Can jaguar tourism save Bolivia’s fast dwindling forests?

Can jaguar tourism save Bolivia’s fast dwindling forests?

A mother jaguar with its kitten photographed by camera trap. By one estimate, Bolivia is home to more than 10 percent of the world’s remaining jaguars. Courtesy of the San Miguelito Facebook page.

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Tree cover loss in Eastern Bolivia near San Miguelito Ranch, Santa Cruz between 2001 and 2017.

Larsen has both Bolivian and U.S. citizenship. He moved to Nebraska after he and his brother were the victims of an attempted kidnapping in the early 1980s (his father shot three of the five armed kidnappers dead in their home during the incident). After graduating from Montana State University in Bozeman, Larsen eventually made his way back to Bolivia in his mid-20s to work with his father, Ronald, whose landholdings included a 15,000-hectare (37,000-acre) cattle ranch that a few years later would be seized by the Bolivian government in a contentious dispute.

In the aftermath of the seizure, Ronald fled Bolivia and Duston began managing another smaller holding, named San Miguelito, on the road to Brazil. San Miguelito, which covers 2,800 hectares (6,900 acres) at the junction of three ecological regions — the seasonally flooded Chaco alluvial plains, the Chaco subtropical forest, and the Cerrado dry forests of the Chiquitano shield — was already known for its wildlife thanks to camera-trapping work by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Noel Kempff Mercado Natural History Museum, which had revealed a rich assemblage of six different wild cats and other animals. Those studies were published and conducted at that time by Damian Rumiz, who now works for the Simón I. Patiño Foundation, and still helps San Miguelito with jaguar identification.

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Duston Larsen on the river that flows through his property.
Duston Larsen in San Miguelito. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Larsen loved animals, so when he took over San Miguelito he continued to follow in his father’s footsteps to protect its resident wildlife, including maintaining habitat and prohibiting hunting. But he also had to consider Bolivian laws that required landowners to demonstrate “productive use” of their holdings, which in these parts usually translates to cutting down trees for cattle or soy, so as not to run into a situation that could lead to the government seizing the ranch.

“In Bolivia the landowner must complete the FES [Economic Social Function] of the land, which means you need at least one head of cattle, buffalo, or horse for every 5 hectares [12 acres] of land,” Larsen told Mongabay as he collected memory cards from camera traps along a trail where he often sees jaguar tracks. “This puts a lot of pressure on landowners to clear their land.

“We have cleared small areas of San Miguelito in order to feed our cattle, but I have always stressed to the operators the importance of keeping medium and large trees,” he added.

Larsen previously ran a lodge on the other ranch before it was seized by the government, but he hadn’t done much to develop ecotourism in San Miguelito until he met an Australian ecotourism entrepreneur named Nick McPhee, who runs Nick’s Adventure Bolivia, which operates throughout the country. McPhee had heard of San Miguelito thanks to WCS’s camera-trapping work that had documented wild cats, including several jaguars, on the property and garnered it a measure of fame in conservation circles.

“I found out about San Miguelito from reading a camera trap study about jaguars,” McPhee told Mongabay as we bounced along a rutted dirt road toward Lomas de Arena, an area where sand dunes contrast sharply with the adjacent forest and wetlands. “I met Duston by chance through a friend. At the time there was no tourism at all and he told me they lose a lot of cows and that jaguars and pumas were being killed in the area.”

When Larsen invited him out to San Miguelito, McPhee jumped at the opportunity. McPhee brought a couple of camera traps with him, which proved to be the clincher in persuading Larsen to develop ecotourism on the ranch.

“I was immediately hooked by the images and videos taken by the trail cams on our property,” he said.

One of the chief concerns for ranchers in the frontier region is livestock loss due to predators. While there are measures that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of loss, for most ranchers it’s simply easiest to exterminate anything that’s potentially a threat to their herds. In Bolivia this often includes predators capable of taking down calves: jaguars and pumas.

Larsen wanted to protect these animals on his land and beyond. McPhee told him that ecotourism could help.

“As Nick and I walked around the ranch and he said bringing tourists out to the ranch would help cover cattle loss and would be another source of income for the ranch,” Larsen said.

So Larsen and his partner, Anai Holzmann, began fixing up the ranch house to accommodate guests. Perched atop a ridge that provides panoramic views in three directions and catches a cooling breeze, the ranch house is perfectly situated for relaxing after a day of activities, which range from hiking to wildlife spotting via canoe in the river than runs through the property, to visiting a local indigenous community.The ranch house has a firepit and a watchtower, which afford an even grander view of the surrounding landscape, including the expanding soy fields that are chewing away at the forest from the west.

San Miguelito now has more than 25 kilometers (16 miles) of hiking trails as well as several wildlife viewing platforms. Some guests stay in these blinds overnight, bettering their chances of seeing bigger animals. Some guests look for birds and small wildlife on horseback.

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Capybara along the San Pablo River in San Miguelito. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

This supplemental source of income is now subsidizing other measures to protect wildlife as well as losses due to predators, although those losses have dropped sharply thanks to a program implemented with the help of Panthera, a wild cat conservation group headquartered in the U.S. but with a presence in several Latin American countries.

