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2 Feb, 2009 09:49

Oil and bushmeat threaten Ecuador’s jaguars

Oil and bushmeat threaten Ecuador’s jaguars

Jaguars are being driven further into the rainforest to find prey as oil development encroaches and local communities vie for their food, a photo census shows.

The challenging future facing Ecuador’s jaguars has been revealed in a census in the rainforest of the Yasuni National Park and neighbouring Waorani Ethnic Reserve.

The first-ever comprehensive survey of its kind has captured 75 images of the big cat, as well as wild dogs and white-lipped peccaries (a pig-like prey of the jaguars). The jaguar is the largest cat in the Western hemisphere, and can weigh more than 300 pounds.

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has organised the census in the equatorial east of the country, where the Andes meet the Amazon basin. Their preliminary findings are stark: only three big cats were found in the accessible and therefore heavily hunted Yasuni National Park, as opposed to 13 in the more remote adjacent area. The fact there are nearly five times more jaguars in isolated areas has strong implications for the jaguar’s future, as their habitat is being put under increasing pressure.

Jaguars losing competition for prey

Jaguar numbers failed to recover from being hunted for their fur in the 1960s and 1970s. Now, they owe their survival to the existence of remote areas of the Amazon Basin. One of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, the basin is under threat from oil exploration, which has required the building of roads.

These have made previously isolated areas much easier to access for indigenous people. This, in turn, has allowed for easy bushmeat hunting, limiting the prey left for the jaguars that they would usually thrive upon.

“There is competition for food as people hunt the same prey species as the jaguar. If the prey species disappear, the jaguar will be gone,” said Santiago Espinosa, who leads the WCS project.

The census began in 2007. It works by setting up heat sensors along jungle paths, which trigger a camera when an animal passes. The expectation is that as the oil industry develops further, bringing new roads and development, jaguar numbers will continue fall. The feared decline can then be measured against the baseline figure now being established.

Indigenous people losing out to oil

Among the WCS team are members of the Waorani indigenous people. In Waorani culture, the jaguar has a special significance and they are never hunted. The Waorani also have to fight to survive the effects of illegal logging and oil drilling.

The relationship between the 4,000 Waorani and the diverse rainforest was untroubled by outside forces until 40 years ago when the exploration of oil was initiated. There are vast deposits of oil and gas under the traditional homeland of the Waorani and their exploitation has led to deforestation and pollution of the rivers and forest.

Some Waorani communities have retreated further into more isolated areas of the jungle as development encroached. In theory, the Waorani’s reserve allows them to live apart from the outside world. However, the government continues to grant oil exploration licenses in the region, potentially endangering their long-term existence.

Jonathan Stibbs for RT