Spike in Big Cat Poaching During Coronavirus Lockdown in Colombia, Conservation Group Says

Conservation non-profit Panthera is reporting an increase in the poaching of wild cats—such as jaguars and pumas—during Colombia's COVID-19 lockdown, the organization has told Newsweek.

As countries around the world impose strict lockdown measures on their populations, the appearance of wildlife in areas normally overrun by humans has sometimes been taken as evidence that animals are benefiting from the pandemic.

Among those venturing into unusual terrain are wild cats. For example, a jaguar was recently spotted in a deserted Mexican beach resort toward the end of March, while Chilean authorities have captured at least three pumas roaming the empty streets of the country's capital Santiago since the city's lockdown began.

But in some regions, lockdown measures may be placing these threatened wild cats at increased risk, according to Esteban Payán, the Northern South America Regional Director for Panthera's Jaguar Program.]

"While we are all social distancing and are delighted to see wildlife return to urban centers, at Panthera we're registering a spike in cat killings," Payán told Newsweek. "Poachers are at large and, unfortunately, they've been killing jaguars, pumas and ocelots. They're feeling our absence, especially in unprotected areas where we continue to work."

A spate of recent killings has concerned Payán although he says that the true extent of poaching is most likely higher than what Panthera has recorded.

"Since our information comes from a network of informants who are also generally locked down, it is impossible to know how widespread this hunting is yet. With five jaguars, one puma and one ocelot already reported poached in northwest Colombia, I am afraid to guess the true level of carnage," he said.

Jaguar Panthera onca
File photo of a jaguar (Panthera onca). iStock

A variety of factors may be contributing to the recent spike in killings, according to Panthera. For example, poachers may feel more emboldened to strike in the belief that there is decreased patrolling or law enforcement during the lockdown.

"In an age of social distancing, the community structures we helped build to protect wildlife are not there to stop unscrupulous hunters. With their neighbors inside, some hunters are spending quarantine targeting jaguars, pumas and ocelots," Payán said.

"At best, this is a misguided attempt to protect their own livestock. At worst, they are harvesting parts to sell in the illegal wildlife trade. I believe it might be a phenomenon of increased hunting, fed by nervous thinking of big cats as pests and the sense that no one is watching," he said.

According to Payán, pumas and jaguars in Colombia face threats from hunting, but also other factors, such as fires started by humans.

"Hunting may be one of our worries, but certainly not the only one. Man-made fires, as we saw last fall, kill cats and destroy habitats at a frightening intensity, scale and speed. My worst fear is we will emerge from our homes after this crisis to discover hundreds of hectares of prime forest clandestinely slashed and burned for farmland. Deforestation and fires kill more cats than poachers," he said.

Despite the lockdown, Panthera is still working with its rural network of informants and community leaders in an attempt to protect these animals.

"[We are] talking on the phone about how to respond to hunting incidents and using postal mail to send materials and printed manuals and booklets on conservation," Payán said.

"It is in times of crisis that we discover our worst vulnerabilities. Cats, especially jaguars, travel outside of protected areas in their search for prey, mates and territory. These corridors, key to future species survival, are monitored by a patchwork system of local government agencies, NGOs and concerned community members."

Nevertheless, it is proving especially difficult to carry out conservation work at this time, forcing Panthera to adapt its usual methods.

"We are devising and developing this new conservation by proxy, adapted to these uncertain times. It is extremely difficult, especially when addressing topics such as jaguar attacks on cattle and preventing consequent retaliatory hunting," Payán said. "These conflict topics require community meetings and workshops and implementation of husbandry practices in the affected farms and ranches."

puma, Colombia
A puma killed by poachers in Colombia during the lockdown. Courtesy of Panthera

"But today we can't do any of that. We have to think creatively and develop new ways of operating. We are increasing our communications to reach as many people as possible and keep conservation action alive, keeping in touch with all local partners, farmers, and communities we work with who want to broadcast their voices too. Lastly, we are learning new tools to keep delivering our crucial conservation activities virtually—where possible, as many rural people don't have access to technology," he said.

Unfortunately, Payán is not optimistic that there will be any decrease in poaching when lockdown measures are lifted in Colombia due to the knock-on effects of the pandemic.

"The pandemic will leave devastating economic consequences. Thousands will be left with no option but turning to exploit natural resources for the short term for selfish gain: hunting, poaching, and logging," Payán said.

"Retaliatory or preventive killings of jaguars and pumas could also increase, as already stretched ranchers start to feel that even low losses from big cats are unacceptable because of the economic situation, sort of like the last drop in the bucket, and they may then turn to hunting big cats. Again, my worry is that when we return to the field, we will see a decimated forest full of new farms and ranches that will never return the land to wild animals," he said.

Jaguars are found across 18 countries in Latin America, ranging from Mexico to Argentina. However, the animals have been eradicated from 40 percent of their historic range and are listed as "Near Threatened" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. This status is under review and could be changed to "Vulnerable" in the next year.

"The species is threatened by loss and fragmentation of jaguar habitat, conflict with local people due to the real or perceived threat posed to livestock, and overhunting of the jaguar's prey by local people," according to Panthera.

Pumas have the largest geographic range of any native terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, one which spans 28 countries from southern Alaska right down to the southern tip of Chile.

Although they are currently listed as a species of "Least Concern" on the IUCN Red List, pumas were wiped out from the whole eastern half of North America—with the exception of a small population in Florida—within 200 years of European colonization.

"The species is threatened by legal and illegal killing, including bounty hunting and poaching; human-puma conflict, which is exacerbated by old mythology perpetuating fear of pumas; loss of prey due to overhunting by people and agricultural land developments; and habitat loss and fragmentation," according to Panthera.

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