By Evi Paemelaere – (Panthera)
In the land of giants, the jaguar stands strong and proud on the coat of arms, and adorns many banners and brochures to attract tourists who are happy to pay for catching a glimpse of America’s largest cat here in Guyana. Jaguars play a key ecological role in keeping our environment a healthy place for healthy people. But what is it like to live with ‘tigers’, as these large spotted cats are called in Guyana? The answer may depend on who you are talking to: people in the heart of the capital, those living in mining or logging camps, people with cattle and those running tourism businesses may all have different perceptions of jaguars. But when the news spread of a little girl being attacked by a ‘tiger’ in Isseneru in late December of last year, everyone was equally shocked and started wondering how this could have happened, and what we can do to avoid conflict between ‘tigers’ and people in the future.
Jaguar attacks on people are in fact extremely rare, and an attack typically only occurs when the jaguar feels threatened. The same goes for its smaller, non-spotted cousin the puma (deer tiger), which was the culprit in Jasmine’s case. Shooting at or hitting these large cats naturally puts the animal in defence mode. If the cat gets injured in the process, it is likely to become even more aggressive. Many of the records of jaguar attacks stem from such situations, where people try to hunt, capture or kill a jaguar that killed a domestic animal.
Also jaguars and pumas are hunted ‘opportunistically’, that means shot on sight simply because of ignorance or fear, leaving many felines wounded and diminished in their hunting abilities, causing them to prey more on domestic animals. While any animal that feels cornered may attack as a last resort to survive, some situations make animals more nervous than usual. For example, a mother with cubs, like any mother, is always on high alert to protect her young ones, and may feel threatened more quickly. During mating time, or when eating, or having a recently caught prey, jaguars can also become aggressive. In short, the best way to avoid the threat of an attack is by avoiding threatening the cat.
An entirely different problem arises when people start attracting jaguars with bait to improve tourist viewing opportunities. Besides getting used to people, jaguars will start associating people with food, with potentially disastrous consequences that are much more difficult to handle than the jaguar’s natural response to defend itself.
Before worrying about jaguar attacks, consider this:
Jaguars are by nature elusive; they avoid people if possible. Think of the number of people that wander through jaguar territory on a daily basis, and how few of them actually encounter one. Compared to some other species, jaguars should be the least of our worries. Large dangers lie mostly with the little creatures. According to the World Health Organisation (2013) malaria (spread by mosquitoes) kills about 700,000 people worldwide every year, leishmaniasis kills an estimated 25,000 people per year, and TB over one million people, in spite of widespread treatment options. Even bees and wasps with a few hundred human deaths per year far exceed the danger posed by the jaguar for which only rare cases of human deaths (often none or at most one per year frequently as a result of hunting situations) are reported throughout Central and South America. In contrast, domestic dogs kill an average of 150 humans per year.
What to do when you encounter a jaguar (or a puma)?
While encounters are rare, it doesn’t hurt to know how to respond. The worst you can do is turn your back and run away. These cats hunt to survive. Anything running away from them triggers this hunting instinct. Instead, stay calm, keep looking in the direction of the animal and slowly back off. If children are with you, put them behind you before walking backwards, so that an adult stands between the cat and the children at all times. Once you reach a good distance, you can go on your way. After initial surprise and curiosity, the cat is very likely to do the same, and walk away from you.
Jaguars do not eat people. They roam forests, savannas and swamps in search of bush hog, bush cow, armadillo, turtles and the many other species of wild animals on their menu. Nature creates a balance between prey and predator. But when the areas they live in become smaller, or the prey animals become scarce (because of excessive hunting of their natural prey), or both, jaguars and pumas are more likely to venture closer to people in search of a territory and food. Dogs, cows and other domestic animals are often easy prey, and once successful at stealing one of these animals, the jaguar may continue to visit in search of more, bringing them close to people more frequently.
Ensuring that enough habitat and prey are available for jaguars is thus the first step. Discouraging jaguars from taking domestic animals is also important to keep jaguars from developing a habit to look for prey near people. Little efforts can go a long way. Locking up smaller animals at night, and planning livestock movements, guarding, and restricting calving to one season in a secure area have been shown to be successful. Also not shooting jaguars or pumas indiscriminately is an important step in the same direction. You can find more information on this theme in ‘People and Jaguars: A Guide for Coexistence’, available from www.panthera.org.
Little Jasmine was very unlucky to be one of the rare cases of an attack by a puma. She did not know not to run. But her radiant smile and mischievous look as she ran around again after surgeries showed her loved ones she will be ok. She’s brave, and she needs a healthy, safe world to grow up in. Avoiding conflict and promoting co-existence between people and these large cats, which play such an important role in maintaining our healthy surroundings, will be a task for everyone. Inform yourself, spread the word, help protect these cats’ habitat and natural prey, familiarize yourself with the signs of attacks by jaguar and puma (deer tiger), and report conflict situations.
Panthera is an international non-for profit organization with a focus on large cat conservation. Panthera has been active in Guyana since 2011. In 2013, the organization signed an MoU with the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment to conduct research, promote awareness and assist in mitigating conflict. Panthera draws on decades of experience with conflict. You can contact Panthera by sending an email to Dr Evi Paemelaere at firstname.lastname@example.org, and find more information on co-existence with big cats at www.panthera.org.