KINGSTON, Jamaica The lushly forested nation of Guyana has joined a regional pact to protect jaguars, the elusive spotted cat that is the biggest land predator in the Americas but is vulnerable due to expanded agriculture and mining that carves away at its fragmented habitat.
Leaders of the governments environment ministry last week signed an agreement with the New York-based conservation group Panthera, which is trying to establish a jaguar corridor, a network of pathways that would link core jaguar populations from northern Argentina to Mexico. Guyana is pledging to ensure the protection of jaguars, the national animal that is a near-threatened species.
The South American nation with some of the regions least spoiled wilderness joins Colombia and nations in Central America in recognizing the corridor and agreeing to work toward the long-term conservation of jaguars, said Esteban Payan, regional director for Pantheras northern South America jaguar program.
A network of cameras equipped with motion sensors and fixed to tree trunks has revealed tantalizing glimpses of sleek, solitary jaguars slinking through Guyanas dense rain forests and vast grasslands stretching to the countrys border with Brazil.
Scientists reported finding a relatively healthy jaguar density of three to four animals per 160 miles in Guyanas southern Rupununi Savannah. That means that preserving grasslands are as important to conservation of jaguars as protecting the dense rain forests, they say.
Evi Paemelaere, a Belgian jaguar scientist with Panthera, said Amerindian villagers in remote spots in Guyana have helped her set up cameras along the roads and hunting trails the big cats like to travel on.
Amerindians are very keen on being part of the project, she said from Georgetown, Guyanas capital.
Jaguars once roamed from the southwestern U.S. to Argentina, but have lost nearly half of their natural territory and have disappeared altogether from some countries. Heavy hunting for their spotted coats decimated their numbers in the 1960s and early 1970s until the pelt trade was largely halted. No one has any reliable estimates of how many jaguars are left in the wild, where they prey on peccaries, tapirs and, because they are powerful swimmers, river turtles.
Guyana, a country about the size of Idaho where most of the approximately 756,000 inhabitants live along its Atlantic coastline, has been recognized for balancing progress with preservation. In 2009, it began a low-carbon push aimed at maintaining very low rates of deforestation and combating climate change, while also promoting economic development.
It could receive up to $250 million from Norway by 2015 as an incentive to protect its forests through sustainable mining, timber harvesting and other projects.
Alan Rabinowitz, Pantheras CEO and a zoologist whose research in Belize in the 1980s led to the creation of the worlds first jaguar preserve, said Guyanas signing of the jaguar agreement demonstrates the governments continued commitment to its legacy of conservation alongside economic progress and diversification.