By Jenny Isaacs
Eight years ago, a female jaguar cub was caught on film by a motion-triggered camera trap set in the foothills of canyons, oak forest, and scrubland that make-up the Northern Jaguar Reserve, just 125 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border.
"This first-ever glimpse of a jaguar cub revealed the importance of this area's protective habitat and would catalyze the Northern Jaguar Reserve's expansion to the 50,000 acres that are safeguarded today," noted the Northern Jaguar Project (NJP) in Tucson, Arizona in a press release.
Three years later, in 2009, the jaguar reappeared on film as an adult. They called her "Corazón" for the distinctive heart-shaped spot on her left shoulder. During the next five years, she was photographed 30 times on the reserve and became an icon for those working to expand conservation efforts in the area.
"A matriarch among jaguars in this area, Corazón's ongoing presence gave us certainty that on the reserve, jaguars were safe," NJP, working with its Mexican conservation partner Naturalia, wrote in a press release.
In 2012, Dr. Rodrigo Medellín and PhD student Ivonne Cassaigne, researchers with the Instituto de Ecología at UNAM (Mexico's national university), began working to safeguard and monitor jaguars as they moved across unprotected areas adjacent to the Northern Jaguar Reserve, in partnership with a group called La Asociación para la Conservación del Jaguar en la Sierra Alta de Sonora. They were thrilled when they captured Corazón (or "Jaguar Female 01") and fitted her with a satellite GPS collar. But on February 25, 2014, the collar transmitted a mortality signal, and an email was sent to the UNAM researchers noting that no movement had been detected for more than five hours. Corazón was lost.
Using Corazón's last known GPS location, a field technician traced the signal to her collar and found Corazón's carcass burned to conceal the crime of her illegal killing. Her $4,000 satellite collar—the device responsible for documenting the crime of Corazón's murder—was also destroyed, according to a UNAM bulletin. When tracking the last movements of Corazón back to her den, the footprints of a cub were found. Sadly, researchers believe this cub would have been unable to survive without its mother.
"We knew Corazón more intimately than any other jaguar who has appeared before our cameras. Corazón grew up on the reserve, and the reserve grew with her. Her death is a tremendous loss for the northern jaguar population," NJP wrote.
But Corazón's death may not be in vain.
"There is an opportunity for endangered species protection to become more stringent in Mexico as a result," the group added.
The Jaguar People
Mexicans have long regarded the jaguar as sacred. Diana Hadley, president of NJP, said that jaguar conservation is important here because the great cat is considered a God in ancestral culture.
"The jaguar is part of Mexican identity," Medellín reiterated, adding that Mexicans are known as the "jaguar people."
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is considered Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Its habitat extends from the southwest corner of the United States to northern Argentina. Scientists have observed that male jaguars can travel 200 miles in one year making protecting them a spatial challenge.
"You can't tell them where they should travel," Hadley explained to mongabay.com.
UNAM reports that persecution by people is the jaguar's main threat, though there are many other threats, including habitat loss, hunting, federal anti-predator programs, and conflicts with livestock.
Medellín told mongabay.com that while there is only one jaguar currently known in the U.S. (in Arizona), Mexico's jaguar population remains viable at around 4,000 individuals, a number his team verified in a 2012 published study.
"We're still in good shape," Medellín told mongabay.com. "We have the right conditions to secure the future of the jaguar as a species in the country. But unfortunately the wheels are still turning very slowly."
Although it has been several months since Corazón's killing, no one has been arrested for the crime. In fact, despite the species having full protection under Mexican law, no person in the country has ever been convicted for killing a jaguar, though jaguar killing is common. Medellín, who is also a member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences, stressed that hunting the species "is illegal and a federal offense that is punishable by imprisonment," adding "we are not going to permit one more death."
However, just this month another jaguar was killed in the southern part of the country.
According to several sources, Corazón was killed on a private ranch 12 miles north of the Northern Jaguar Reserve. Journalist Isaac Torres Cruz, in a piece on May 5th for Cronica, reported that evidence suggests Corazón was poisoned and burned on the Cueva Blanca ranch in Granados, Sonora, Mexico. While there are countless similar cases, this particular case could set a historical precedent since, according to Cruz, officials have enough physical and digital evidence of a crime to persecute, but only if authorities do their job.
"What I think is important to highlight is that we have a system that is not working to protect wildlife," PhD student, Cassaigne, told mongabay.com.
Medellín reported to mongabay.com that PROFEPA, the Mexican version of the Environmental Protection Agency, seems unable or unwilling to seek justice. Despite finding Corazón's bones and destroyed collar (see photo) at her last recorded location, PROFEPA recently dropped her case.
"[PROFEPA\ has no power...that's the situation at this point in Mexico," said Medellín.
Instead, the case was turned over to the Federal Special Unit of Environmental Crimes (a special Unit from the "Procuraduria General de la Republica"—PGR). This special unit is supposed to determine if the bones are indeed from a jaguar and then look for suspects. More....