Trust exercise

Reframing the benefits of jaguar-friendly ranching

Large gathering of people under a tree on a ranch

How do you convince a room full of cowboys to love an animal that eats their cows? That’s the challenge faced by Fabiola La Rosa Camino, a wildlife officer with WWF-Peru, as she navigates a gathering of sun-weathered ranchers at a field school deep in the Amazon.

Today’s event in the small town of Iñapari, Peru, is ostensibly about regenerative ranching, a popular WWF program that helps communities better utilize their existing pastures while avoiding further deforestation. La Rosa hopes to use the trust WWF built in that program to steer the conversation toward the thornier issue of jaguars. Specifically, she wants to see if ranchers can imagine an improved version of coexistence with the big cats, especially with WWF’s efforts in the region to restore jaguar habitats and their ability to move across the landscape.

Cow pastures have long since replaced rain forest alongside much of the nearby Interoceanic Highway. Yet the surrounding public lands remain prime habitat for the Amazon’s apex predator, making this fragmented zone ripe for conflict. Quantifying cat-caused mortalities is tricky in the absence of hard data. Anecdotally, however, many ranchers view jaguars as a serious economic threat, and since it’s generally illegal to kill a jaguar, incidences of retaliatory killing are rarely reported.

NOBLE NEIGHBORS | Collected as part of a broad effort to identify, monitor, and understand jaguars and their movements across wild and people-dominated landscapes in Peru, these images show the diversity of habitat the animals inhabit and the unique characteristics of individual cats.

To get a better sense of the conflict, La Rosa reached out to 10 different ranching communities. The idea was to measure their tolerance levels for el tigre pintado, as the animal is locally known. She says what surprised her most when she started this work in 2022 was that each community had a unique perspective. Some really loved the jaguars and were keen to protect them; others closer to parklands had spent years sustaining losses while being lectured by environmentalists, making them resentful of conservation.

From August to October 2023, camera traps on the 12 properties recorded four jaguars and five pumas in the vicinity of the farms, suggesting close coexistence between the two predators. It also underscores the importance of recognizing that jaguars are not the only large carnivores moving through these spaces, emphasizing the need for accurate data and effective conflict-management strategies.

“We saw that people don’t just want to hear about the wildlife alone,” she explains. “We needed to link that with productivity and how wildlife is important for them in terms of the benefits they receive.” Jaguars, for example, are top predators that control wild herbivore populations, which might damage fields and crops.

What La Rosa also learned and shares with the crowd today is that el tigre pintado was getting blamed for all kinds of livestock deaths, even if there wasn’t a whole lot of proof that the cat was, in fact, the culprit. So, she identified 12 ranchers for a pilot project on human-jaguar conflict management. All had small- or medium-sized lands where the economic toll of each cow fatality is greatest.

After establishing a baseline of their annual losses (which is important for demonstrating change), La Rosa worked with the ranchers to codesign and implement low-cost, anti-predation measures. Some installed perimeter fencing. Others added powerful LED floodlights to deter animals at night or opted for cowbells or similar aural deterrents. People added water sources and planted trees mid-pasture to stop cows from seeking shade along the forested periphery where predators are more likely to hide.

“The jaguar is a great symbol for conservation in the Americas because of its unmatched beauty and power. Preservation of this regal species is a worthy goal in its own right. But more importantly, by preserving the habitat of this apex predator, we also preserve all the flora and fauna that interconnect to form the ecosystems of which the jaguar is an important part. Ultimately, I give to causes that make the world a better place—and protecting jaguars and their habitat is a way to do just that.”

Richard Rosen
WWF National Council

La Rosa made suggestions for investment-free changes, too, including better surveillance techniques to keep track of cow numbers in real time. Many ranchers already had electric fences but didn’t use them at a high enough voltage to deter jaguars, which was an easy fix. And when cows passed away of natural causes, their rotting carcasses often attracted hungry cats, leading to more losses (something that proper disposal could prevent).

Lastly, each participant placed camera traps in vulnerable areas close to the forest edge, where most attacks occur. “People tend to say, ‘There are a lot of jaguars here,’ but it might just be one who’s old or injured and can’t hunt anymore,” La Rosa says. “So, it’s important to understand if it’s the same jaguar, or if it’s different individuals.”

The long-term goal is for ranchers to increase their tolerance for wildlife. “We live in a shared landscape,” La Rosa explains, “and jaguars were here first, so it would be naïve to think that attacks won’t happen anymore.” Instead, the hope is to minimize damages by preventing jaguars from entering ranchlands in the first place.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever achieve total harmony,” La Rosa acknowledges, glancing at a toy jaguar she’s brought along to lighten the mood. “But I can conceive of a world where we could at least live in equilibrium.”


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