Dersu Uzala, guest commentator on Macho B and conservation


Jaguar Conservation Fund team radio-collaring a female jaguar in Cantão State Park, state of Tocantins, Brazil.

courtesy of: Jaguar Conservation Fund/Instituto Onça-Pintada,

I received an email from another jaguar fanatic (who goes by Dersu Uzala), which stated ” I don’t live in Arizona, and I am not

affiliated in any way with AZGFD or the environmental groups mentioned. I do, however, consider myself an environmentalist. I became interested in jaguars and their conservation after doing volunteer fieldwork on a jaguar research project in Costa Rica about ten years ago, at which time I had the opportunity to see jaguars in the wild. Since that time I have done fieldwork with two other jaguar projects. I have also become keenly interested in the presence of jaguars in Arizona, and have been keeping up on this issue as well as how the border wall may affect their movement.” Dersu has requested I post the following and I am happy to do so. Thanks Dersu!!


A Letter To Those Who Support Jaguar Conservation

And How Some Environmental Groups Are Undermining This Effort

I’ve been reading in the press some of the negative comments from environmental groups in Arizona, such as the Center for Biological Diversity and Sky Island Alliance, about Macho B’s capture and death. Using inflammatory language like “bungled capture” and “senseless killing”, they are accusing the Arizona Game and Fish Department of recklessly causing the death. As someone who has been a supporter of conservation since the early 1960’s, I am extremely disappointed and disturbed by these accusations. It always hurts the credibility of conservation efforts when environmental groups misrepresent facts. In this case it is especially bad, since it is perceived by many that they are exploiting the situation to raise money for themselves.

First of all, the jaguar was accidentally caught in a leg hold snare set for a mountain lion as part of an important ongoing research project. Once an animal like a jaguar is caught in a snare, there is only one way to free it. It has to be immobilized with a tranquilizing drug. Whether or not the researchers take advantage of the situation and decide to put a satellite-tracking collar on the animal to gain valuable information is irrelevant. The animal has to be immobilized in order to release it from the snare.

I find the criticism of the action taken by the biologists regrettable. It shows extreme ignorance on the part of the spokespersons for these groups. There was nothing bungled about the capture. The reports show that the capture was done according to protocol and went exactly as planned. The Game and Fish biologists are knowledgeable and experienced in wildlife field research including the safe capture and handling of large predators. These people are highly trained professionals and have dedicated their lives to working with wildlife. No one cares more about the welfare of wildlife than they do. A friend of mine sarcastically commented, “The next time the biologists capture a large carnivore, they should invite the naïve people making these criticisms from their air-conditioned offices to come out with them and try releasing the animal without using a tranquilizing drug”.

The second point I would like to make here, and one that I believe is equally important to keep in mind, is that apparently these same groups opposed the satellite collaring of Macho B years ago when he was a young, healthy, vigorous cat. If he had been collared at that time there would now be a tremendous amount of extremely valuable information about the jaguar, particularly his use of the habitat at the extreme limit of the species range. There would be information on kills and diet, travel routes back and forth across the border, and whether he associated with any other jaguars including females. Since it is known that he spent a great deal of his young vital years in southern Arizona (from the camera trap data), it is likely that he sought out females during those years. He could have made trips looking for them in Mexico or he may have found them in Arizona, or both. We’ll never know now.

It is also important to keep in mind that if Macho B had been collared earlier, he would not have been accidentally caught in a snare in his old age and suffering from kidney disease because his whereabouts and general health condition would have been known.

It may make us feel good to say, “Let’s just let the jaguars roam free without any human assistance; they’ll do just fine”. We would all like that, but unfortunately that possibility disappeared over a century ago. The only way that large predators can continue to live in our world is if humans do everything they can to make it possible. The best tool we have to do that is science. There is a lot of talk coming from the above- mentioned   environmental groups about how passive methods, like camera traps, can provide all the data necessary to make a recovery plan. These people are demonstrating their ignorance of basic wildlife research. I believe that the speakers for these groups do care about the jaguar, but they need to educate themselves in at least the very basics of wildlife conservation practices before they make statements to the public.

The only data there is on Macho B’s life is that which was obtained from the camera trap study done by the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project. This study, which has been going for 8 years, has taken over 35,000 photographs. Using their knowledge of large cat behavior in the wild, researchers Emil McCain and Jack Childs have been able to place their cameras in likely places to photograph jaguars moving through the southern Arizona landscape. With 55 remote cameras continuously in operation, they have gotten 85 photos of jaguars. Eighty of these photos were of Macho B. These are the only known photos ever taken of Macho B in the wild. While it may sound like a lot of photos, they do not give a fraction of the useful data that could have been obtained with a satellite-tracking collar. Nothing is known about his use of the area except where the cameras were placed, and that is biased by the researcher’s choices. There is no data on Macho B’s daily activities, where and what he hunted, where he traveled, including where and how often he crossed the border. A satellite-tracking collar would have provided this kind of information, which would have been invaluable in the effort to stop the wall. Starting in mid 2007 he disappeared for a year. There is no way of knowing where he was during that time. It’s possible he could have been with a female in some remote part of southern Arizona for part of that time. These are only a few of the kinds of data that could have been recovered and used to define jaguar habitat. When you hear spokespersons from environmental groups telling you that methods like camera traps give biologists all the data they need to design a recovery plan, they are either ignorant or not being honest with you.

