Anthony Giordano Q&A

Welcome to the very first posting of 2015 and the first of many Q&A’s I have planned! I am very excited to present this Q&A with Anthony Giordano, a hardcore field biologist with tons of experience with jaguars and numerous other carnivore species. I think you will find his answers and photos fascinating. Thanks, Anthony!

 

 

  1. How did you become interested in wildlife in general and carnivores in particular?

 

I’d honestly have to say that my interest in wildlife and wild places appears to have been innate. Both of my parents grew up in Brooklyn, NY. There were few experiences that I had as a young child that could be considered ‘wild’, and fewer still interactions with wildlife in their native habitats. But my mother and father always encouraged my interests, whatever they were, often through books and documentaries. Some of my earliest memories are of asking questions about different species of animals: what they were, where they lived, where they came from. Snakes were one of my original passions, and my fascination with them may have fanned many future interests. Their diversity of color and appearance may have led to a strong interest in evolution and ecology. As the years went on, predators and tropical rainforests occupied a greater share of my interests. Endangered species and extinction however, they were often the unifying umbrella for it all. The idea that people could push a species into oblivion, a process that normally required a great natural catastrophe or cataclysm, was unfathomable to me. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it and in many ways, I guess I still can’t; the idea haunts me today exactly as it did decades ago. As for why mammalian carnivores: if I had to pick one thing that set me more on this course than anything else, I’d owe it to an early obsession over their evolution. That the Carnivora are even here today is, in my mind, so improbable. They were so late to the evolutionary game, the odds so against them, they should never have made it. Their unlikely combination of several advantages, some barely perceptible at first, probably led them to outcompeting more established lineages. I believe I might have become a paleontologist if not for the current wave of anthropogenic extinctions. But I am still very much interested in the radiation and paleoecology of the Carnivora, particularly extinct lineages.

 

Anthony with a young male jaguar captured and radio-collared in the Chaco as part of a GPS telemetry study. Courtesy of Anthony Giordano.

Anthony with a young male jaguar captured and radio-collared in the Chaco as part of a GPS telemetry study. © Anthony J. Giordano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Did you have an inspiring professor or other person who served as a mentor?

 

Until college, there were few such people personally in my life. Largely because those personalities that most inspired me were fewer, and scattered across the country. My biggest inspirations at the time were living legends such as the zoologist and pioneering conservationist George Schaller, and primate behaviorist Jane Goodall, still both personal heroes of mine. Same goes for tropical ecologists like Louise Emmons and John Terborgh. The stories of Diane Fossey and Chico Mendes were also very inspirational to me early on. For one of my college courses, I had the opportunity to introduce a guest speaker by the name of Dr. Scott Mori, of the New York Botanical Gardens. To me, Scott was the quintessential jungle explorer and scientist, and few people have left their mark on me as he has. An exceptional systematic botanist and committed forest conservationist, I have walked through the rainforests of French Guiana with him and listened as he literally named all the trees we encountered along our way to genus and species. Few people have contributed as much to their passion, their chosen profession, and to botany, as Scott has, and he was certainly a strong guiding force in my life early on. Around this same time, I was also persistently exploring opportunities through the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo, which was a train ride away and right next door to the Botanical Gardens. Having read his book in high school, Alan Rabinowitz was high on my list to meet, and eventually he agreed to meet me for lunch. Alan’s personal philosophy and advice, as well as his lifelong commitment to the conservation of big cats and wild places, have been and continue to be guiding influences on me, and I am deeply indebted to him personally for his encouragement, as well as professionally, for all he has done throughout his career. Shortly after this I also met Carlos Lopez-Gonzalez, who at the time was still a Master’s student, and a Co-PI on an Earthwatch expedition I joined in Mexico. I learned a lot from Carlos in the field, and am grateful for the friendship that eventually evolved from that initial meeting. I also was fortunate enough to participate in my very first jaguar capture during that expedition.

 

  1. Before we get to your South American adventures, can you tell us a little about your research in Asia? Which animals did you study?

