I’m very pleased to present this Q&A with Roberto Aguilar, the Director of Conservation and Science for the Phoenix Zoo. I think you’ll enjoy his answers and I thank him for taking the time to answer my questions.
- Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be involved with wildlife conservation.
I was a clinical zoo veterinarian for 20 years before becoming involved in conservation through The Phoenix Zoo. After a while in clinical practice, you start wondering if what you are doing, by simply taking care of captive animals, has any real relevance and importance to their wild counterparts, and their effective conservation. My current position allows me to expand what I know about animal care in captivity beyond the zoo, and to learn about all the processes – political, social, economic, biological, and environmental, that affect and influence regional wildlife in a rapidly changing and challenged ecosystem. The change in focus was a natural and significant next step in my professional development. What I do today seems more relevant and significant, plus effective, in the long run. The fact that it involves regional species of interest and endangered wildlife allows me to focus my energy towards trying to help many others resolve larger problems and conservation issues. The next step for many of my zoo colleagues has been to enter the relatively new field of Conservation Medicine, which is the balanced application of ecology, biology, and medicine to larger conservation issues. Evolving my experience into this field is my ultimate personal professional goal.
2. As a veterinarian what can you say about the safety of tranquilizing and collaring wild animals?
Safety is the most basic concern during any procedure involving sedation or anesthesia of a wild animal. The concern is for the animal, the immediate staff, and all those involved in the procedure. A great deal of planning needs to go into a procedure before a wild animal can be effectively sedated or anesthetized. If this is to occur, even though collaring may be the focus of the procedure, other data and samples should be collected, and the animal should receive a thorough and complete physical exam by a qualified, competent, and preferably experienced wildlife veterinarian. An anesthetized animal is susceptible to subtle and rapid metabolic changes that may compromise its life. To be able to perform such a delicate procedure effectively, biologists should not attempt anesthesia, and the veterinarian(s) involved should focus on the safety of the animal and the capture team members. The entire process should be a carefully planned, well synchronized group effort of collaborating, mutually respectful professionals.
Collaring a carnivore is, according to field biologists working with wild jaguars in the tropics – as well as most researchers studying large felids – the most effective way to monitor the predators range, activity, and ecology. The risks of field anesthesia in a large predator in rugged and remote terrain, with little to no technical support, should be weighed carefully against the potential information that the radio-collared animal might produce. In some cases, the risks outweigh the benefit of the potential data, and the entire process should be reconsidered. There are alternative ways of gathering information, but radio-collaring has been preferred over others due to its effectiveness.
3. Are you in favor of collaring a wild jaguar in Arizona?
I can not say I am in favor of radio-collaring a wild jaguar, but if it occurs, I would prefer to be part of the team to do it. I am not the most knowledgeable or experienced wildlife veterinarian in the region, but I would like to provide support to the procedure if it is to occur. Two veterinarians at the site, or more, can probably help ensure a smoother, less troublesome procedure. These animals are biologically valuable and rare. It would be tragic to lose an animal to an understaffed process or a mistake in planning. Although the risk of losing an animal to anesthesia is always there. The idea is to collect that maximum amount of information at a time, if the collaring process takes place. There are projects in South America with as many as 60 collared jaguars, repeat anesthetic sessions and multiple collars being placed on an animal over its lifetime. Ideally, we can tap into their experience to make the procedures with the Arizona animals as safe as possible.
4. What kind of research would you like to see done on jaguars in the SW US?
We know very little about their biology and ecology in arid or semi-arid environments. We don’t even know how much area a jaguar in Sonora-Arizona needs to sustain itself, or how its prey base varies, if it varies at all. It would be wonderful to see more support for research in jaguar ecology through groups like the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Group or Sky Island Alliance. Both have used non-invasive secondary data collection and have gotten some great information regarding the jaguars in the border region. A lot more resources would mean a greater amount of data, and more reliable information on the jaguar’s ecology and behavior.
