In Brazil’s wetlands, jaguars face a new threat: Drug traffickers

Ranchers who once killed the big cats are now joining with conservationists to save them

Sally, a jaguar that lived in the Pantanal in Brazil, when she was still alive in 2013. Photos like this were used to identify her body.

THE PANTANAL, Brazil — On the morning of March 29, Sally was found floating in the Cuiabá River. Lifeless and bloated, her body was slowly drifting toward Bolivia when local ranch hands pulled her ashore. In the nape of her neck were two deep, round wounds. Members of the ranch staff took photos, called the local police and waited for the authorities to remove the body.

A quick autopsy revealed that Sally had likely been killed the day before, shot from above at close range with a .38-caliber handgun. She was one of three jaguars fatally shot in the Brazilian Pantanal in the first six months of this year. The isolated river delta in central-western Brazil is home to the world’s largest population of jaguars, with an estimated nine per 50 square miles

The news sent shock waves through the ranches and tourist lodges that dot the Pantanal and conservation organizations overseas, many of which have made the region’s jaguars a focus of their work. Within an hour, the jaguar was identified from photos taken in 2013 by a tourist — after whom Sally was named — showing unusual markings along the left side of her torso. Within a week, a local ranch had put up a $1,000 reward for any information related to her death. As puzzlement and suspicions grew, conservationists abroad offered to chip in. The reward climbed to $2,000. A conviction carried the possibility of a $5,000 fine and a five-year prison sentence without the possibility of parole.

“Whenever we find a jaguar body, we are always suspicious,” said Alexandre do Nascimento, the military police chief in Corumbá, a small gateway town to the Pantanal along the border with Bolivia. His team is among those assigned to investigate the case. For decades, jaguars in the Pantanal were hunted by skin traders and sought as trophies by foreigners on safari. But Sally’s body was intact. Pantaneiros, or swampland ranchers, who for more than 250 years killed the jaguars that preyed on their livestock, would have been sure to dispose of the body.

Sally after she was shot, officials believe, by drug traffickers, who dislike the tourists and law enforcement officers that the jaguars attract.

Authorities are now leaning toward a new set of suspects in the case: drug traffickers. The smugglers who run cocaine between Bolivia and Brazil are known to use the remote Paraguay, Cuiabá and Pirigara rivers, which cross the Pantanal. They are also believed to carry small handheld guns — the kind of weapon that fired two shots into Sally’s neck. For drug traffickers, jaguars attract tourists and law enforcement officers to the isolated rivers.

The furor triggered by the discovery of Sally's body was something new in a land where the life of one jaguar has not always been worth so much. The Pantanal ranchers, once considered the jaguars’ greatest enemy, are now among their most ardent protectors. Together with conservation groups, they are starting to experiment with new strategies to protect the big cats from an emerging threat: the region’s thriving drug trade.

“These jaguars are now worth more than any person here,” said Nilson Soares, who works at a tannery in Poconé, a dusty frontier town on the northern end of the Pantanal. “But everyone in this city has been on the other side of this issue, even if they won't talk about it. They can remember when jaguars moved through here as skins.”

‘Now people realize that if the jaguar dies, so does the rancher. Jaguars can eat all the cattle they want off my ranch.’

Jamil Rodrigues da Costa

cattle farmer

For decades, the state turned a blind eye to the ranchers who killed jaguars in the name of protecting their cattle herds. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the global pelt trade emerged as a threat to the big cats, accounting for the deaths of an estimated 18,000 wild jaguars per year. Illegal game safaris, too, brought high-dollar tourists from around the world to ranches that offered all-inclusive hunting packages. Exact figures are hard to come by, but by the mid-1970s, the jaguar population in the Pantanal had declined significantly.

In the 1980s, however, two factors moved in the jaguars’ favor. The Brazilian government, which had banned jaguar hunting in 1967, began to step up enforcement amid international pressure. At the same time, the price of beef began to fall. Many ranchers abandoned their estates during those years, and those who stayed gradually stopped viewing cattle as a reliable source of income.

Today ranchers can make more money charging foreign tourists for jaguar-watching trips than they could save in cattle by shooting the jaguars. The ecotourism industry, which attracts an estimated 68,000 travelers a year, now helps subsidize the cattle industry. The region’s jaguar population rebounded.

“Now people realize that if the jaguar dies, so does the rancher. Jaguars can eat all the cattle they want off my ranch,” said Jamil Rodrigues da Costa, a third-generation cattle farmer and the owner of the Porto Jofre Hotel, an ecolodge in the Pantanal.

