15,000 Wild Jaguars Left, Humans Must Work Together Across Borders to Protect
By Lucy EJ Woods
In early April the mutilated body of a jaguar was discovered in Mexico's Yaxchilán Natural Monument.
Researchers investigating the death quickly concluded that the animal, which had been tracked in neighboring Guatemala since 2015, had crossed the border and fallen prey to wildlife traffickers, who may have taken its head for sale on the black market.
Deaths like this, when a jaguar crosses the border from a protected area into a different country, may have something to do with the big cats' plummeting populations, experts worry.
"The males have to move across long distances and sometimes go outside of reserves or protected areas to buffer zones and areas populated by people," said Rony García-Anleu, director of the biological research department for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Guatemala (WCS).
Today the wide-ranging jaguar (Panthera onca), which once lived throughout South America and north into the U.S., is considered a threatened species. Conservation groups estimate there are only 15,000 wild jaguars left, mostly due to poaching and deforestation.
Tikal National Park also contains culturally important Mayan temples.
Jason Houston / USAID
As García-Anleu explains, the boundaries between countries are important for humans, but they don't exist for animals. Jaguars require vast amounts of barrier-free land and don't care about man-marked territories. While females stay in one area, males roam across continents in search of food and mates. They crisscross borders throughout the Americas, traveling as far south as Argentina and as far north as Arizona and New Mexico in the U.S.
To learn more about how borders create problems for jaguars, WCS has used camera traps to track and study 14 jaguars in Tikal National Park, a World Heritage site in Guatemala's Petén Province. Home to thousands of animal and plant species, the park's 7,700 square miles of forested canopy stretch into neighboring Mexico and Belize.
Jaguar camera-trap photo.
Kaxil Kiuic, A.C. / The Revelator
The study found that the big cats were constant travelers. WCS compared photos of jaguars in Tikal with photos taken by conservation groups in Mexico and Belize and discovered the organizations were often tracking the same animals. Each jaguar's coat has unique spots that, like human fingerprints, can be used to identify individuals.
Tikal is just one example of reserves across the Americas that exist along borderlines or occupy land in multiple countries. Such reserves attract people as well as wild creatures. In Central and South America, they've become home to guerrilla groups, refugees, cattle ranchers and traffickers.
Human vs. Jaguar
Drug traffickers "use the jungle like a shield," said García-Anleu, explaining that criminals set ablaze swaths of forests to clear land for private airstrips. "This is why the majority of the forest fires occur in this [border] part," he explains, pointing on a map to the western border of Guatemala and Mexico. "Here, you can see a lot of airplanes that narco-traffickers abandon."
Along with the dwindling numbers of jaguars and rising numbers of drug gangs, you can also find vulnerable families who sought refuge from violence in central Guatemala during the country's decades-long brutal civil war. The 36-year-long conflict ended in 1996 with hundreds of thousands dead, 83 percent of whom were estimated to be Mayan.
Many people were legitimately relocated and given land titles in these areas, while others, both before and after the 1996 Peace Accord, settled out of desperation as Guatemala's population grew and land ownership was awarded only to an elite few, explains WCS program director Roan McNab.
Today some settlers are "clueless about the laws and get snookered, but most are well aware that the land is a protected area," he said. Now people settle illegally — not as war refugees but "because they are desperate or because they are land speculators."
WCS estimates there are now 10,000 people settled in Laguna del Tigre National Park and 15,000 in Sierra del Lacandon National Park.
"Land is one of Guatemala's most precious commodities," said McNab. "Given the levels of corruption and the undercurrent of influence from narco-trafficking on the border with Mexico, land speculation has been, and remains, rampant in these two border parks."
WCS has worked with one of the rural communities, Paso Caballos, since 2008, training and employing people to assist with conservation.
The organization also fostered a conservation agreement with local and national government, including a grant of $25,000 every year, half of which is invested in vital services for 1,800 people. The other half pays for patrols of a 20-square-mile buffer area outside the village.
