Jaguars vulnerable to trophy trade
Nikolai Johann Earle Stabroek News - Georgetown
Stabroek News recently visited Lethem and Mashabo on the trail of species at risk
With no formal studies having been done on its population, the
endangered jaguar may be at even greater risk as there are signs of
it being killed for trophy purposes and in growing confrontations
with man as communities and wildlife compete for space.
After Guyana ceased regular exports of giant anteaters in 2004, the now protected species' population is making a turn for the better. But the jaguar, an endangered species, remains in danger.
Corrupt activities in Guyana's regulatory body for wildlife in 2004 led to the illegal export of at least four giant anteaters. However, one community in Essequibo is seeing increased numbers of the species; conservation awareness exists there.
The four giant anteaters were sent to the Czech Republic under the pretext that the shipment would have included various other animals and money would have been lost if it had not been expedited. But the shipment included no other animals. In addition, 34 of the animals left prior to that, through about six different exporters.
Guyana's wildlife regulations cater for shipments of protected species for research and information only. But information Stabroek News obtained suggested that the shipment was destined for a zoo in the Czech Republic.
Prior to March 2004, giant anteaters were not prohibited from export, but it was required that studies had to be done showing that exporting them would be non-detrimental to their population. After news of the export to the Czech Republic became public, the Wildlife Division of the Guyana Wildlife Management Authority (GWMA) ceased the exports of the animals.
The GWMA has put measures in place to prevent recurrences of this, according to its Chairman Dr Keshav 'Bud' Mangal. He told this newspaper that since that export fiasco, there have been clear guidelines written for endangered species and these include that they are not to be exported. He said that since then all export of endangered species have ceased.
But the story of the jaguar is much worse, since by design or through some ill-fate, their hides and carcasses are still turning up in diverse places. These magnificent animals, native to South America, seem to be wanted more dead than alive.
The ensuing investigation into the anteater exports led to the dismissal of the then head of the Wildlife Authority Khalawan. Subsequent probes by the Office of the Auditor-General saw institutional changes being put in place at the authority.
Head of the Wildlife Division Alona Sankar said in a recent interview that persons are approaching the unit requesting approval to export giant anteaters. She said that there is no monitoring of wildlife in many of the interior locations because of a paucity of human resources. She hopes to have various trappers provide information on numbers of specimens in the wild.
Mashabo is an Amerindian community of about 371 people of Arawak and Carib ancestry. It is located on the right bank of the Ituribisi River and the left bank of the Essequibo River. It is one of the few places in Guyana where one can find the giant anteater and elusive jaguar. Even though a fair percentage of residents there depend on hunting and wildlife trapping for their sustenance, the giant anteater is not on their list. Former Head of the Wildlife Unit in the Ministry of Agriculture Dr Karen Pilgrim said that about ten years ago, persons in the Rupununi used to hunt the giant anteater for trophies - its distinctive bushy tail.
This animal is left to roam the bushes in which it lives, miles away from the concentration of residents in Mashabo. "You have to go in about five or six miles if you want to see them," Clifton Williams, a member of the village council said. He said travelling to the areas where the anteaters are would take hours by tractor. According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the jaguar is listed as an Appendix I species and is endangered, while the giant anteater is vulnerable, listed on Appendix II.
Village Captain of Mashabo Elaine Payton said the species hunted there are labba, deer, bush cow or acouri and these are sold as wild meat on the Essequibo Coast. She said also that most of the men who hunt in the village have their own licensed firearms. She made the observations that those animals used to be plentiful but not anymore. Some of the animals hunted are also for consumption by the villagers.
Reciprocal threat - man/jaguar
Residents of Mashabo are trying to find a balance between the
conservation of the species and their way of life and well-being,
which the jaguar - Panthera Onca - threatens with its natural
proclivity to hunt. Some of the residents have resorted to
reluctantly culling the animal when it strikes at them or their
property. Dr Pilgrim said that once people and jaguars live in
close proximity, there will always be trouble since man's
activities will make food scarce for the jaguar which will in turn
seek new food sources. She said that by nature jaguars would not
attack humans unless forced.
For the jaguars to thrive in its natural habitat, they need to have a large reserve away from human activity, Dr Pilgrim said. Corroborating Dr Pilgrim's position, Williams said the jaguars in the area are large and threaten the lives and livelihood of many of the residents, since the animals attack hunting dogs and occasionally people. He spoke of one boy of the village being attacked recently. The jaguar, he said, mauled the lad and caused deep lacerations to the child's head.
Fortunately, the boy is alive and well, though deeply scarred.
