Protecting the jaguar, the largest big cat in the Americas

The jaguar is one of the five big cats, alongside the tiger, lion, leopard, and snow leopard. Living in the tropical rainforests and wetlands of the Americas, the mighty jaguar is the largest cat species in the region.  

For centuries, the jaguar has been revered as a symbol of power and strength by indigenous peoples and local communities. As a top predator, it also has an important role to play in the wider ecosystem by balancing the food chain and helping to control the populations of other species.

Headerfoto by Birger Strahl on Unsplash

Deforestation and poaching threaten the jaguar

Unfortunately, the jaguar population across the Americas keeps declining with scientists estimating there are only between 130,000 and 208,000 jaguars left in the wild. Their habitat keeps getting smaller because of deforestation and new infrastructure for urban development. This affects their ability to roam around freely, to find prey and to find a mate.

The jaguar is also increasingly poached for its fangs, skin, bones and other body parts. In some cultures, the bones are thought to have medicinal benefits and the fangs are used for jewelry to signify social status. Seizure data shows a significant rise in jaguar trafficking since 2012, and we are starting to see that jaguar body parts and products are being sold more openly—particularly on online platforms.

That is why, from 2019 to 2022, IUCN NL, Earth League International (ELI) and IFAW worked together on Operation Jaguar to combat illegal trade in jaguars in Peru, Bolivia, Guyana and Suriname. The project was made possible with support from the Dutch Postcode Lottery.

Watch the following video for an overview of our work as part of Operation Jaguar.

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Researching transnational trafficking networks

As part of Operation Jaguar, ELI conducted research investigations on jaguar trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean. Through its intelligence-gathering operations, ELI researched the illegal wildlife supply chain to help unveil the dynamics regarding jaguar trafficking in the region and identify the main players, trafficking routes, and destinations.

Some of those destinations are national and regional markets in South America. Other destinations are international, such as in Asia. Operation Jaguar worked closely together with authorities in China to combat illegal wildlife trade. Over the years, Chinese authorities have strengthened legislation regarding wildlife trade, increased national and trans-boundary enforcement efforts and ran awareness raising campaigns on the importance of protecting wildlife in key public transport areas such as trains, metros and airports.

In 2020, we published a report after conducting investigations in Bolivia, unveiling traffickers’ modus operandi and transport methods, routes and geographical hotspots. As a result, in 2021, Bolivian authorities proceeded to arrest five of South America’s top jaguar traffickers.

Key findings from ELI’s various research investigations are summarized in a report that was shared during the 19th Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in Panama in November 2022. The report includes regional case studies of top transnational jaguar trafficking networks identified through the investigative work. It also highlights jaguar trafficking’s convergence, or overlap, with other serious crimes, such as drug smuggling, human trafficking, gold trafficking or money laundering. The full report will be released in 2023.

Advocating for increased protection

The jaguar is listed in the IUCN Red List as ‘near threatened’. It is therefore really important to prioritize the protection of jaguars and their habitats, and for governance and law enforcement to implement stricter measures to control the trafficking of this species.

In February 2020, there was a big win for jaguars at the 13th Conference of the Parties (CoP) of the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) in Gandhinagar, India, as governments approved listing the species for the first time to protect the jaguar across its entire range.  

In addition, through the adoption of Motion 106—Continental conservation priority for the jaguar (Panthera onca), at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille in September 2021, international attention was raised to the predicament of the jaguar that will hopefully result in a sense of urgency to come into action for its protection.

Empowering law enforcement and judiciary

Operation Jaguar worked with law enforcement officers, customs agents, public prosecutors and judges across Guyana, Peru, and Suriname to improve their capacities to better detect, investigate and prosecute wildlife crime. IFAW organized training workshops in each country, where participants learned how to identify common species traded in the region, check if wildlife trading permits are legitimate, detect smuggled wildlife, and uphold protocols for the management and welfare of seized animals. The trainings also covered critical skills such as investigative strategies and evidence collection, and interviewing and working with witnesses.

To further aid law enforcement agencies, IFAW and IUCN NL ran a pilot with Scent Imprint Conservation Dogs to show authorities how detection dogs can help them detect wildlife specimens at seaports and airports. Wesley Visscher trained his dogs Bruce and Boris to use their superb sense of smell to detect jaguar parts in boxes, packages, cars and containers. Since then, other successful pilot sessions have taken place in two of the project countries, motivating local authorities to consider expanding their resources with trained detection dogs specifically to help combat wildlife trafficking.

Key role for local and indigenous communities

Since more than half of world’s biodiversity lies in indigenous territories, it is crucial to consult and integrate local Indigenous Peoples’ narratives and ecological knowledge to successfully protect ecosystems and cultural diversity. Operation Jaguar acknowledges and understands the key role local communities and organizations play in combatting wildlife trafficking.  

IUCN NL worked with SAVIA in Bolivia and Proyecto Sebraba in Venezuela to organize environmental education and awareness raising activities on the importance of protecting the jaguar. In Suriname, IUCN NL worked with researchers like Vanessa Kadosoe from Neowild, who conducts research on the behavior of and the threats to jaguar populations by, among other things, monitoring them with camera traps. Protecting the jaguar starts with gathering knowledge about this animal, she believes.

In October 2021, experts and partners of Operation Jaguar spoke about the importance of including local and indigenous views on jaguar conservation at a major interdisciplinary conference on anthropology and conservation hosted virtually by the Royal Anthropological Institute.

To help spread the message on the need to protect jaguars and curb illegal wildlife trade to the wider public, Operation Jaguar supported the production of Tigre Gente, a documentary by filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer Elizabeth Unger that has been featured in international film festivals. 

Next steps for jaguar protection

All activities as part of Operation Jaguar have been geared towards increasing knowledge exchange and collaboration. Whether through gathering information, enhancing law enforcement, or raising awareness among the public, Operation Jaguar has provided vital skills and resources to empower local agencies, organizations, and communities to help save the iconic jaguar and secure its natural and cultural legacy to the Americas. 

Even though the project ends as such, IUCN NL, ELI and IFAW will continue to collaborate with each other and local partners for the common goal to ensure long-term protection and survival of jaguars. 

Learn more?

Liliana Jauregui
Liliana Jauregui
Senior Expert Environmental Justice
Marc Hoogeslag
Senior Expert Nature Conservation
Antoinette Sprenger
Senior Expert Environmental Justice
Arjen Wisserhof
Arjen Wisserhof
No longer working at IUCN NL
Elske Swets
Communications Manager
Phone: 020-3018251