Rare Jaguars Caught in Camera Traps—for Science

As the iconic jaguar continues to face threats in Mexico, a small nature reserve is using motion-sensor technology to census the big cats.

Watch: Saving endangered jaguars, one photo at a time.

Rare Jaguars Caught in Camera Traps—for Science

As the iconic jaguar continues to face threats in Mexico, a small nature reserve is using motion-sensor technology to census the big cats.

Watch: Saving endangered jaguars, one photo at a time.

The Maya revere jaguars, and the animals are still the stuff of legend among people who research them today—it is exceedingly rare to see a jaguar in the wild. Of course, this elusiveness also makes them difficult to study, so scientists and conservationists in Mexico came up with a solution: They track the population with motion-activated cameras, turning lightly tread forest paths into literal catwalks.

El Edén Ecological Reserve hosts one of these camera networks. The reserve, established in 1991, protects over 7,400 acres (3,000 hectares) of pristine forest in Quintana Roo, a Mexican state hugging the northeastern shoreline of Yucatán Peninsula. Only about 22 miles (35 kilometers) west of Cancún, El Edén encompasses numerous sensitive ecosystems. In addition to the jaguar (Panthera onca), it houses other vulnerable species like ocellated turkeys, American crocodiles, and king vultures.

El Edén installed its first camera trap in 2005. Since then, they have expanded the network to include 36 cameras at 27 stations (nine of the stations have double camera traps with cameras mounted opposite each other). Combined, the camera traps surveil approximately 31 square miles (80 square kilometers) of prime jaguar territory.

The cameras provide a snapshot of life in the forest, says Marco Lazcano, the general director of El Edén.

“It is a moment in time. You take this sample and can identify how many jaguars you have,” he explains. “And over time we have identified a large number of jaguars.”

Jaguars at El Edén

Lazcano believes El Edén has five permanent jaguar residents, three males and two females. However, the area also serves as a throughway for jaguar passersby, animals moving through the reserve en route to other parts of Yucatán.

Because it is difficult to accurately catalog and track the cats, the researchers at El Edén began naming them based on their distinctive markings. Canibal (cannibal) is a male with a bone-shaped mark on his right side, and Mariposo’s (butterfly) name derives from the butterfly pattern near his front right shoulder. X’tabay, Eva, and Smiley are some of the others joining them at the reserve.

“Instead of calling them jaguar one and jaguar two, it was easier to remember [with the names],” says Lazcano. The names also help Lazcano and his colleagues to associate the individual cats with certain movement patterns and behavior.

For example, another male, Phantom, was first photographed in 2010. After shooting him for years, the cameras recently revealed a new love interest. Photos show Phantom engaging in mating behaviors with an unnamed female. This is not simply wildlife voyeurism though—the photos provide valuable insight into the animal’s behavior.

Conservation and Threats

Historically, jaguars ranged from northern Mexico through much of South America. Because of viable populations in South America, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature identifies the big cat as a low risk across its range, but it is considered an endangered species in Mexico.

Like every large mammal in the world, fragmentation and human conflict threaten the jaguar, says Evelyn Piña, a biologist studying jaguars and pumas in Mexico. As human development further encroaches on jaguar habitat, jaguars and humans are forced to live in close proximity to each other.

As a result, they hunt the same prey in many places, and when the prey is limited, the cats often kill domestic animals and stoke resentment among locals. In Mexico, social inequalities continue to drive land-use changes, and in some regions, illegal hunting is a major problem. All things considered, it is a complex relationship, says Piña.

Yet jaguar conservationists are optimistic. Lazcano and El Edén are part of a national jaguar census that is allying universities, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and the federal government. The undertaking is billed as the largest national census of jaguars and their ecological status in the world.

“Without a doubt we have a very good political climate [in Mexico],” says Heliot Zarza, one of the co-coordinators of the current jaguar census and its supporting alliance.

“This formation of groups is proposing a more plural vision of how to do conservation in Mexico,” he continues. “Obviously there is a lot to do, but we’ve generated a national strategy for jaguar conservation with this alliance.”

The project replicates a similar census from 2008 to 2010, called CENJAGUAR (Censo Nacional del Jaguar), which documented jaguars at 16 sites across 12 Mexican states, including at El Edén. And like the previous census, camera traps like those used at El Edén are central to the effort. Without them, it would be impossible to estimate the number of jaguars, explains Zarza.

Critical Refuge

Though small, El Edén plays a critical role in jaguar conservation, says Lazcano. It is an important link to other habitat areas on Yucatán Peninsula. Lazcano hopes to add an additional 2,400 acres (1,000 hectares) by year’s end, and the reserve’s growth will only further enable conservation in the region.

“El Edén is a good example of what conservation is looking like these days,” says Piña. “The reality is that countries like Mexico don’t have [big, pristine protected areas]; the landscape is fragmented, not protected, and mixed with people.

“The whole thing about classical conservation is gone, and that is the importance of El Edén.”

Follow Aaron Sidder on Twitter.