That wasn’t always the case. His grandfather, once one of the best-known hunters in the Pantanal, built a ranching estate on jaguar pelts. “In those days the local ranchers, eager to see the jaguars dead, gave him two cattle for every jaguar that he killed,” da Costa said. “But that was the Pantanal then, and things have changed a lot in the years in between.”

Despite the big cats’ change of fortune in the river delta, the jaguar population in Bolivia and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere is still under threat. The species remains “near threatened,” according to the Union for the Conservation of Nature, and has lost an estimated 40 percent of its historical range. 

‘[W]e have to start seeing drug trafficking as a conservation and rural development issue. They are intimately tied.’

Kendra McSweeney

professor, Ohio State University

Conservationists in the Pantanal are now focusing their work on assuring safe passage for jaguars moving through the wetlands and on helping ranchers limit jaguar predation of cattle.

Standing at the forefront of this rancher-friendly conservation movement is the São Bento Ranch, one of the Pantanal’s oldest. Together with Panthera — an international conservation group founded by Thomas Kaplan, whom Forbes deemed “the Billionaire King of Cats” last year — São Bento has worked over the last 10 years with local ranchers, ecotourism lodges and fishing guides to create a mosaic of private land that serves as a secure corridor connecting jaguars in the Pantanal to Encontro das Aguas State Park, a piece of protected land that represents less than 5 percent of the Pantanal.

“The control of problem jaguars is a sensitive issue,” said Venezuelan-born Rafael Hoogesteijn, the ranch manager at São Bento and conservation ranch program adviser for Panthera. “Society as a whole wants the conservation of the big cats, but the farmer, the rancher and the cattle owner are the ones paying the bill for the domestic animals [killed by predators]. No one is helping ranchers in this area, and Panthera is trying to fill this vacuum."

One of the group’s primary allies in the southern half of the Pantanal is Instituto Homem Pantaneiro, a network of former military police, ranchers, ecotourism guides and conservationists looking to conserve the area’s unique ecosystem. Leading the institute is Col. Angelo Rabelo, a former military police officer who went to the Pantanal in the 1980s to establish an environmental unit of the state’s military police in Corumbá. His unit played a key role in ending the pelt trade in the Pantanal; from 1987 to 1989 alone, it confiscated more than 3,000 skins.

“As a military officer, I came to understand the limited ability of the state to act in the Pantanal,” he said, sipping a cup of coffee on a recent day as rain poured down. “Our primary focus is conservation, but a secondary effect of our efforts is that we prevent abandoned areas in the Pantanal from being used by drug traffickers.”

Last year, the federal military police in Corumbá confiscated 1.7 tons of cocaine entering Brazil from Bolivia. And it is not only the Pantanal’s isolation that makes it an attractive route for drug traffickers. Many local boat drivers and pilots in the region who once trafficked jaguar skins have applied their knowledge of transit routes and local authorities to the much more profitable drug trade.

But for the conservation community, the drug issue remains largely taboo. “Many conservationists in the international community do not want to draw attention to the drug issue because they don’t want to upset the governments they have been working with,” said Kendra McSweeney, a professor of geography at Ohio State University. Too often, government officials are complicit in the drug trade or at least willing to look the other way, she said. But she insisted that conservation groups shouldn’t simply sidestep the issue.

“[W]e have to start seeing drug trafficking as a conservation and rural development issue. They are intimately tied,” she said. “Drug trafficking piggybacks on and subsidizes other illicit industries in many countries,” contributing to an overall erosion of the rule of law that makes conservation efforts more difficult.

In Sally’s case, justice remains elusive. Only days after her carcass was found, the police identified a suspect, a man believed to be involved in drug trafficking networks operating along the route where the jaguar was killed. But he was never taken into custody.

By the second week of April, ranchers and conservationists were asked by local authorities to repeal the offered reward. As the investigation turned toward drug trafficking, police said the reward presented a new danger: those willing to pay for information about Sally’s death could become the target of drug smugglers in the region. With the case in the hands of the military police, ranchers and conservationists were given little choice but to turn back to the task of ensuring protected habitat for jaguars in the Pantanal.

Sally’s body remains frozen at a federal university in Cuiabá, in the nearby state of Mato Grosso. Her case has been turned over to the Ministry of Justice, which will determine if there is enough evidence or political will to move it forward.

“Most of these cases are never solved. That is the nature of our work in the Pantanal, where most events that occur go unseen,” said do Nascimento, tapping a big pile of documents stacked on his desk. “Those bullets are deep in the Pantanal, beneath meters of water, and we won’t likely ever know who shot that jaguar.”

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