbreeding. When different jaguar prowls mate with each other, the whole population becomes more resilient to survive shocks, such as fragmentated habitats and extreme climate events. Finnegan and her colleagues predict that introducing jaguars outside the park to the current population could lower the extinction risk to nearly zero. 


This study suggests that connectivity plays an important role in the protection of jaguars in the Cerrado biome.  These findings should be further applied to inform the conservation of other endangered large carnivores, such as tigers and mountain lions. By increasing the connectivity of protected areas, small parks can become more sustainable and animal populations can become more resilient in the long term.