 

Sure, there are several projects I am involved with in Asia. Most prominent among them is centered around the Sunda clouded leopard’s ecology and conservation on the island of Borneo. If the jaguar represents the passion I know, clouded leopards represent the mystery. While there is still so much for us to learn about the jaguar, there is practically nothing known about clouded leopards. Even basic life history traits and behaviors, such as how arboreal they are, are still being debated. I am excited there is still so much to learn about them, and hope only to do my part in finding out. That clouded leopard populations on Borneo and Sumatra were distinguished taxonomically from mainland populations means there is now twice the mystery! One thing that is not so mysterious however is why clouded leopard forest habitat is disappearing: oil palm. My advice to all reading this? Avoid buying products with palm oil, or any kind of palm oil derivative. The average person would be surprised at how prevalent it is in many of the products we buy, particularly processed foods. Palm oil is also a threat to jaguars in Central America and northern South America.

 

Another species of considerable interest to me, and similarly enigmatic, is the fishing cat, an endangered small cat species we have been conducting surveys of in Bangladesh. Soon we are planning to initiate new surveys of fishing cats, leopards, and other carnivores in Sri Lanka. There is so little known about the fishing cat other than as its name implies, it is found near water and often takes aquatic prey. Currently there are only a handful of people studying the species. Even its fragmented distribution, which is likely most reflective of Asia’s recent geological past, is among the very basic information we are all still trying to gather data on. That we know so little about their ecological requirements, that they are so infrequently recorded from large portions of their range, and that wetlands and forests are disappearing across southern Asia at an alarming rate, comprise some of the biggest challenges that lie ahead of us in protecting fishing cats. One thing the average person can do is to know more regarding the geographical origin of the shrimp and fish products they buy. Shrimp and fish aquaculture across Southeast Asia are among the biggest existing threats to fishing cat habitat.

 

Fishing cat tracks in a drying mud flat from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh

Fishing cat tracks in a drying mud flat from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh. © Anthony J. Giordano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. One of the most biologically diverse (and imperiled) biomes in South America is the Gran Chaco. For those of us who don’t have firsthand experience with that area, how would describe it? What are the main threats to the landscape and wildlife?

 

The Gran Chaco is an absolutely amazing and awe-inspiring place. It is also one of the most difficult places to describe concisely. Anyone who has worked in the Chaco can attest to the diversity the biome displays at the macroecological level, including its most fundamental vegetative characteristics. At one extreme, closer to Asuncion (Paraguay) for example, the Chaco is more or less a semi-open, seasonally inundated palm savanna and grassland ecosystem. At the other extreme, near the border between northwestern Paraguay and southern Bolivia, the Chaco is an incredibly dense, deciduous, semi-arid thorn forest comprised of some of the most durable and commercially valuable timber species on the planet. Most of my work with jaguars keeps me largely in this latter portion of the Gran Chaco, close to the Paraguay-Bolivia border. The main threat to the Chaco – from southern Bolivia through northern Argentina – is conversion of the habitat for commercial agriculture and urbanization. In Paraguay, the biggest threat to the Chaco’s wildlife, including the jaguar, is rapidly increasing deforestation for increased production of beef, international prices for which have recently been at or near a relative high mark.

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Dense undergrowth typical of the dry Chaco forests of northern Paraguay. © Anthony J. Giordano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. How did you end up doing research in the Chaco?

 

Prior to the Chaco, most of my field work had focused on what many would consider typical tropical rainforest habitats, particularly in South America and Southeast Asia, even Australia and the south Pacific. Originally I traveled to Paraguay with a colleague with the intention of doing a camera-trapping survey of carnivores in one of the country’s larger fragments of Upper Parana Atlantic Forest, a type of rainforest. This forest type is beautiful and diverse, with a relatively high proportion of its species unique to it. It is also by many criteria one the most endangered forest types in the world, and may be the most endangered forest in the western hemisphere. After my initial visit to some of these sites, I decided to travel to the Gran Chaco before returning home. And that was it, I think – I fell in love with the Chaco. It was so different. The more I researched it, the more I learned there was so much to learn. In Paraguay, there was practically nothing known about jaguar populations in this region. Moreover, although the Atlantic Forest is highly endangered, it is largely gone in Paraguay as it is elsewhere, and most of the biggest forest tracts are now protected in some form or another. Atlantic Forest conservation in Paraguay therefore necessitates reforestation and restoration, often a difficult socio-political and economic journey to navigate. Relatively speaking, there was so much more primary Chaco forest remaining, although it is disappearing now possibly faster than any other forest type. By focusing on jaguars in the Chaco, my hope is to contribute to a gap in our scientific knowledge of the species, both in this unique biome, and the beautiful country of Paraguay.

