Tracking jaguars in Paraguay’s hot, dry Chaco Plains
It’s hot, dry and largely uninhabited by humans. But although the Chaco Plains of south-central South America may not be an ideal habitat for our species, this sprawling region is far from deserted. Indeed, the Chaco Plains’ savannahs and tropical forests are something of a biodiversity hotspot, sheltering a wide range of mammals – from jaguars and cougars to anteaters to armadillos.
A lowland basin that stretches across the borders of four countries (Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia), the Chaco Plains form the largest dry forest on the continent. In Paraguay, the Chaco plays an important socioeconomic role, with the region’s wildlife providing the main source of protein and products for the indigenous communities who live nearby.
However, this harmonious balance is under threat. The low cost of land, coupled with a growing awareness of the land’s suitability for growing fuel crops, has led to an agricultural boom in the region, and over the past few years the Chaco Plains has suffered one of the highest deforestation rates recorded in the entire world. This in turn has altered the role the forest plays in important processes such as carbon sequestration, soil conservation, and the water cycle.
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However, despite the potential impact that extensive livestock farming might have on the Chaco Plains’ wildlife, to date there has been no quantitative data to determine to what extent, exactly, the increased management of land is affecting this vital ecosystem.
There is already evidence of decline of several species such as peccaries and jaguar. However, we still have time to formulate a conservation plan for these species. But first, we need to further our understanding of the impact the landscape change in the Chaco is having on its fauna – and particularly, on its medium and large mammals.
To fill this gap in our knowledge, Guyra Paraguay (BirdLife Partner) has joined forces with the Chaco Center for Conservation and Research (CCCI), with funds from the Prociencia program of the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT), to embark on a pioneering two-year project which is the first of its kind in Paraguay.
The field work consists of placing 400 camera traps (cameras with movement and heat sensors which are triggered when an animal passes in front) in different private properties across the Paraguayan Chaco. These cameras are placed in what are known as double trapping stations, giving us extra information which will allow the team to individualize animals that have specific patches of spots and making the findings more accurate.
The installation of these cameras was an arduous task, but one that promises great rewards since we will be able to observe the movements of animals such as tapirs, jaguars, deer, anteaters, armadillos, cougars, among others. The stations will be in the field for 10 months in total, covering the fauna’s activity in different times of the year. Following this period, the team will go through the exhaustive step of processing (it is anticipated) more than 500,000 images, along with the rigorous statistical analysis that goes along with it.
This project is of great relevance because at present, one of the most serious problems facing conservationists of biodiversity is tackling when a developing country rapidly grows in a disorderly way, in the process neglecting the natural resources that form the basis of its economy. This is the case in Paraguay, which is currently experiencing an economic boom – but one that is coming at the cost of serious environmental degradation, with an average of 1,300 hectares of forest dismantled per day. But there is still time to avoid following the catastrophic pattern of the Eastern Region, where today only about 7% of the original forest cover remains. Proper planning, informed by this camera tracking project, will allow the future conservation of more than 500 species of fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals, of which at least 25 are unique to the Chaco.
In addition to providing data that will form help preserve Paraguay’s biodiversity, this project will also have a positive social impact in the country. A key objective for the camera tracking project is to train students and university students in quantitative ecology and disseminate the results to producers, the general public and the scientific community. This last point is of paramount importance since in Paraguay there is not currently a curricular mesh that includes these subjects and there are a limited number of specialized professionals.