Facebook of the Amazon

January 29, 2009

Big cats, wild pigs, and short-eared dogs—oh, my! Photos taken in Ecuador by remote camera traps show jaguars, white-lipped peccaries, and a rare canine.

Big cats, wild pigs, and short-eared dogs—oh, my! Photos taken by remote cameras set up deep in the jungles of Ecuador reveal a startling array of rare tropical critters, alive and well in one of the most biologically rich regions on the planet. The photos, released by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), were part of the first large-scale census of jaguars in Ecuador’s Amazon region.

Oil exploration and subsequent development have put growing pressure on wildlife in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park and adjacent Waorani Ethnic Reserve. Together, these two reserves make up 6,500 square miles of wilderness. To measure the effect of the threats on jaguars in the protected areas, scientists have been working to establish baseline population numbers there since 2007.

WCS research fellow Santiago Espinosa leads the team, which includes several members of the Waorani indigenous group. The “camera traps” photograph animals when they trip a sensor that detects body heat. The cameras captured 75 pictures of jaguars, which can be individually identified through their unique pattern of spots. Other images show some of the jaguar’s prey: white-lipped peccaries, a short-eared dog that is relative of foxes and wolves, and other rarely seen species.

Espinosa identified the main threats to jaguars in Ecuador as habitat degradation and loss. Hunting is another major problem. People compete for the same meat that jaguars depend on. “Bushmeat hunting by local communities has increased due to road development that provides access to otherwise isolated areas,” he said. “Additionally, people hunt bushmeat to sell commercially in local markets, rather than simply for their own consumption. If the prey species disappear, the jaguar will be gone.”

Espinosa’s preliminary data shows far fewer jaguars in more heavily hunted areas compared to remote study sites. In his first survey at a hunted site within Yasuni National Park, he counted only three of the big cats. At his second study site in a rarely hunted and remote area, he found almost five times as many—a total of 14 individual jaguars.

Espinosa and WCS plan to extend the jaguar camera trap surveys to other areas of Ecuador, working with local communities in both the Amazon region and along the coast, where most of the forests are gone.

Espinosa’s work is being funded by WCS, WWF, and the University of Florida. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) also support WCS’s jaguar conservation research.

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