While the BJDP study is one of the longest and most extensive camera trap studies ever done anywhere, it can never begin to collect the amount and quality of data as the satellite tracking collar technology. And neither can other passive methods, such as hair snares, tracking, and scat collection and analysis. Most major wildlife conservation projects in the world are using satellite tracking collar technology. Grizzlies, wolves, tigers and numerous other endangered species have a much better chance of survival because of this technology. The methods developed for the capture and collaring of large carnivores have been proven to be safe over many years and have been successfully used on thousands of animals all over the world, including jaguars. We need to demand that the Arizona biologists use the very best technology available, especially when working with the jaguar. An extremely valuable opportunity was missed during the early years of Macho B’s life, but hopefully things will be different the next time.

There is one more piece of information that I believe is important to consider. The research project being conducted by the AZGFD on mountain lions and bears in the borderlands area has been referred to in this story in connection with Macho B’s accidental capture. This is a study designed to show how these animals are using the habitat in that area. The data collected on other carnivores like mountain lions and bears can be used to show the importance of cross-border connectivity, and can be directly applied to protect corridors that jaguars may use to move back into Arizona. By the way, they are using satellite-tracking collars for this project, and they are apparently working great to identify habitats on both sides of the border and important connectivity zones. This type of information is extremely valuable in helping to stop the border wall. We should all support this effort by the AZGFD.

I urge those who care about jaguar conservation to become educated in the issues before taking positions that are uninformed and irrational. It is easy to let emotion get in the way of making good decisions. Through the years I have seen a number of environmental groups, whose members were caring people with the best intentions, take positions on certain issues that turned out to be counterproductive. Study the issues carefully and make sure your spokespersons are knowledgeable so that they can make rational, informed statements in the future, and not discredit and embarrass the rest of us involved in conservation. These voices do reach a lot of caring people, and they are definitely misleading their members on this issue.

It’s time to stop the finger pointing and criticism and to work together to save the jaguar. The Arizona Game and Fish Department is our best ally in this effort. I have no doubt that the AZGFD biologists involved in the capture of Macho B felt the pain of his death far more than the rest of us can imagine. What is accomplished by trying to make them feel worse?

The enemies of the jaguar are having a good chuckle watching the supporters of the jaguar quarrel among themselves. The best way to allow an opponent to defeat you is to divide and fight among yourselves. There is too much to lose here. The mining companies and the developers would like nothing better than to see the jaguar disappear while jaguar supporters are in conflict among themselves.

Don’t get your hopes up about a recovery plan happening anytime soon. It’s not likely to happen until more jaguars are documented and good solid data is obtained. A plan for the recovery of this species cannot begin until more is known about them, especially how they utilize the habitat at what seems to be the edge of their range. There is no way that we can expect our government agencies to protect jaguar habitat when their efforts to define it are obstructed. We need to support science, not block it. Hopefully, in the future those who really care about the jaguar will be able to work together.

Dersu Uzala

March 17, 2009

6 Responses to “Dersu Uzala, guest commentator on Macho B and conservation”

  1. Richard Mahler Says:

    Excellent! I could not have said it better. So I won’t even try.

  2. swjags Says:

    I’m with you, Richard! Thanks for visiting!

  3. Jack L. Childs Says:

    My thanks to “Dersu Uzala” for shining the light of truth on jaguar conservation in the Southwestern United States. Cooperative Conservation has always been my byline but I seldom see cooperation among the stakeholders unless it promotes their personal agendas.

    Jack L. Childs
    Founder: Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project

  4. swjags Says:

    I agree, “Dersu” certainly said things that needed to be said! And it’s an honor to have you comment on the blog, Jack. Many thanks!

  5. Tony Povilitis Says:

    Has anyone acted on data collected from remote cameras to advance a conservation plan for the jaguar? Would data from a radio-collared animal propel us to move ahead with habitat protection? I’m very skeptical.

    Not long ago, I asked a jaguar researcher from Brazil if there was any information that he could think of that might fundamentally change our conservation paradigm (conservation of core areas and corridors over large areas) for protecting the Southwest jaguar. He said no, but we might learn a few things we don’t know, such as whether a given animal crosses agricultural fields.

    Since conversation about jaguars began in earnest well over a decade ago, we have seen the effects of urbanization and land development greatly diminish opportunities for safe jaguar travel across the landscape. The border fence has been largely built, and would seem in most places quite able to block large carnivore movements.

    We still have no recovery plan for the jaguar, and re-introduction has received no objective analysis. Will science save us, or is something else missing?

    I would like to ask Dersu and others exactly how data from a radio-collared jaguar or two would lead to jaguar recovery in the Southwest. Paint me a picture, provide some scenarios.

    My gut tells me that given how rare jaguars are in AZ/NM, the risk of injury or death from attempting further captures is not worth it. If another old jaguar turns up, or a pregnant female (in my wildest dreams!), at least we should give them a break and use box or “culvert” traps instead of snares for capturing other wildlife where they roam. That way, for their safety they can be released promptly without need for drug immobilization and handling. Sound reasonable?

  6. swjags Says:

    As always, good points, Tony. Anyone with more biology/wildlife conservation knowledge than me have a reply?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: