TLACOLULA DE MATAMOROS, MEXICO — Lamanai and Cachicamo play among the trees near a man-made pond. Roaring and bounding, they behave like any other 3-year-old jaguars. Besides the two of them, the only other sounds come from birds and bugs singing their songs in the forest they call home.
The place where these felines live has been the same almost since their birth: a wildlife simulator, which recreates their habitat and limits contact with humans, at the Jaguar Sanctuary, a center that works to protect and safeguard this endangered species. Since entering this space in 2021, Lamanai and Cachicamo have been monitored by experts. Currently, they are the only specimens in a gene-bank program designed to conserve the jaguar species.
The program began in 2017 to track jaguar populations and their health, and it was expanded in 2023 with the creation of a backup population program to increase the number of these felines in Mexico. In 2018, there were about 4,800 specimens in the country, according to a census coordinated by the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology. These programs are increasingly urgent due to new highways and other government projects, like Tren Maya, which bring human construction and infrastructure to the big cats’ habitat, reducing their hunting territory and genetic variability, experts say.
Tren Maya is a government mega-project that will connect, via 1,525 kilometers (948 miles) of rail, natural spaces in the states of Tabasco, Chiapas, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo, in southern Mexico. Two sections were inaugurated in December 2023: from Campeche to Cancún, Quintana Roo, and from Cancún to Palenque, Chiapas. The entire rail system is expected to be fully operational after the presidential elections this June.
Víctor Rosas Vigil, founder of Jaguares en la Selva, the organization running the project, says the gene bank is by nature “preventive, in the event that the species becomes more compromised.” When roads are not outfitted with enough wildlife crossings to ensure the animals have sufficient mobility, he says, the risk to jaguars will only increase.
This shortage of wildlife crossings turns the roads into “ecological traps,” says Lizardo Cruz, a biologist and expert on protecting species at risk of extinction. He warns that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
In addition to accidents, Rosas Vigil warns of another risk: the disappearance of genetic variability. When animals from the same family line produce offspring, or inbreed, it can lead to illnesses that speed up the extinction process.
“There could be 250 [to] 400 jaguars in one area of the country, but they no longer have genetic variability because they are hemmed in by roadways [and railways], cities and dams,” the specialist says. “So, that population stays there, trapped. And you’re talking about, in 50 to 55 years, you could have no jaguars.”
Neither Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo, the government agency that promotes investment projects in the tourism sector and oversees the Tren Maya project, nor Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, which is responsible for the country’s natural heritage, responded to requests for comment.
Fighting against the disappearance of the jaguar
Cecilia Alfonso Corrado, leader of the gene-bank project and geneticist at Universidad de la Sierra Juárez, an educational institution, says a scenario in which jaguars go extinct would lead to problems for plants, humans and other animals.
“If the jaguar disappears, it will set off a cascade of effects on ecosystems, generating deterioration in environmental benefits that would impact and change everything. It would take a toll on how the ecosystem delivers water and oxygen,” she says.
The jaguar is an “umbrella species,” meaning that protecting the species funnels preservation effects to the rest of the habitat. The World Wide Fund for Nature, an organization that works to conserve biodiversity, explains that if this feline goes extinct, its prey, generally large herbivores, will begin to consume too much plant life, which will consequently alter the composition and structure of the soil, thus unleashing a chain reaction.
That is why Jaguares en la Selva is promoting a project aimed at creating backup populations of the species, in addition to the gene-bank project. The plan is for Lamanai, a female jaguar, to mate throughout her life with wild males in various parts of the country. The hope is that both she and her cubs will live in the simulator while Cachicamo, a male, will be transferred to another space within the sanctuary.
“It is important to have a backup jaguar population in case the risk increases, and even to reinforce existing populations,” says Rosas Vigil, of Jaguares en la Selva.
But some believe efforts should head in a different direction.
Cruz is delighted that the gene-bank project exists; however, he thinks conservation efforts must focus on the habitat and not on protection centers.
And Rosas Vigil sees these measures as a form of prevention, but says, “The ideal is not to have simulators, gene banks or backup populations. The ideal is that there is greater awareness” that allows jaguars to flourish in freedom.