Photograph by Richard Wareham Fotografie, Alamy 
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A captive jaguar looks into the camera in Georgetown, Guyana. Nearly a hundred of the big cats have been killed in the past decade.

Photograph by Richard Wareham Fotografie, Alamy 

Amid Gold Rush, Jaguars Clash With Miners

Nearly one hundred of the big cats have died since the 2008 recession raised the value of gold, says National Geographic grantee Anthony Cummings.

As gold fever grips Guyana, a small country in South America, people are coming more and more into contact with one of the most secretive of the big cats: The jaguar.

Since the 2008 global recession, gold mining in the heavily forested nation has skyrocketed, with miners and loggers setting up camp in remote forests that are already home to jaguars, according to University of Texas-Dallas geographer Anthony Cummings.

Stories of such encounters piqued the interest of Cummings, a native Guyanese, who set out to investigate how gold mining, logging, and hunting are affecting populations of three wild cat species—the ocelot, puma, and jaguar.

And since he was starting from scratch, Cummings had to go to the source.

So in December 2014, Cummings went to Guyana and conducted more than 85 interviews with people involved in the new mining or logging operations. He asked them when jaguars have been killed in the past decade, and also if the big cats had killed or injured people. (Learn more about National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)

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A gold miner blasts soil into a sluice with a water hose in Mahdia, Guyana.

We talked to Cummings about his preliminary findings, which he presented in August at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Montpellier, France.

What did your results show, and did they surprise you?

Over the past decade, upward of 90 jaguars have been killed in Guyana—that’s what my data suggested talking to stakeholders, [including] miners, loggers, and hunters. One gold miner was killed by jaguar, and two persons were injured by a puma or a jaguar. These events amplify the level of fear of big cats among the Guyanese population. Around 65 percent of the people I spoke with suggested they had some fear of big cats. Their reaction is, 'If I see a jaguar or puma and I have access to a gun, I'm going to kill it.' This is one of my biggest concerns—how to educate people to react when they see a big cat, and what measures they can put in place to keep cats away from their homes, other places of dwelling and livestock. (See "Pictures: Jaguars Spotted on Colombian Plantation—A First.")

For the second question of where incidents are being reported, I found a stronger [pattern] of big cat killings around areas that livestock, primarily cattle, are reared. That’s not surprising, it’s very similar to what we see throughout Latin America. More surprising is what I saw for big cat killings in gold mining areas—it's a much more dispersed pattern across the landscape. Given the nature of Guyana with its highly forested landscape, reaching gold miners for conflict resolution and educational purposes becomes a lot more challenging and this is what I want to address going forward.

What is gold mining like in Guyana, and how does it impact jaguars?

When the global economy crashed between 2007 and 2008, what happened on the other side of the coin is the price for gold started to go through the roof. All precious metals tend to do well when there’s an economic crisis. The price of gold almost increased substantially. Because of the higher demand for land for gold mining, the chances of being able to have a profit has substantially increased—the scale of gold mining has gone upward and in fact gold mining is the highest driver of deforestation in Guyana. As that has happened,more people have had encounters with jaguars.

There are three levels of gold mining in Guyana: Small scale that is very manual labor intensive—taking an axe and pick, going into the forest and riverbed to seeing what gold can be found—medium scale, and large scale, in which larger companies with more capital investment and equipment essentially removes vegetation and all overburden to access the gold below.

The small and medium scale miners gold miners take dogs and poultry into the forest with them as they are often moving into terrain where food supply can be problematic. Showing up with a dog introduces a new dynamic for a jaguar who essentially says, 'Lunch has shown up.' It’s a challenge: the gold miner needs the dog for protection and hunting services because he’s so far from a grocery or town, but he’s introducing this easy target for the big cat. We're just beginning to map all these variables and working through solutions.

I want to underscore the point that gold miners recognize that they can do more for the environment. All of the miners I spoke with are extremely enthusiastic to work on ways to reduce big cat interactions. Their attitude is 'If we could do better we would do better.' This is therefore one of my biggest concerns: How to keep them engaged in conservation while maintaining their high sense of pride in their craft. (See National Geographic's big cat pictures.)

I was surprised to hear that you discovered there's apparently a demand for jaguar meat and parts. Is that something that could be a concern?

Absolutely, it remains the biggest surprises I've had. [According to my independently verified interviews], recent immigrants to Guyana [and also Guyanese] have been eating big cat meat. I was born and raised in Guyana, I have never heard of anyone eating cat meat. My initial reaction was, 'You guys are messing with me.'  

Is the jaguar dwindling in Guyana due to human activity?

There is some concern, but I think it extends to all wildlife on the whole. The simple answer though, is that we need to have a better sense of the current population. Now that I have a sense of the conflict side, we need to attempt to answer the question of how many jaguars we have in Guyana and what patterns are associated with their distribution across the landscape. I've never seen a big cat live in the forest of Guyana, and I've been in the forest a lot. (See "'Indomitable' Jaguars May Have Lessons in Survival for Us.")

Big Cat Week is this week. What do you want our readers to know about your work with jaguars in Guyana?

The most important thing I want readers to understand, especially the global audience, is that their actions and decisions have an impact on biodiversity and wildlife in places they don’t necessarily think about. The global economic crash we think of as a North American problem, but it translates down to the ground in little towns across the world.

The second big thing is people are not necessarily always against conservation—in fact they’re ready to embrace conservation. But we need to figure out ways to work with them, understanding they have their own livelihood challenges. And we've got to figure out how to take care of their needs if they’re going to help us to protect and conserve wildlife.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Tune into the last day of Big Cat Week on Nat Geo Wild.