Image: Land Rover Our Planet/Flickr
The Ecuadorian Amazon is officially one of the world’s hotspots for jaguars and other big cats—a position that could become threatened as the government there considers expanding oil drilling.
Last year, we reported that the area likely has more jaguars than anywhere else on Earth, and an upcoming study to be published in the Journal of Tropical Biology's June edition confirms that the area is certainly rare. Using a series of camera traps, Diego Mosquera of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station observed at least 21 distinct jaguar individuals (including one black panther, a rare colour variant of the big cat) over a seven year period between 2005 and 2012.
Given such a small plot—jaguar densities are normally measured over 100 square kilometers of area—it’s impossible to say what the exact density of jaguars in the Ecuadorian rainforest is. But Belize’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary has roughly eight jaguars per 100 square kilometers and is considered to have the highest density of jaguars in the world. Yasuni National Park, the area of the Amazon that Mosquera studies, appears to dwarf that.
One of Mosquera's camera traps captured this jaguar. Image: Diego Mosquera/TBS
“Although our study does not provide an estimate of actual density for jaguars in the area, it does demonstrate that jaguars are reasonably abundant and regularly use the area,” Mosquera wrote. “Repeated occurrences of the same individuals within the boundaries of [the surveyed area] also indicate that home ranges of jaguar overlap both spatially and temporally.”
That last bit is important, because jaguar densities, worldwide, are generally pretty low in any given area because they don’t want to compete for prey. Ecuador’s rainforest, on the other hand, might be unique. Tiputini Biodiversity Station is located just south of the equator in an area that has, until recently, been closely protected by the government and the indigenous people living there. Mosquera says that jaguar densities may be a way of measuring the overall health of the rainforest and, at this point, it looks like Yasuni National Park may be one of the most pristine stretches of rainforest in the world (it’s also well known for being the world’s most biodiverse area).
A jaguar caught on film. Video: Foresta Tiputinik/Youtube
“Frequent overlap may further suggest that prey populations are high,” he wrote. “Many of the prey upon which jaguars depend also are frequent targets of human hunters … an abundance of top predators suggests that prey populations also are abundant … and would suggest that hunting pressure is relatively slight in the area.”
Mosquera wrote that the high density of jaguars “suggests that human activities (e.g., hunting, oil exploration) have not (yet) had an increasing impact on the fauna of the area.”
The habitat could soon be changing, however. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa recently said the country would be expanding oil drilling in Yasuni National Park, a move that would likely require parts of the forest to be clear cut for road construction. The construction, noise, and pollution associated with new oil drilling in the area could push indigenous hunters and jaguars towards the same tracts of land and could have a domino effect on jaguars’ prey.
I met Mosquera at his biodiversity station last July and asked him whether oil drilling would mean an end to the area’s majesty. He took a pragmatic view: “You can’t say it’s going to be the end of Yasuni, because we don’t know that. It’s bad, but you need to look at what’s happened. They’re already drilling and ‘nothing happened,’” he said, referring to the fact that there have not been major ecological disasters in Yasuni, as there have been in the northern parts of the Ecuadorian rainforest. “The problem is not necessarily the oil itself, but the indirect effects on the local populations and the development it brings, especially roads.”