He said whenever a jaguar is killed in order to protect life and limb, the animal is skinned and the hide sold. But even this has come with a price, since persons from the city and other areas try to take advantage of the people and their way of life by paying them next to nothing or nothing at all, as Williams experienced with a jaguar hide.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) said that high deforestation rates in Latin America and fragmentation of forest habitat isolates jaguar populations "so that they are more vulnerable to the predations of man." "People compete with jaguars for prey, and jaguars are frequently shot on sight, despite protective legislation [in some countries].
Jaguars are also known to kill cattle, and are killed by ranchers as pest species. The vulnerability of the jaguar to persecution is demonstrated by its disappearance by the mid-1900's from the south-western US and northern Mexico," the IUCN said on its website. It lists the jaguar as near threatened from man's hunting/gathering, logging and persecution through "pest" control.
At Wakapoa in the Pomeroon area, boat operator Andrew Cornelius told Stabroek News that about a month ago, someone killed a fully grown jaguar and dumped the skinless body in the Pomeroon River about five miles from Charity.
According to Cornelius, the carcass of the animal got caught on a branch sticking out of the river and a foul odour emanated from it. "From the paw of the animal we recognised it to be a jaguar," he said.
He had heard that the reason for the cull was that the animal was attacking calves and cows in the Charity area. He said also that about two years ago in the same area a hunter shot a jaguar.
Cornelius said that the price for a jaguar hide was between $15,000 and $20,000 up to about five years ago. The price will go up if the person is skilful in removing the skin off the animal with minimum damage, he said.
Sankar advised that selling of jaguar hides should not be done, even in the event of a rogue jaguar being culled, since it encourages a market for the hide and this can bring greater peril to the endangered species.
Williams told this newspaper that the meat of the animal is used for feeding the hunting dogs, stressing that the villagers themselves do not consume jaguar meat.
"We killed one about seven to eight feet in length," Williams said, adding that someone took the skin to Georgetown to sell for them and return the money but up to that point had not done so.
It is a known fact that persons from the coast go into the interior for weekend escapades of hunting and the result of this would be the carcass of a jaguar hanging from the front of a truck.
During the rodeo in Lethem several weeks ago, at least two of the riders of the bucking bronco competition wore cowboy outfits made out of jaguar hide. Williams said persons in the community do wildlife trading on a part-time basis and some of the animals that they hunt and trap are the labba, acouri and some species of birds. In the past they trapped anteaters, both giant and smaller ones, but this has ceased for a considerable length of time.
He is of the view that because the anteater is now being left
alone, its population is developing. Williams added that most of
the time the jaguars could be seen on the road when villagers are
trekking through the trails in tractors. "They will move and let
the tractor pass," he said. According to Williams, the villagers
had talks with personnel from the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) when they visited the community.
The EPA team sought to sensitise the villagers as to the need for attention to be paid to species protection and conservation.
"We understand that the species have to be protected but we have to protect our families too," Williams said during a visit by Stabroek News to the area. "We say keep them [jaguars] away from us," he said.
He indicated that the villagers, including him, would have preferred to catch jaguars at a tender age and export them so that they would not be around to threaten the residents' way of life.
Dr Pilgrim told this newspaper that as far as she knows, there have not been any formal studies done throughout Guyana on the status of the remaining Jaguars, but "if persons continue to kill them they could become extinct in this country."
Stabroek News also spoke to Sybil Pedro who has four children and whose husband works in the area and on the coast. She said they often did not have enough money. People make items of handicraft to sell and help supplement their income, she told this newspaper.
In Wakapoa, the numbers in wildlife species are diminishing, according to resident and trained forest ranger Cornelius. But he said the fact that fewer of the animals are being seen could be attributed to the increase of economic activity in the area, the noise of which drives the animals away.
The Labba or Ocelot - Leopardus Pardalis - is one of the more hunted species in Wakapoa, where "just a few people" there depend on wildlife for their livelihood, according to Cornelius.
Mashabo residents are also getting the short end of the stick with the money they are paid for trapping wildlife and lumber and they feel that this amounts to exploitation. These villagers who till the soil and cut wood for a living depend on seasonal wildlife trading and receive very low recompense for their efforts in trapping wildlife species for Georgetown-based dealers and exporters.
Williams spoke of being paid between $3,000 and $5,000 for trapping a giant anteater for a Georgetown-based wildlife trader. Reports indicate that traders get up to US$10,000 for one giant anteater, of which a 20% levy has to be paid to the government.
Sankar said the Wildlife Unit deplores very strongly the exploitation of wildlife trappers but is constrained because of loopholes in the various governing legislation.
Williams said many of the residents of Mashabo also practise small-scale wood cutting and would sell their produce on the Essequibo Coast. But he said that because of the low prices that they get for the wood the business does not seem feasible. "Only when a contractor comes to the community we might receive fair prices for our chain-sawn lumber," he said, adding that other than this rarity, the prices that are paid on the coast for their lumber are atrocious.