 

  1. You recently were the lead author on a paper on jaguars in Southern Paraguay. What can you tell us about the status of el tigre in your study area?

 

What is happening in the Chaco appears to be a microcosm of what is happening to jaguar populations across their range, nearly half of which has now disappeared since the early 1900’s. Jaguar populations in the Paraguayan dry Chaco are probably declining at this point, and my estimates of their population densities are fairly low. Individual jaguars from this region range widely, and home ranges are among some of the largest recorded for the species. Deforestation is causing the disappearance of habitat for both predator and prey, and as a result is exacerbating incidents of conflict between jaguars and commercial cattle-ranching operations. This then compounds the problem for jaguars, and I suspect that these practices and their consequences disrupt jaguar population social/ territorial structure and behavior. Evidence of female jaguars in many regions is low and this is troublesome, particularly adjacent to protected areas. Just to the south in the Argentine Chaco, the situation for jaguars is extremely critical, and there are probably at most only a handful of jaguars left in that area. In Paraguay along the border with Argentina, jaguars appear to have disappeared from some areas, but persist in others. My fear is that soon the southern range edge for jaguars will erode even further in the next decade or so, and that far northern Paraguay will represent the new frontier with respect to one of these southern range boundaries for the species. Our organization, SPECIES, has initiated the Chaco Jaguar Conservation Project, with the long-term hope of reducing conflict between jaguars and landowners, monitoring jaguar populations across the region, increasing local awareness regarding the jaguar’s status and the steps that can be taken to effectively protect the species, and informing smart and creative policies that lead to the protection of more jaguar habitat and the jaguars themselves.

Could this female jaguar be the furthest one south in the Gran Chaco?

Could this female jaguar be the furthest one south in the Gran Chaco? © Anthony J. Giordano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. What is your impression of jaguars during a collaring session? Are they generally aggressive and annoyed? More retiring?

 

In my experience, jaguar behavior can vary widely among individuals during capture and collaring activities, particularly when using dogs. Some jaguars for example can tree quickly, particularly younger animals. This can be irrespective of sex and even size. Females can take pursuers on just as long of a run as a male. It is hard to predict the kind of effort that lies in front of you when encountering fresh sign of a new, probably uncollared jaguar, and then deciding to pursue it with hounds. Some jaguars might decide to tree and not think twice about coming down, while others have jumped from the limbs of tall trees and bolted, tranquilizer dart still hanging from their flanks. I have also experienced jaguars turning the table on their canine pursuers, both without and after treeing, several incidents of which resulted in multiple canine fatalities. This can happen in dense brush for example if hounds in pursuit get too far out in front of a capture team. Obviously the art of tracking and capturing jaguars with hounds is an imperfect one, but it is unique, and possibly the most reliable and efficient way to collar a statistically meaningful sample of jaguars. Telemetry is still one of the best ways to effectively learn about an animal’s fine-scale movement and activity patterns, home range size, social behavior, habitat use, and even prey selection, including important information on livestock depredations.

 

Female jaguar being prepped for translocation and release in Mexico.

Female jaguar being prepped for translocation and release in Mexico. © Anthony J. Giordano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. What does the jaguar mean to you personally?

