I’m very pleased to present this Q&A with Juan Carlos Bravo, Naturalia’s representative for Northwest Mexico. JC is one of the friendliest and most interesting jaguar people you’ll ever meet. I thank him for his answers and I believe you’ll enjoy his answers.
1. How did you end up working in the conservation field?
My professional training is in Graphic Communication. But my interest in Nature and science goes way back to my childhood. So when I had to pick up and internship I chose Naturalia and when I finished it I began working for our magazine ESPECIES. That got me totally immersed in Conservation and served as my University and training field, reading all the articles that Mexico’s leading conservationists and biologists published there. I soon realized I was more interested in doing what those guys where doing that in just communicating it. And I learned that biology is just another component of the complex multi-level system that we call conservation, the broader picture takes a lot of building relations, spreading the word, doing politics, outreach, and strategic organizing, all of them things I enjoy and am good at. So I leave the conservation-biology to the experts and they are happy to have someone to open the doors of agencies, ranching groups, schools, etc.
2. How did that lead to being involved with conserving jaguars?
Naturalia had done previous research in the Sierra Madre during the 90’s and had identified priority conservation areas there. After that we allied ourselves with the Bank of Mexico and with a silver coin collection that was sold throughout Mexico we managed to raise enough funds to purchase a piece of property and start the workings of a reserve. The 34 identified sites were evaluated and the Aros-Yaqui Conservation Area was selected for biological as well as strategic reasons. Shortly afterwards Naturalia’s director Oscar Moctezuma offered me the position that changed my life, as representative of Naturalia in Northwestern Mexico. I soon fell under the spell of the jaguar, and found out that I was one of many whose lives have changed dramatically over the last ten years because of this spotted phantom. I don’t regret it one bit.
3. How did Naturalia join forces with the Northern Jaguar Project?
When determining the priority areas I was telling you about, Naturalia came in contact with Dr. Carlos López, the first biologist to do jaguar research in Sonora. By then he was already involved in the creation of the Northern Jaguar Project with his friends and acquaintances in Arizona. When the time came to make a choice it was clear to us that the jaguar region and particularly the cattle-ranch “Los Pavos” had the advantage of having Northern Jaguar Project already working in the region. This opened up the possibility of making an alliance with a group that could provide experience, contacts, tax deductibility in the US and management support. And they were ready for joining forces with a Mexican group that could bring to the table local expertise, international credibility and funds to start creating the reserve. The alliance was a natural step in both groups own paths.
4. Can you describe the Northern Jaguar Preserve and your efforts to expand its size?
Today the jaguar reserve is a tract of land of almost 5,000 hectares (over 12,300 acres) of the most rugged and remote terrain you can imagine. People seldom realize that such little-known places still exist in Mexico. The area is a rocky jumble of cliffs and sierras covered by an ecosystem called Sinaloan thornscrub. A harsh mixture of spiny bushes that further deters intrusion, making it ideal to protect wildlife. The reserve is on the west and south banks of the river Aros as it flows north and turns west to meet the Bavispe and form the Yaqui, Sonora’s most important river, not 2 miles from the edge of our property. It holds a unique diversity of wildlife under the umbrella effect of the king of the New World predators. This biodiversity includes river otters, military macaws, bald eagles, Gila monsters, boa constrictors, more than 120 species of birds, many native river fishes and amphibians, a yet uncharted diversity of invertebrates and a weird mixture of plants that brings together palm trees, oaks, mesquite and prickly pears in the same canyon. South of Los Pavos reserve lies Zetásora, a property of over 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) of the same thornscrub ecosystem, more river front on the west bank, unique rock formations and some of the best preserved riparian habitat I’ve seen in Sonora. This is where Carlos’ Lopez study showed the highest density of jaguar and cougar records in the region. This is also where Naturalia an NJP have set their aims to expand the reserve. The expansion would secure a full 19,000 hectares (47,000 acres) of wildlands not only for the jaguars but also for ocelots, bobcats, cougars, and all the rest. We have a deadline, January 2008 we have to pay the second half of Zetásora. We are very close to achieving a conservation success of international significance that will come to symbolize Mexican-US efforts to make landscape-scale conservation conducted not by huge NGOS (Bingos, as they are being called), not by governments, not by large corporations, but by concerned citizens of both countries organized in small, highly efficient and committed non-profits. Right now we need each and all interested individuals, foundations, and groups of all kinds to come together in this last push for the jaguar. All donations no matter how small can make the difference.
5. How do you answer those people who say the jaguar in the Rio Aros area of Sonora is heading towards extinction?
There are two answers to that. The scientific one (which is prudent and conservative) is that we just don’t know enough. And we are working on that. The long-term survival will depend on connectivity with jaguars further south in Alamos and Sinaloa. As far as we know, it may all still be strongly connected and healthy but, of course, any serious scientist will have to admit that there is not yet sufficient data to “prove” connectivity or the lack of it. The other answer comes from the educated guesses of the people that know the region and the biology of large carnivores, and they suggest strongly that there is still sufficient connectivity to maintain genetic interchange between jaguars in the Rio Aros and those farther south. This educated guess is a lot more than a hunch it comes from analyzing habitat conditions, human impact, rate of genetic interchange needed to avoid in-breeding and such variables. It is enough for bold people to engage in the protection of what they hold dear, even if more timid spirits would prefer a decade of research before acting. But the heart of the matter is that, sadly, there is lots of unhealthy competition for funds between conservationists. My thinking is “We don’t have time for that!” the weavings of biodiversity are falling to pieces all around us and we have to start working collaboratively. Decades ago scientists determined that one of the best measures to determine if a place was worth spending conservation efforts on it was the presence of breeding populations of large carnivores. It says a whole lot about an ecosystem if you have that. And in this case we have it and have had no reason to believe that, if we act quickly, we can’t prevent their extinction. I have no doubt that there are other worthy jaguar projects in more obvious candidates for conservation such as the jungles in Belize, but this is not an issue of choosing this or that, the rate of destruction is such that we must save all we can, and hope that it will be enough. The sooner we stop acting like competing children the sooner foundations and other sources of money will engage in the significant large-scale, long-term conservation efforts that will make the difference.
6. What is the most recent estimate as to the number of jaguars in the Rio Aros area?
80 -120 animals
7. Which areas in Northern Sonora do you believe are travel corridors for the jaguars seen in the US?
The whole Sierra Madre is still in relatively good conditions with many unreachable places. The Federal Reserve Ajos-Bavispe should provide refuge for migrating jaguars and the whole central northern Sonora more or less where the Sonora river flows, may have been the corridor used by the jaguars seen in the Tumacacori Highlands.
8. Are any of those areas in any way protected?
Yes, like I said before, the Ajos-Bavispe Federal Reserve protects thousands of acres north of the jaguar reserve. Although enforcement is not what we would like it to be, still it is not subject to development and other threats. Naturalia owns a 10,000-acre ranch south of the Huachuca mountains that, although it is a totally different ecosystem, is within the potential corridor for jaguar and other wildlife. Cuenca Los Ojos an American non-profit with legal status in Mexico protects over 35,000 hectares (86,5000 aces). Many more, small private ranches are managed for conservation; abandoned and serving as de facto sanctuaries; or managed in a sustainable fashion, but we will still need to get a more detailed picture of the corridor and develop creative strategies to protect more land.
9. Do you believe that Macho B (and Macho A before him) are wandering males from the Rio Aros population?
I believe, like many, that they came from that population and that they have settled for good in the US-Mexico border region. It just makes good sense when you look at a map that brings together habitat quality and human impact. There is nowhere near they could have come from but the Aros-Yaqui area. A more prudent person might say, we won’t know until we can compare DNA from them and from animals in the Aros river area (We are working on that by the way). But in terms of large carnivore conservation I don’t think it is all that relevant. If they are Great! Let’s protect their source population and them as well. If they aren’t Great! Let’s figure out where they come from while we protect the northernmost known breeding population of jaguars, and protect them as well.
10. What is your opinion of the chances of there being a breeding population of wild jaguars in the US?
In the end large carnivore conservation has a lot more to do with politics, economics and society than with biology. I think it is perfectly possible for that to happen in biological terms if the political-economic-social issues can be worked out, if not, it just won’t matter how much protected land you have in the US, people will not let it happen. It is a sad fact, since most conservationists are in their jobs precisely because they abhor politics and economics, and feel uncomfortable when dealing with social issues. But we can do all the field research we want and it won’t be enough if we don’t have state governments, local ranchers and general public in favor of preserving jaguars. If we can provide a healthy large-scale environment for jaguars in the next ten years in Mexico, if you can pave the political-social-economic issues on your side and if the jaguar gains broad support, I am sure they will come back, and not just a female or two but a healthy, resilient breeding population. It may take decades but we have to start somewhere and there are very good things being done on both sides.
11. You work with plenty of ranchers. What is your impression of attitudes towards your work on both sides of the border?
I face this question a lot, and judging from what my American colleagues say I live in rancher paradise! No seriously, any rancher is concerned about large predators and Mexican ranchers are no exception, but the difference is that they are more willing to collaborate, to hear different ideas and to at least try new things than the average American rancher as portrayed by US conservationists. There is not that feeling that “All that is green comes from the white collared bastards from the capital and they can take it somewhere else because this is my land and I’ll do what I please with it”. There is more a sentiment that “We don’t get enough support from government/society, we eke a living out of our land and if somebody is willing to help us out and all they want in exchange is for us to stop killing cats, heck we’ll give it a try” Of course some old-school ranchers still believe that the only good tigre is the dead tigre, but they are being replaced by a younger generation (in their 40’s) of ranchers that may not be happy with cats but at least they are open to ideas. This means that providing community support and engaging ranchers in sustainable management of their lands can potentially protect millions of acres for jaguars in the mid-term. It is a ranch by ranch operation; we can’t designate huge federal areas as jaguar habitat here because they just don’t exist, but we can create a system that, since it will be embedded in the rancher’s way of doing their day-to day business, will be very resilient in the long term.
12. What do you see as the end result if the border wall goes in as planned?
A major setback. Whenever things like this come by, I go back to my spiritual primal being and take comfort in the knowledge that nature WILL survive, no matter what obstacles we place on our own path to survival. After that little metaphysical touching of ground I face such obstacles with as much serenity as I can muster. To me the wall represents a huge step backwards in solving all those issues I was talking about before, all the socio-politic-economic mess we have created is epitomized by the building of a wall. If built as planned it will move jaguar conservation on the US side many years back. It will also affect conservation in our side, since donors won’t see a chance of jaguars recovering their US range in their lifetimes and may feel discouraged. I am also immediately concerned for pronghorn, and black bears, since they are crossing the border much more often than jaguars. All in all it will bring nothing good, not even the fulfillment of the security promise, because people will cross it. But remember “THIS WALL SHALL ALSO FALL!” as it is written in the Gaza strip wall.
13. Have you ever seen a jaguar? If not, how close have you come?
Not in the wild I am sorry to say. I have followed on the recent footsteps of one. That would be the closest. And you know how, after spending time outdoors you develop a kind of itchy feeling when you are vulnerable, I have had that a couple of times in the jaguar reserve. It seems to me that your senses can detect subtle things like smells and sounds that work on a primal level of your brain to tell you, “Something is out there, you could become protein in a few minutes if you act stupidly.” Probably bobcats passing by, but I like to think that one of those times it may have been a jaguar taking a good look at me without me ever noticing.When taking pictures of captive jaguars I have been no more than a foot away, close enough to smell their breath, not recommendable, but to see their eyes up close is to learn respect for life like it was an instinct you had forgotten.
14. In your opinion, what are the biggest threats to the survival of jaguars in Northern Mexico & the Southwest US?
Hunting by ranchers: This may seem like it is so obvious somebody should have figured it out by now. The truth is it is the tip of the iceberg, the manifestation of a huge problem that is the economics of cattle intertwined with the culture/politics of ranchers. This economic system has no room for large carnivores, the ranching
culture is expressly against them, and the communities that ranchers sustain and influence do not care enough to engage in conservation. So we have to solve this issue in an unusual arena, ranching associations, government offices, bars and ranch houses. We have to make deep cultural and economic changes in Mexico and the US. Not an easy task.
The Wall: I think I’ve said enough about this in a previous question.
Lack of coordination between stakeholders: Even if we come up with creative solutions for the main problems, we will not be able to preserve jaguars if we do not act as a team. Because of their huge range and their deep impact in ecosystems and society, large carnivores demand, like nothing else except global warming, that all sectors of society acknowledge the challenge and step up to it. State policies have to be made, economies have to be rearranged, and immense areas have to be managed wisely, and in the process people will come and go adding and subtracting their own talents and weaknesses.
15. As a native of Mexico, what does the jaguar mean to you and your country?
To me it means one of the last embodiments of wilderness, one of the “happy few” survivors of a wild past when people had a different relationship with nature. I don’t like to romanticize my ancestors or think of them as nature loving natives that lived in perfect harmony with the land. But some philosophies they inherited us, point towards a deeper sense of being part of nature, much more so than what my European heritage holds. The fact that such a large predator would survive so long into the age of conquest and subjection imposed by western philosophy/religion/culture says to me that Nature will hold on, that wilderness is strong and brave, that there is still hope that a better future will belong to our descendants. I think that, as a country, we have failed to acknowledge wildlife as a part of us, most Mexicans don’t know there are jaguars in Mexico, let alone consider them culturally important. However all of those that know of their existence, know it was held as a symbol of power by pre-Hispanic cultures. That usually grips them.
16. Anything else you’d like to add?
I would only add that as we have evolved as human beings, so has our relationship with Nature, and we now face an extraordinary set of challenges due precisely to how we have dealt with that relationship. We need to change our frame of mind and stoop thinking it is somebody else’s problem when we hear about species extinctions. Large carnivores in particular, have had a particularly ironic relationship with man throughout history, with hate and admiration intermingled. And yet it has been proved that they are not just another manifestation of biodiversity, but its native stewards and most ancient guardians. What we do today to protect them, whether jaguars in Mexico, Tigers in Russia, or Sharks all over, will have a deep effect in the future history of our planet, so all readers of this, please engage in some capacity in conservation. I invite you to “Save a spot” for the jaguar by donating to complete our reserve. You can do this directly to Naturalia (e-mail me email@example.com) or you can make a US tax-deductible donation at our partner’s web page (http://www.northernjaguarproject.org).