“Duston is receiving additional income from tourism which is diversified source of revenue,” Rafael Hoogesteijn, the director for human-wildcat conflict management at Panthera, told Mongabay. “This is a very important ranch for Bolivia because it demonstrates to other cattle ranchers that cattle can co-exist with jaguars and cattle can co-exist with ecotourism.

“In that respect it is a pioneering example for the rest of Bolivian cattlemen,” he continued. “In a country that is very traditional, not with a high level of technical training, it is very important to see these examples in practice.”

Overhead view of the Rio San Pablo and lowland forest at San Miguelito, Bolivia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Tourism is starting to pay dividends at San Miguelito, but for most landowners who are focused on the day-to-day challenges of running a ranch, ecotourism is a luxury option that might be pursued at some point in the future. That’s why the other measures being implemented at San Miguelito with the help of Panthera are so important.

“In San Miguelito, we work with one of the direct causes of death for this emblematic species: hunting by ranchers and rural communities in retaliation for increasing cattle predation conflicts,” said Holzmann, a biochemist and jaguar advocate who has helped Larsen develop ecotourism and implement anti-predation strategies at the ranch, as well as fought the illegal wildlife trade in and around the city of Santa Cruz. “The main importance of San Miguelito is that it represents a model cattle ranch in Bolivia that supports conservation through a sustainable development strategy.”

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Camera trap image showing a jaguar on a road at San Miguelito. Courtesy of Duston Larsen.

Holzmann says San Miguelito takes a two-pronged approach: avoiding retaliation against jaguars for cattle loss by embracing Panthera’s anti-predation strategies, and protecting the jaguar’s natural prey and habitat.

These anti-predation strategies focus on not putting the livestock that are most vulnerable — those under 100 kilograms (220 pounds) — in the jaguars’ path.

“Management or lack thereof is why most jaguars and puma end up killing cattle,” Larsen said. “We lost 52 animals in 2013, and in 2018 we lost four animals. What changed? We are using Panthera anti-predation strategies [to] diminish jaguar attacks on our cattle.

“There are simple and [practical] steps that a rancher can take to protect their animals from predators.”

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Camera trap image showing a jaguar on a road at San Miguelito. Courtesy of Duston Larsen.

Colombian biologist Esteban Payán, the South American Regional Director for Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative, points to the major inventions that have reduced calf losses at San Miguelito. For example, Larsen’s ranch protects the most vulnerable — calves — by corralling them and offering supplemental feed when their lactating mothers go out to pasture in areas traversed by big cats during the day. They also mix water buffalo and individuals of a cattle breed known as Criollo into the herd at night, when predation is most likely. Unlike most other breeds of cattle, Criollo and water buffalo stand their ground and even attack big cats, acting as a strong deterrent.

“San Miguelito constitutes an extension of our anti-predator model ranches [where] we implemented strategies on husbandry [to] solve or limit depredation from jaguars and pumas, and [that] are intended to be copied by other neighboring ranches with similar problems. Bolivia is an extension of our 40 model ranches from Colombia,” Payán said. “That’s the whole point, being able to export and expand the scalability of these conflict-solving strategies.”

Larsen said he aimed to provide viable paths forward for ranchers to live in peace with predators.

“If we can create the idea in landowners’ heads that the forest and all that live in it are worth more alive than dead, then we have reached our goal,” he said.

Payán agrees.

“Bolivian jaguars are under fire. San Miguelito is located relatively close to Santa Cruz, the hub of agro and livestock expansion in the country, and probably on what will sadly become the frontier of local extinction for jaguars in the near future,” he said. “San Miguelito stands as a testament that you can have jaguars in your land co-existing with livestock — if properly managed, and even adding wildlife viewing based tourism to the mix.”

But even with successful implementation of these anti-predation strategies at scale, habitat loss still remains a major issue, especially with the high profitability of large-scale soy, which drives up land costs as high as $3,000 a hectare ($1,200 an acre) in the area. Even Larsen’s own brothers are clearing forests close to San Miguelito for soy.

Beyond leaving areas unsuitable for soy and riparian zones intact, there are some opportunities for habitat conservation even within soy fields. For example, Bolivian law requires landholders to maintain shelter belts — narrow strips of trees within their holdings. Larsen is trying to convince his brothers and other local farmers to leave shelter belts that are wider than the legal requirement in the hope these areas can serve as wildlife corridors. He has an argument that extends beyond merely offering habitat for wildlife: research by Brazilian scientists has shown that leaving larger tracts of forest standing amid soy fields maintains cooler temperatures and higher humidity than areas where trees are thinner or lacking altogether. Less forest means reduced evapotranspiration, translating to less of the moisture that soybeans need to thrive, and subsequently lower production. Jaguars and other wild cats also pass through shelter belts, functioning as the main controllers of rodent infestation.