Payton said the villagers have to compete with already high gas prices and this coupled with low prices is hurting the lumber business for them. She said the villagers subject themselves to the guidelines that the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC) put in place, including tagging cut trees and filling up declaration forms.
Captive breeding as one solution
One Lethem resident and entrepreneur is adamant that species could be bred to fill the void that serious conservation measures would bring about while bringing much needed funds to communities where these species can be found.
Fly-fisher and game hunter Patricia Rash says that when it comes
to wildlife conservation and its socio-economic effects, Guyana has
an excellent opportunity to set an example for the rest of South
America and the world and it is not too late to take advantage of
Rash is of the view that people will pay more in the long run to see the animals in their natural habitat than they would to see them in captivity and this will benefit the persons who would have been weaned off large scale hunting and fishing.
She feels that the same persons who capture various species of wildlife for a living could be engaged in captive breeding of some of those same species. "I feel that captive breeding is the answer. If a villager wants something done, say clothes for his children or food for the household, then he has to have a viable alternative and this could be it," she stated.
Rash feels that once such a programme is successfully implemented, people from all over the world will come and pay money to see how captive breeding is demonstrated.
The woman, who moves around Lethem either on horseback or on foot, deplores the condition in which birds and animals are transported to the city for export. She feels that that only about half of the species survive the gruelling journey to the city, from where they are exported.
One of her concerns with captive breeding is that the animals will be conditioned to people and not be 'wild'. The woman, being a hunter herself, knows that people would not want to shoot a farm-raised deer. "Nobody wants to go out and shoot Bambi!" she said, adding that a wild, bucking deer would present a challenge for the hunter thereby making the kill more fulfilling.
To strike a balance, she said, responsible hunting of wild animals should be allowed. She believes too that various species of fish that are indigenous to the area could be raised for harvesting, since she has observed that persons sell dried and salted arapaima, which is harvested heavily in the Rupununi.
"I think that Guyana has over-hunting and over-harvesting since there is no or little regulations...there needs to be game laws in place," Rash said. She believes that a lot of wildlife harvesting is done in excess. "Why should I keep more than I could eat?" she asked, making the point that persons should throw back what they would not be able to consume.
She said the deer population in the wild does not only feed the
hunter but also the jaguar and jaguarundi populations. For her it
is a matter of managing resources wisely and this means putting
game laws in place and issuing hunting licences at specified
Rash said that the monies collected from these should go towards paying rangers who will be able to monitor reserves better.
Sankar said open season for birds is from June 1 to November 30; for mammals - from January 1 to April 30 and from August 1 to December 31. She said that for reptiles, the season is open all year round.
She said that because of the expanse of the interior, there are no officers or rangers to monitor the actions of trappers and hunters and to ensure that season stipulations are adhered to.
Rash said settlers in the United States during the 1800s took
the bison and other species to the brink of extinction. "Don't do
that here," she pleaded, adding that there are still polluted
rivers and lakes in the US because of the practices of the 1800s
Rash is of the view that wildlife and natural resources should never be a political pawn. "It should be something on which people could come together," she said.
She says that the management of wildlife and other natural resources must begin with the people in the communities and feels that they should not wait for funding agencies to help them with wildlife or natural resource management. "Do it locally and regionally...when you take their money they will come later and say 'hey, you owe us,'" she said.
She said occasionally some people will bring a deer or a labba and this would be because someone ordered it. She said too that there are some instances of trophy killing that she has heard of. Rash feels that persons should not "go out and kill just for the fun of it." And this is where she feels that game laws are necessary. Others at Lethem told Stabroek News that there is an underground wild meat trade that is 'hush-hush'.
Businessman Christopher Correia said the commercialising of hunting and fishing is a problem for hinterland regions. And to this he added cattle rustling, which Past President of the Rupununi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (RCCI) Alfred Ramsarran said was an issue in Lethem.
Correia said Brazilians are enticing local Amerindians to
illegally fish and hunt. He added that persons who do not usually
hunt go on 'slaughtering sprees' for the fun of it.
XXX spoke with hunter Wardon Peters, who said that he catches about one bird a day, but said that it is not everyday he is lucky. He said that trapping the birds calls for patience since one has to be prepared to wait hours on end.
He said that he traps toucans and said that he gets paid for his work though he would not disclose how much.
St Ignatius wildlife middleman Colin Thakurdeen said that he sells towa towa, parrots and macaws. According to this man, he operates under the licence of a Herstelling-based wildlife dealer. He said that people would come to him and make their orders and he in turn would source the species through the various hunters and trappers in the area.
Thakurdeen said that he has lived in the area for 26 years but got into the wildlife brokering three years ago. He said that he makes a living off the profession "if you get enough animals or birds."
He said that since stories broke in the press on the export of giant anteaters, trappers are reluctant to get involved with the endangered species.