We’ve seen the efficacy of species protection via conservation tourism when the economic value of species survival is quantified. This is good news for one of our favorite animals.
From villain to hero, the jaguar (Panthera onca) stands at the cusp of a radical overhaul in its public image. As the largest cat in the Americas, the species commands a dominant role in the food chain of its native Pantanal – a vast swathe of tropical wetland that encompasses parts of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. Once hunted for its fur, the jaguar’s appetite for the abundant prey in the Pantanal has led it into deadly conflict with ranchers in recent decades, casting it as the stalking menace of livestock and livelihood in a region where much of the land is reserved for cattle rearing. However, in a hopeful development for conservationists, researchers have revealed in a new study published in Global Ecology and Conservation that jaguars are worth 60 times more to tourism than the cost the big cats inflict on ranchers.
“The study represents a regional reality in the Pantanal,” said Fernando Tortato, research fellow at Panthera, the global wild cat conservation group that helped lead the study. “Where the jaguar brings in far more revenue than the potential damage it can cause.”
Jaguars once abounded from the southwestern U.S. to Argentina, but their numbers have fallen due to hunting and habitat loss. In the Amazon rainforest, deforestation is an ongoing threat, even while the dense foliage often precludes human encounters with jaguars. In the absence of benign tourism opportunities there is demand for jaguar teeth, paws and claws as souvenirs.
But jaguar’s predilection for lush and low-lying forest makes the Pantanal a stronghold for the species. The wetland’s web-like tributaries also open the wild cat’s home to human exploration, allowing tourists to share in their company.
In the Pantanal, the biggest threat to their survival is conflict with ranchers.To address this tension, the study quantified the value of the jaguar to the growing tourism industry and explored how its benefits could be felt more keenly by those incurring its costs.
Researchers focused on Encontro das Aguas State Park, using it as a representative portion of the Pantanal where ecotourism operates near livestock farms. The study defined the total area available here to tourism by mapping the riverside haunts of tagged jaguars that were visible from boats, to give a realistic spatial scale of the costs and benefits of living with the top predator. The minimum annual income of the tourism industry was calculated from the daily takings of seven lodges operating within this zone. This figure was then compared with a hypothetical estimate of damages to neighboring cattle ranches based on reported jaguar kills and the market value of each bovine.
The difference was startling to the researchers.
“Much greater than expected,” Tortato said.
In comparison to an estimated yearly loss from cattle depredation of US$121,500, the researchers found the jaguar tourism sector was taking in a gross annual income of around US$6.8 million. Even then, they write that their potential revenue estimate was conservative – it only accounted for the earnings of established lodges within a specific portion of the Pantanal, not the entire host of smaller outfits operating there and elsewhere. Knock-on benefits to local businesses from tourists passing through the Pantanal were also not included, so the researchers say the full economic value of jaguar ecotourism is likely far greater.
For conservationists, however, the study brought even better news.
“What surprised us was the interest of tourists,” Tortato said. “Tourists who visit the Pantanal in search of jaguar are willing to pay for damages, and this reaches the root of the conflict, creating a pragmatic solution to the cattle losses of ranchers.”
The researchers reckoned that the cost to cattle ranchers could be met with a one-off donation of US$32 per tourist. But their findings showed that 80 percent of tourists were happy to pay almost three times as much. Over a three-day stay, most were willing to donate an average of US$84 to a compensation scheme for inconvenienced ranchers.
The study indicates that, if rolled out region-wide, the scheme would more than offset the costs of a thriving jaguar population, laying the groundwork for landscape-scale conservation that could overcome present barriers of private land ownership.
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