 

The jaguar is one of those species that will always be associated with my earliest interests in wildlife conservation, as well as my earliest fascination with carnivore ecology and evolution. In a way, the jaguar is always with me, has helped define me, and I have tied many of my career goals to preventing the species from declining further. I believe it to be a unique kind of cat in a way that I can’t quite explain. This idea is based partly on what IS known about jaguars both scientifically and anecdotally, but more on what there is left to learn about the species. The jaguar is the face of the Amazon, that largest and most impressive of forests in the world. It IS that enduring spirit of the Neotropical jungle, always on the move, instinct and adaptation, cunning and stealth, power and restlessness. It is that much needed indicator of landscape integrity and habitat connectivity, of ecosystem health and functionality, lurking amidst South America’s last wild places. The jaguar’s fate is inextricably linked to the forest and savanna habitats it occupies. Perhaps more importantly, is that recent scientific findings regarding the role of carnivores in ecosystems would suggest the reverse is also true… as go the jaguars, so goes the integrity of the ecosystem as a whole and as a consequence, biodiversity.

 

  1. Another animal I find fascinating is the maned wolf. What has been your experience with this carnivore?

 

The maned wolf, which in reality is a tall, long-legged fox, is a creature of open grassland and semi-open forested areas. In Paraguay I have had the good fortune to see a few, and it appears fairly well distributed across the humid Chaco, cerrado, and even Atlantic Forest landscapes modified for crop agriculture. Maned wolves are often misunderstood as potential depredators of large livestock, and so they are persecuted across many parts of their range. In reality, the maned wolf is shy and retiring, subsisting largely on fruits and small mammals, only occasionally taking larger prey such as a brocket deer when the right opportunity presents itself. Misguided persecution then, along with increased urbanization and possible disease from domestic dogs, are among the most serious threats to maned wolves. They seem to occur at fairly low densities even in good habitat, and members of a mating pair generally forage separately, even when raising a litter of pups. Because maned wolves can adapt to early successional forest habitats, it is unclear if their range has recently expanded in eastern Paraguay from its most restricted point, or if it is still largely declining due to ongoing subsistence and commercial agricultural activities. More research is needed on this, but there is some indication that maned wolves might be able to persist in these secondary, regenerative habitats if they are free from persecution and the threat of disease.

 

Maned wolf recorded from the humid Chaco of Paraguay as part of the first study of this species in the region.

Maned wolf recorded from the humid Chaco of Paraguay as part of the first study of this species in the region. © Anthony J. Giordano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. What’s your opinion on the current existence of the jaguarundi in the US?

 

As straightforward a question as this is, it is not an easy one to answer. What I don’t believe is that many people who claim to have seen a jaguarundi from Arizona to Florida are actually seeing jaguarundis. It is important that I state this at the outset, because this is a locally controversial topic. Domestic cats and other animals likely represent nearly all of these observations, and the truth is that many of these sightings are unreliable. What I’m more interested in is localities that could be described as otherwise containing good jaguarundi habitat at the northernmost limit of their range (i.e., dense semi-arid thicket and scrub), but from which jaguarundis have not previously been confirmed using physical evidence. In the recent past (mid-1980’s), the only confirmed jaguarundi population in the U.S. occurred in the lower Rio Grande Valley of extreme south Texas, along the border with the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. This would be in the vicinity of Brownsville, for example, not far from where the only reproducing population of U.S. ocelots occurs. Yet there are many other regions of potentially suitable habitat for jaguarundis where though they have never been confirmed, they have also never been the subject of targeted field surveys, although recurring sightings from qualified observers persist. One such region is the greater Pecos-Carmen Mountain region of southwestern Texas and northern Coahuila state, Mexico, which would include Big Bend National Park. Now – I cannot claim with certainty that jaguarundis are an official inhabitant of the park, but I will state that the park staff has collected more than 100 unsolicited firsthand observations which describe in good detail an animal that couldn’t be anything other than a jaguarundi. Interestingly, a good majority of these reports didn’t even refer explicitly to a ‘jaguarundi’. Many use terms like ‘weasel-like cat’, and ‘very long, short cat-like animal with very long tail’, accompanied by additional descriptors, suggesting great confusion by observers at what they were seeing. Many also explicitly reference familiarity with the park’s local carnivores, expressing that what was seen was (paraphrasing) “not a bobcat because of the long tail, like a weasel, but much larger”, or “too long to be a feral domestic cat”. Other reports refer directly to ‘jaguarundis,’ but were submitted by highly reliable observers, including park staff and biologists. As this is a species that can be particularly elusive even where they are common, I can only imagine the challenges of surveying them in areas near the fringe of their range, where densities must be very low at best. They are rarely even recorded on camera-traps across many parts of the middle of their range, and the only place I have seen them with some regularity is ironically the dry Chaco of Paraguay. All of this suggests that better criteria might need to be applied in evaluating the validity of records for certain species, particularly near the edge of their range.