5. Speaking completely hypothetically, what would be some of the medical concerns with transplanting jaguars from Northern Sonora to the SW US?
Without full, detailed and complete epidemiologic, medical, genetic and ecological studies of wild jaguars in both Sonora and Arizona, any introduction would be a grave risk. One needs only remember what happened to the lions of the Serengeti a decade ago with canine distemper to see how disastrous an infectious disease can be in a given population. Translocations of any kind need careful consideration and close study to decrease the risks involved. The impact would not be as spectacular as the disease problems seen in more gregarious species, though. Some viruses and diseases can linger, and cause severe problems over time to small dispersed carnivore populations. The effects of even the most “successful” reintroduction may not be known for two or three generations of animals. Genetics and behavior would also need to be seriously considered. In a semi-arid region, the prey base may be very different from area to area, and simply dropping a predator into an environment and assuming it will do well is a grave error. There have been too many translocation disasters to be cavalier about such a process. Natural dispersal is best and less risky. Given the current political climate on the border, and some of the proposed solutions, corridors for wildlife will either become critical or may nullify the future of jaguars in the southwestern US.
6. What’s your opinion of jaguar conservation in Mexico? Is it effective? Getting better?
I have seen and been part of some of the discussion involving jaguars in Mexico. One needs to remember that jaguars on Mexican soil are a Mexican national resource, and that there is not “better or worse” way to manage them. The amount of attention (2005 was declared the year of the jaguar by the Mexican President) political good will and NGO’s involved in jaguar conservation in Mexico has dramatically improved the picture for the animal’s survival. There is still a great deal of work do be done, but the best solution to jaguar conservation in Mexico will come from the Mexicans themselves. Groups like Naturalia and AZCARM, or the universities, have stepped up to address some of the problems inherent in the bureaucracy involved in managing a wild carnivore.
7. As a frequent attendee at the JagTeam meetings, what is your opinion of the approach they take for jaguar conservation?
It is fascinating to me that so many groups and people are interested in the jaguar and its situation in the US. I other countries with fewer resources, there is a lot less discussion around jaguars and their presence. In many countries, there is little discussion at all, and no real plan for the animal’s survival. Unfortunately, resources are scant and many animals are seen as direct competition to human activities and presence. There are small but resource rich countries like Costa Rica that produce good research and have active programs to protect and defend jaguar habitat. I think it is fortunate that there is a process to at least discuss the issues behind jaguar conservation and the debates that trying to keep a predator in the wild bring up. It is the most diverse group I participate in, and it is exciting to see hunters, ranchers, biologists, conservationists, and lay people involved. There is a feeling, though, that a lot gets discussed and little gets done. Its hard to work with an animal you sense and know is there, but can’t really see.
8. What is your opinion of the biological impacts of the border fence compared to uncontrolled foot traffic?
I feel that the only thing a solid barrier between Mexico and the US will not keep out is people. The damage and impact to wildlife coming across the border is difficult to anticipate and measure, but it is easy to predict that it may be disastrous. I believe this nation has the means, the technology and the political will to produce alternative solutions to an inherently political problem. I do not think we will know the impact of a wall or physical barrier for a long time, and by then the biological impact or problem may be more difficult, if not impossible, to correct.
9. As a native of Mexico, how do you view the jaguar? What does it mean to you?
“Caballero Tigre” was the name the Spaniards gave the Aztec version of a knight – a warrior clad in a jaguar’s outfit, symbolic of the animal’s strength and mystical powers. They called jaguars “tigres” because it was the closest animal they knew to it and could compare it to. The name has stuck to this date. Jaguars are intertwined and enmeshed in 30 centuries of Mexican culture. When you speak of jaguars in Mexico, it brings up a sense of deep history, pride, and empathy for an animal that has permeated Mexican culture. There is still as sense of fear and competition in some regions, but in general, Mexicans are proud of jaguars, and want to keep them around for generations to come.
10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Gracias por su interes.