This Park Ranger Wanted to Be a Jaguar. Now He Protects Them From Poachers

For Bolivian park ranger Marcos Uzquiano, protecting the rainforest and its wildlife is a "calling." Uzquiano is one of the subjects of a new documentary, Tigre Gente, that casts light on the illegal jaguar trade in Bolivia and its reported links to Chinese business interests in South America.

The film, directed by National Geographic Explorer Elizabeth Unger, explores the relatively new black market trade in jaguar fangs, examining the impact Chinese investment is reportedly having on the big cats living in and around Bolivia's Madidi National Park.

The park is considered by some to be the most biodiverse natural area in the world and is home to several hundreds of the big cats—a species that plays an important role in stabilizing ecosystems.

Over the course of six years, the film follows Uzquiano, director of the Madidi National Park, as he risks his life pursuing poachers in Bolivia, as well as the exploits of Hong Kong journalist Laurel Chor who investigates the selling of jaguar teeth in China and Myanmar.

Unger turns her gaze to the cultural drivers and deeply rooted traditions of traditional Chinese medicine that fuels the killing of jaguars. Poaching poses a grave threat to the animals—the largest cat species in the Americas—alongside habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict.

Wild jaguar populations have declined since the late 1990s, with the species now listed as "Near Threatened" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List.

Newsweek spoke to Uzquiano about his work protecting Bolivia's wildlife. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the significance of the jaguar in Bolivia?

It is important to preserve the jaguar not only as a unique entity, but as a species on which a lot of things depend, including other wildlife and even the landscape itself.

The jaguar forms part of the landscape, it is one of the main attractions for Madidi. Not just because of the jaguar's natural significance in its habitat, but because of the cultural value it has for the communities.

Losing such an emblematic species, so important for Bolivia, would mean reducing the possibilities that the national park has to continue developing ecotourism in the way we have been implementing it—through community tourism with the Indigenous people.

It means denying the people who live in the park the opportunity to have a healthy ecosystem, to be able to grow in harmony with the environment, with Mother Earth.

How big is the threat of jaguar trafficking in the region of the Madidi National Park?

Jaguar trafficking is a very worrying threat for us and a threat that jaguars have been facing since the 1970s, when they were being poached for their skin.

Decades have gone by and now we have this threat of jaguar fang trafficking. We didn't really know much about it until around 2014, which is when we started to identify the first cases.

It's a new threat that is directly linked to the presence of some Chinese suppliers, due to some of the development projects that are being implemented in surrounding areas of the national park. This is where lots of construction companies come, lots of them Chinese, with many contracted workers of Chinese origin.

Why did you dedicate yourself to protecting Bolivia's jaguars?

When I was a child growing up, there were not many doctors. Our doctor was a healing elder or shaman from the [local] Tacana community.

He would tell us fascinating stories about "Tigre Gente" [Jaguar People]—someone who is a member of the local community who has the power to turn into a jaguar. This story really fascinated me and my brother. We wanted to have that power.

From a very young age, I had a real fondness for nature. I loved the forest, rivers, mountains, plants, animals. I always had concerns about what was going on with regard to deforestation. It hurt me a lot to see people killing animals. So, I said to myself, "I wish I was a Tigre Gente, so I can make sure that this will stop happening—so that people stop killing jaguars."

When I was around 12 years old, I had the opportunity to take my first trip going deep into the Amazon rainforest in Bolivia. One day, me and my brother were on the bank of the Beni River and we felt something moving underneath us.

We turned around and we saw a large jaguar behind us. We were so scared, we crossed back to the riverbank and ran back to camp. The workers who were at camp heard us screaming, grabbed their shotguns and killed the jaguar. It was really sad for me because I felt responsible—my fear in that moment caused them to kill it.

From that moment on, I said never again will I be the cause of a jaguar's death, or any animal. As time went by, I had the chance to become part of the protection team at Madidi National Park.

Who would have thought I would actually become a Tigre Gente, like I always wanted. I had the opportunity to become a park ranger, and it's actually really similar. Protecting the park and the jaguars and other species.

Do you feel that authorities are losing or winning the fight against the traffickers and poachers in Bolivia?

I don't think we're losing the battle. Very important steps have been taken by Bolivia as a state. Until last year, it was the only country in the region to have developed public policies and strategic plans to protect the jaguars against this new threat of fang trafficking. The general public, NGOs, and the heads of state have carried out a significant campaign, of which we are extremely proud as park rangers.

You no longer feel that obvious, direct pressure that you felt between 2014 and 2017. [Jaguar fang trafficking] was extremely evident at that time, but now, not so much. There aren't any radio adverts, people are more careful now because they know that trafficking a jaguar fang could put you in prison or land you in a lawsuit.

This doesn't mean that the problem has just gone away. It's very possible that the pandemic has potentially put this issue on pause for a little while, I'm not sure. Or, it may have even disguised the problem a little bit.

There is still a lot to do. Unfortunately, we lack sufficient operational capacity. We have a very small budget for patrols with fuel, there aren't sufficient resources to maintain boats, cars and vehicles properly. We have vehicles that aren't as powerful or capable against the traffickers.

Madidi park ranger Marcos Uzquiano
A screenshot from "Tigre Gente" showing park ranger Marcos Uzquiano and colleagues on patrol in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Tigre Gente

There's lots more work to be done on a state level. Strengthening the state institutions, such as the police, educating the Bolivian population—there are conflicts, between the jaguars and the communities, between the jaguars and the farmers, for example. We have to learn how to handle and control this.

What is the future of jaguars in Bolivia and in Latin America as a whole?

That's a difficult question to answer. All the countries in the region have seen aggressive progress across the agricultural frontier that could affect the conservation of the jaguar's habitat. I'm talking about wood chopping, deforestation, bush fires—these are all increasing at an alarming rate.

I think the future of the jaguar is in jeopardy if we don't enforce measures and public policies at different state levels. Because as time goes on, there is less space for biodiversity conservation—the human population is rapidly increasing, people are starting to implement destructive activities inside protected areas. This is going to pull apart not only the jaguar's habitat, but the habitat of many species.

We have to keep strengthening the monitoring and surveillance systems that we have. We have to keep educating the international community so as to gain effective support for developing countries.

The park rangers play a very important role, but if they are deprived of measures and resources , however much commitment, however much dedication, however much sacrifice they make, it will always be a very difficult job. Even more difficult if we are on our own.

In Bolivia, we have really made a lot of progress. But there is still a lack of power to make these policies happen on a regional level across the continent.

What do you think of these people who kill jaguars? And also those who buy jaguar products?

First, we need to understand the realities of the local communities. These communities face extreme levels of poverty in some cases. Their needs at times force the population to carry out activities that can often be contrary to the objectives of conservation.

There are clear conflicts between the jaguars and the communities—one of the reasons why people poach and kill jaguars is to keep the jaguar from attacking their livestock, and they must kill the jaguar to protect the small number of livestock they have.

On the other hand, there are the people who traffic jaguar parts, there are the people that learn that a jaguar has been killed in a certain place and they buy it.

I think that these people who are involved in the trafficking, the buying and selling of jaguar fangs, are those who have no love for nature or for life, who are not interested in the welfare of themselves as individuals and all of us, as humankind. They are people who are only interested in money, in power.

Marcos Uzquiano in Madidi National Park
Marcos Uzquiano investigating boats in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Tigre Gente

Tigre Gente premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 11.