 

Jaguarundi caught on camera-trap near sunset in Paraguay, after which they are nearly inactive.

Jaguarundi caught on camera-trap near sunset in Paraguay, after which they are nearly inactive. © Anthony J. Giordano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. What do you suggest to people who want to make a difference to carnivore conservation?

 

Believe it or not, there are many things that members of the public can do to make a difference in protecting carnivores. For carnivores native to the United States, there is a great need for the public to be active in opposing policies that would harm prospects for the persistence and re-establishment of carnivore populations. The wolf is still the most political animal on the landscape, and the fact is – we as a society just need to do a better job of making room for the wolf. The centuries-old belief that wolves are bloodthirsty, wanton killers of livestock still persists in some rural areas, but overall it is slowly dying as new generations are educated. Even among today’s ranching community, many now understand that there are certain management contexts that are more likely to lead to livestock depredations. The public should go out of their way to support those ranchers that willingly refrain from killing wolves indiscriminately, possibly by paying a slightly higher price for their beef. Vocal opposition to predator-killing contests, and a call for greater transparency with respect to the operations, expenses, and tallies of Wildlife Services, that branch of the USDA charged with ‘taking care’ of problem wildlife, are also needed. Members of the public can voice their opinion at local planning meetings in favor of expanding restoration efforts, or enhancing habitat connectivity, for carnivores such as Mexican wolves, red wolves, grizzly bears, Canada lynx, gray wolves, and wolverines, several of which have the potential to be greatly impacted by climate change. Polar bear conservation efforts in particular necessitate greater public advocacy of strong climate change mitigation legislation. Continued development threatens the only breeding population of ocelots in the U.S. in south Texas, and more local action is needed to reduce roadkills and safeguard suitable habitat. Finally the public should be aware that there are consistently attempts to weaken existing legislation, including the Endangered Species Act, by certain members of Congress. Making sure to urge your Congressional representatives to be on the right side of such votes is therefore important to several carnivore species.

Sunda clouded leopard captured on camera-trap in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

Sunda clouded leopard captured on camera-trap in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. © Anthony J. Giordano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

 

Thanks for the good questions, and I hope my answers were informative and entertaining for your readers. I guess I’d like to end on this note. Whether or not Macho B’s legacy may include the eventual return of jaguars to southern Arizona and New Mexico is anyone’s guess at the moment. However, I’d strongly advocate for efforts that focus on effective habitat conservation, landowner outreach, and conflict mitigation, particularly in northern Sonora and Chihuahua. In the end I believe it is not about actively restoring jaguars to an area that historically marked the northern limit of their range. Rather, it is about maintaining that all-important bridge, the integration of ecological connectivity and functionality with multi-cultural tolerance, which hopefully will hasten the conditions for the return of the jaguar all on her own.

Anthony giving a presentation to landowners in Paraguay during a human-jaguar conflict mitigation workshop co-organized by S.P.E.C.I.E.S.© Anthony J. Giordano

Anthony giving a presentation to landowners in Paraguay during a human-jaguar conflict mitigation workshop co-organized by S.P.E.C.I.E.S.© Anthony J. Giordano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “Anthony Giordano Q&A”

  1. Interview with S.P.E.C.I.E.S founder and director Anthony Giordano - S.P.E.C.I.E.S. Says:

    […] Read the full interview here. […]

  2. Entrevista con Anthony Giordano, Fundador y Director de S.P.E.C.I.E.S. – Jaguaretes del Chaco Says:

    […] Fuente: Leer la entrevista completa aqui. […]

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