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Flights Show the Way for Jaguars

photo courtesy of John P. Kennedy.

camera trap photo courtesy of Proyecto TEAM-OTSFlights Show the Way for Jaguars

The thin wire strands surrounding the cattle paddock would not keep out the hungry jaguar. As its ribs protruded against a once magnificent dappled coat, the mangy cat sized up the herd looking for the easy kill.

As more forest is swallowed up by development, agriculture, and ranching, jaguar habitat and traditional sources of prey are lost too. These cats must then choose between the wrath of ranchers or slow starvation. Rather than force that choice, LightHawk provides flights to help biologists discover and protect pathways connecting large protected areas so that jaguars in Mexico and Central America can roam free forever.

Roberto Salom of Panthera on a LightHawk flight.

Jaguar Pathways

Large protected parks and sanctuaries provide ample natural prey like deer, tapirs, peccaries and sloth that jaguars need to survive. But to thrive, they need room to roam, to find their ideal mate and produce the next generation of jaguar kittens.

By establishing and maintaining linkages, or corridors, between protected areas, jaguars are able to roam great distances to find suitable mates and establish home territory. This ensures a healthy next generation of young jaguars. But making these connections isn't as easy as drawing lines between protected areas on a map.

"Our flights with LightHawk...have been fundamental to setting up priority actions for ground-truthing," says Roberto Salom, Mesoamerica Jaguar Program Coordinator for Panthera who works to protect jaguars and other large cats around the world. "[It] is essential in a setting where resources are limited." LightHawk and Panthera have established a strategic partnership in part because flight is so critical in helping secure a Jaguar Corridor in Mexico and Central America for big cats and other wildlife. Flights identify illegal encroachment on the ground, such as deforestation and development, reveal opportunities to give the cats a bit more elbowroom and prioritize what happens next on the ground. The success of this work often relies upon the dedication and involvement of local communities and government.

An important site for jaguar conservation in Honduras. Franklin Castaneda/Panthera with aerial support from LightHawk

Building Support from 1,000 feet up

Still unpacking her office, Belize's new Minister of the Environment had a full dance card. Panthera knew that the aerial view would give her an instant understanding of the dwindling jaguar corridor and asked for LightHawk's assistance. When getting on the minister's schedule was proving impossible, Armando Ubeda, LightHawk's program manager in the region, had to get creative. "I knew this was a really important flight for the future of the jaguar in Belize," he explained, "so we moved our other scheduled flights around and kept our Cessna 206 in Belize until we could fly the Minister."

The flight was a success. "...without a flight that permitted a bird's eye view of the area, it would have been really difficult to explain to the Minister what the corridor is, how it functions and the specific threats that affect it," said Elma Kay from the University of Belize. "Since our flight with the Minister, an illegal trench cutting through [a protected area] has been discovered and her awareness of the corridor and its issues have helped us to get her unconditional support in prosecuting those responsible."

Volunteer pilot Bill Rush.

Seeing Progress from the Pilot's Seat

Every year, retired insurance broker and avid pilot Bill Rush travels from his home in Boulder Creek, California to fly with LightHawk in Mexico and Central America. "Some of my favorite missions are flying with Panthera," explains Bill. "These cats traverse over extremely large areas and require ease of movement for feeding and breeding. Having flown two seasons in a row with Panthera, I am seeing progress in the corridor initiative and the number of jaguars being photographed... It gives me a triumphant feeling of accomplishment and progress when the numbers begin to trend in the right direction."

As jaguar habitat continues to be lost or fragmented, humans and jaguars are coming into increasingly close contact. Jaguars continue to be hunted by people, such as ranchers, who view them as a threat to cattle and therefore their livelihoods. LightHawk and Panthera will continue efforts to maintain safe places for this apex predator to thrive, and to keep these great cats and their future generations safely out of harm's way.