FUTURE VISIONS: Melissa Arias
One species that needs urgent attention is…
… the jaguar. This is the species I most admire and that I study. The jaguar is the world’s third largest big cat (after tigers and lions) and the largest in the Americas. Its rosetted golden fur and strength have made it a cultural symbol of many past and current Latin American societies. Jaguars inhabit a wide range of ecosystems, from flooded grasslands to dense tropical rainforests, and occupy a vast range, from southern United States to northern Argentina.
Despite being listed as Near Threatened under the IUCN Red List, most jaguar subpopulations are classified as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered under national species listings. These categories reflect the high levels of threat that jaguars are facing in most of their range. Jaguars have already lost 50 per cent of their historic range, and are rapidly losing their habitat due to the expansion of agriculture, cattle ranching and human settlements and infrastructure. The increasing proximity between people, livestock and jaguars has led to high levels of human-jaguar conflict and retaliatory killing, while poaching and the illegal trade in jaguar body parts to supply domestic and foreign markets are increasingly becoming a key concern for the long-term viability of the species.
Efforts to protect the jaguar must focus on, conserving and connecting the remaining jaguar habitat patches, promoting tolerance towards jaguars and mitigating retaliatory killings, and changing behaviours surrounding the use of jaguar body parts, as well as enforcing the law to prevent the escalation of illegal trade.
In my country…
… Ecuador, the illegal wildlife trade is an issue. The illegal wildlife trade is one of the most pressing global conservation issues, affecting the populations of thousands of species of plants, animals and fungi across all of Earth’s habitable continents, and it has important implications for human health and wellbeing. As a highly biodiverse region, Latin America supplies much of the illegally traded wildlife to international markets, yet this problem has received little research and policy attention in my region and in Ecuador.
I’ve sought to contribute to our understanding of illegal wildlife trade in Latin America by focusing on the illegal trade in jaguars. In the past decades, the illegal wildlife trade has become a growing concern for jaguar conservation, following several jaguar body part seizure events that involved demand from foreign markets, such as China. In Bolivia alone, more than 600 jaguar teeth were seized from 2014 to 2016 on their way to China, where felid body parts are desired by certain consumers as luxury collectibles or medicinal items. Elsewhere in the jaguar range, domestic use and trade in jaguar body parts are common, and jaguar body parts, from skins to fat, can still be found for sale at open markets, as well as online, despite being illegal. Other consumers, such as tourists of diverse nationalities, also frequently purchase jaguar body parts as handcrafts and souvenirs without being aware of their illegality.
This threat matters greatly for jaguar conservation because even small levels of hunting can severely affect the species’ chances of survival, particularly in countries where populations have been reduced to just a few hundred individuals. The commodification of the species can also reduce the incentives for rural communities to coexist with jaguars, by making them be worth more dead than alive.
To stop this threat to jaguars and to a wide range of other species in my region, I’d like to see more projects that work with rural communities, projects that are co-produced and co-managed by rural communities, to help increase the value of keeping wildlife alive, while also increasing the costs and risks from poaching.
A great idea I want to see more of…
… is from a group of researchers, WildTechDNA who are developing a paper-based biosensor for the detection of jaguar and other wildlife genetic remains. This tool could very quickly and cheaply identify illegally traded jaguar body parts from those of other big cats and facilitate enforcement efforts. It can also support jaguar monitoring efforts in the wild by testing scat and hair.
Another group of researchers based in Mexico are trialling a potential human/jaguar conflict reduction strategy based on Conditioned Taste Aversion (CTA). It involves injecting predated livestock carcasses with an undetectable and innocuous dose of an aversion agent, such as Thiabenzadol (TBZ), causing predators to later avoid live prey with the same taste and scent associations as the baits.
Another great initiative is Conservation Optimism, a global community of individuals and organizations who are working to share and amplify stories of positive change within the world of nature conservation. Sharing these examples not only protects our mental health from the environmental ‘doom and gloom’ around us, but also motivates and empowers individuals and institutions to act, and provides guidance to replicate and scale-up successful conservation projects.
In the future…
… as human populations continue to grow, more natural spaces will inevitably be lost to give way to human infrastructure, the production of food and the extraction of natural resources. In my region, deforestation caused by agricultural expansion and cattle ranching has been accompanied by severe forest fires that rapidly decimate habitats and kill or injure wildlife. These fires are expected to worsen in the coming years due to climate change. For some species that occur at low densities, like jaguars, this might mean some subpopulations could be lost in the near-future. Jaguar populations at the northern and southern extremes of their continental range, and those in Central America, are particularly at risk of disappearing within our generation.
However, I’m optimistic this gloomy scenario will not unfold. Through my work, I’ve been lucky to meet and become inspired by many young conservationists, and particularly many Latin American female scientists, who are going against all odds and fighting stereotypes to go out into the field and conserve the species they love. I believe we can make a difference.
I’d like to see…
… the establishment of well-planned and well-enforced, legitimate and socially just conservation landscapes, which provide an interconnected and functional refuge for wildlife, while also providing benefits for those who depend on wildlife and nature.
For the specific case of jaguars, the Jaguar Roadmap 2030 initiative promises to engage governments and the civil society in building such a vision. Enhancing the capacity of governments to implement existing multi-lateral conventions, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) would also help promote sustainable wildlife use and reduce illegal taking of the species that are most threatened by poaching and trade.
Melissa Micaela Arias Goetschel is a conservationist from Ecuador whose work focuses on jaguars. Melissa earned a Master of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and completed her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations with a minor in Environmental Management from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. She has collaborated with World Wildlife Fund on tiger and small cat research in Sumatra and improved the social impacts of ecotourism in the Galapagos Islands. Melissa has also worked as an environmental consultant for the Ecuadorian Ministry of Environment to improve the country’s protected area management. Currently studying for her Doctorate at the University of Oxford, Melissa is seeking to grow the research base on wildlife trafficking in Latin America. Melissa is a recipient of a Wildlife Conservation Network scholarship: wildnet.org
Photo of Melissa (top) by Danielle Lehle.