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Rain storm over a patch of forest amid a sea of soy fields in Bolivia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay
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Rio San Pablo and floodplain forest at San Miguelito. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay
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Road through soy fields and forest in Bolivia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay
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Chiquitano sub-tropical forest recently cleared on the edge of the Bolivian Amazon for soy production. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
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Soy fields and forest in Bolivia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay
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Soybean fields and forest shelter belts in Bolivia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Farmers can relate to this concept simply by looking to some of the soy fields in the nearby Mennonite colonies. Soy fields ringed by dense natural forests look markedly more robust than fields with scrawny belts of non-native trees.

Larsen says he hopes that this ecosystem benefit, plus his diversified ranch model, will spur some landholders to retain more forest cover and avoid persecuting their resident wildlife. And Holzmann is formally working to create broader incentives to encourage that outcome.

Aerial view of sub-tropical forest in the Bolivian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

She has a grand vision for scaling up the ecotourism model across the region using San Miguelito as a demonstration project.

“This area is known as the cereal belt of Bolivia meaning the majority of the neighbors have cleared their forests for agriculture, making this small protected area with a fragmented agriculture landscape a refuge for a vast majority of the wildlife in Santa Cruz,” she said. “We are trying to transform an existing problem in the region into an opportunity, through a new ecotourism approach.”

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A mother tapir with its calf photographed by camera trap. Courtesy of the San Miguelito Facebook page.

Holzmann says she hopes landowners in the future will change their perspective of a “jaguar problem” to a “jaguar opportunity.” To do this, she has signed agreements with the provincial and local governments to create “La Ruta del Jaguar” (The Jaguar’s Path), an eco-ethno-touristic initiative that uses the jaguar as a traditional symbol to promote tourism and other income opportunities for local communities.

“This project aims to build understanding and appreciation of the value of this species from the cultural, social, political and economic standpoints. It focuses, on the one hand, on educating and informing people affected by jaguars of the existing strategies of mitigation and prevention of human-carnivore conflict,” she said. “‘The Jaguar’s Path’ uses the image and presence of the emblematic species to create visible, new, profitable opportunities that generate compensation for cattle loss.”

One form of compensation comes via extra income for indigenous communities through traditional handicrafts and showcasing their traditional culture. Holzmann says these efforts are instilling local pride in knowing jaguars are still around.

“The project also provides a real and practical example that co-existence between people and jaguar can generate more profit for them than illegally killing,” she said. “I also try to rescue the ancestral culture where people used to have admiration for the jaguar.”

Ecotour operator McPhee says the opportunity in Bolivia is even bigger than San Miguelito or Santa Cruz.

“Bolivia is one of the most underrated yet amazing wildlife-watching destinations on the planet. We also have some of the most intact ecosystems on the planet like the Amazon rainforest of Madidi National Park as well as the world’s last pristine Gran Chaco forests of Kaa Iya National Park, which remains one of the best destinations to observe jaguars, tapirs and pumas,” he told Mongabay. “Birdwatching especially in the country is neglected, which is crazy considering it’s in the top 10 countries in terms of species count and hosts critically endangered endemic blue-throated macaws and red-fronted macaws.”

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A group of rhea caught on camera trap. Courtesy of the San Miguelito Facebook page.
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Bare-faced curassow (Crax fasciolata) caught on camera trap. Courtesy of the San Miguelito Facebook page.
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A giant anteater. Courtesy of the San Miguelito Facebook page.

McPhee also says locals must benefit from conservation for it to be sustainable.

“To convince locals and governments to protect wildlife, ecotourism must thrive,” he said. “We also need to combat the rampant threats facing the wilderness areas such as wildlife poaching for their body parts and certain road and dam projects.”

Poaching, industrial agriculture, and infrastructure are indeed a danger for Bolivia’s wild areas. While the Bolivian government has in recent years presented itself on the international stage as a protector of biodiversity, nature, and marginalized social groups via gestures like The Law of Mother Earth, it has at the same time approved a torrent of mining and road projects, encouraged the rapid expansion of agribusiness, and undermined conservation efforts in some of the country’s most important protected areas and indigenous territories.

That leaves places like San Miguelito all the more important to stewarding Bolivia’s wildlife and wild places.

“If you look at satellite images of this area since the 1980s, it’s clear that San Miguelito has become a ‘Noah’s Ark’ for jaguars and other wildlife,” Holzmann said.

“We’re doing all that we can to save it,” Larsen added.

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Camera trap image showing a jaguar on a road at San Miguelito. Courtesy of Duston Larsen.

As noted by biologist Damian Rumiz, “Most of this wildlife richness has been lost in the lands around San Miguelito due to forest conversion into soybean and other industrial crops.

As noted by biologist Damian Rumiz, “More than two hundred species of birds were recorded in the different habitats of the ranch, with herons, storks, ibises, ducks, rails, coots, and the southern screamer observed mostly along the river.

Biologist Damian Rumiz: “threatened mammals such as jaguar, tapir, giant armadillo, three banded armadillo and river otter still occur in the area, as well as white lipped and collared peccaries, giant anteater, capybara and many other rodents. Six species of wild cats were recorded by camera trapping, six monkeys by transect censuses, and two co-occurring brocket deer species were studied in their habitat use patterns during the wet and the dry seasons.

This article by Rhett A. Butler was first published on on 07 March 2019.


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