Jaguar camera-trap photo.
Kaxil Kiuic, A.C. / The Revelator
But Paso Caballos is the only community offering to assist with conservation, possibly due to threats from criminal gangs, McNab said.
Clearing the path for sustainable development and conservation will require the government to prioritize addressing organized crime. The situation now "is chaotic, providing a clear win for the organized crime interests that prefer weak institutions and instability in the area," he said.
All of this growth and crime has hurt the local wildlife. As more people began to occupy reserve land along the border, jaguar habitat naturally decreased, as did the animals' prey. This created further conflict between the cats and people. Hungry jaguars, which typically avoid humans, have been known wait until nightfall to prey on calves on cattle ranches located next to reserves. To protect their livelihoods, farmers often hunt and kill the great cats.
In response to this growing threat to jaguars, WCS decided to help one rancher by using a simple remedy, an easy-to-build enclosure to safeguard calves at night. The enclosure, similar to ones used to protect livestock from lions and wolves in other parts of the world, proved successful. The farmer told his neighbors and they all started to build their own cattle enclosures, said García-Anleu.
"We did not want to take a punishment approach," said García-Anleu, adding that sharing information and pictures of jaguars with the communities that live on or near to reserves helps to motivate people — regardless of background, nationality or ethnicity — to join and assist in conservation efforts.
A New Threat Emerges
On the northeastern side of the Guatemalan border in southern Mexico, James Callaghan, director of the Kaxil Kiuic Millsaps Biocultural Reserve in Yucatan, explains how another human-induced obstacle threatens jaguars across the continent.
There are "a lot of fatalities from highways, with cars hitting jaguars and killing them," said Callaghan.
One of the biggest emerging threats to jaguar habitat in southern Mexico at the moment is a proposed interstate train line called the Tren Maya (Mayan Train), which would cross five southeastern Mexican states (Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Chiapas and Tabasco) and encourage domestic and international tourism. Multiple jaguar reserves, including Kaxil Kiuic and Calakmul Biosphere on the Mexico-Guatemala-Belize border, will be affected by Tren Maya.
Alongside other large infrastructure projects in Mexico, such as dams and wind farms, Tren Maya crosses Mayan communal land and will disrupt the migration paths of jaguars and their prey, degrade water sources and decrease forest area.
"We are not against development," he said. "The big issue is, can it be sustainable? Can we create win-win situations for all of the animals, humans included?"
The same question of balancing human infrastructure needs with wildlife is also being asked further north, in the state of Arizona, where experts say jaguars — along with black bears and many other animals — are threatened by the proposed border wall between the United States and Mexico. Part of Arizona's border with northern Mexico is also a 1,000-square-mile reserve.
The border wall "would be 'game over' for both jaguar and ocelot recovery in [the U.S.]," said Chris Bugbee, a senior researcher at Conservation CATalyst, in a statement alongside a video released this year of a rare ocelot spotted in Arizona.
Both Callaghan and García-Anleu say humans and jaguars alike can benefit from international and interstate conservation cooperation and the standardization of data.
"One of the biggest desires of [conservation] groups is to create a common database," said Callaghan.
"We need a good monitoring system that we can share with other countries," said García-Anleu. "This jaguar trail is a long trail, so we need to work closely with people in Belize and Mexico." No international system like this currently exists, but several countries and organizations each have their own monitoring programs.
More importantly, for the border-crossing jaguar to thrive again in the Americas, experts say humans need to work together across state and country lines. That includes tackling a wide range of anthropocentric issues ranging from sustainable infrastructure development to the destruction of reserves by traffickers.
As Callaghan said, "To move anything forward with the conservation of the jaguar, we have to work with all people, indigenous, local and abroad, and we have to work together."
Lucy EJ Woods is an international freelance journalist specializing in on-the-ground environmental reporting.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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