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updated 3/21/2011 11:13:07 AM ET 2011-03-21T15:13:07

The Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica represents a tiny piece of the jaguar's home range. But the majestic cats have already disappeared from many of their old strongholds. Even where they have managed to survive, plenty of threats remain, mostly from humans.

That means that every jaguar counts, said Aida Bustamante, who along with Panamanian biologist Ricardo Moreno created an organization called Yaguará, which aims to study and protect jaguars and other large mammals in Costa Rica and Panama.

It also means that survival of the species depends on a major attitude adjustment among people who share land with them. So, in between camera checks, the team is on a relentless quest to talk to farmers, poachers and community members and help them think about the cats in a new way.

"Some people believe that jaguars on the Osa Peninsula are not important anymore and that they will become isolated someday," said Bustamante. "But nobody has proved that."

"People love jaguars, and they may have jaguar posters in their rooms, but they're not really protecting jaguars," she added. "People believe the animals cannot disappear. And yes, they can."

All jaguars belong to just one species, Panthera onca, which used to range from the southern United States to southern Argentina. Today, there is an occasional jaguar spotting in Arizona. But the cats are mostly limited to pockets of stable populations between northern Mexico and northern Argentina, with the largest numbers in the Amazon Basin. The cats have disappeared completely from Uruguay and El Salvador.

Jaguar numbers have been in decline for centuries. And while scientists have been assessing populations since 2000, they are cautious about offering number estimates just yet, said John Polisar, coordinator of the Jaguar Conservation Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

One reason for the restraint is that, in vast and wild places like the Amazon, jaguar numbers simply haven't yet been surveyed. Even in more developed areas, sampling has been incomplete. And statistical extrapolations -- trying to guess how many jaguars are out there based on how many have been observed in a small area -- can end up being inaccurate.

Camera traps, like the ones Bustamante's team uses, are one of the best ways to get an accurate jaguar head count. Each cat carries a fingerprint-like pattern of spots, so researchers can tell if they are seeing multiple animals or if they're just seeing the same cat again and again.

Photos often reveal a wealth of other information, too, including details about what the animals are eating, what time of night they're out hunting and even how their prey populations are faring. Bustamante's computer is full of photo albums showing jaguars with peccaries in their mouths or rolling like kitty-cats in the dirt.

Memory cards also reveal a parade of ocelots, pumas, tapirs, coatis, agoutis and other passers-by. After the researchers get over the excitement of seeing what their cameras caught, they painstakingly document all of it.

All of Yaguará's cameras lie in populated areas outside of parks and in corridors between fragmented protected areas, because these are the places where threats to the cats are greatest. The researchers are also planning to install more cameras around the Osa. They are expanding their work into Panama and hope to put radio collars on a few jaguars to see where the cats go.

Besides offering much-needed information about jaguar biology, Polisar said, surveys like these can show if conservation efforts are working. But the actual task of conservation brings a far more complicated set of challenges. The fight to save the jaguar is a fight against the cat's history of periodic conflicts with people.

Farmers still frequently kill jaguars that eat their livestock. Deforestation and development are rapidly destroying big cat habitats. And rural hunters may compete with jaguars for the same prey.

To protect jaguars, Bustamante's group employs a variety of strategies. They sell T-shirts to raise money so that they can compensate farmers when jaguars take their cows, pigs or other animals. They also teach farmers better ways to protect their livestock from predators.

To poachers, who may enter the forest to hunt at night, the researchers offer rewards for tips about where to set up new cameras if those cameras end up snapping shots of jaguars. And the researchers speak again and again to community members, trying to convince them that predatory cats are not their enemies. They gave 55 talks last year.

It's not yet clear whether any of these efforts are helping. There have been at least 17 jaguar killings on the Osa Peninsula in just the last two years, Bustamante said, though she added that people seem more receptive to her group and their work.

Ultimately, Polisar added, protecting jaguars -- in both the Osa and in jaguar habitats elsewhere, some of which are up to 20 times larger -- will depend on a nuanced set of strategies that take into account the basic needs of both people and cats, and the social issues that differ from place to place.

In some regions, for example, law enforcement might be a priority. In others, outreach to cattle ranchers or subsistence hunters might matter more. In other words, there is no single recipe or easy formula for saving all jaguars everywhere.

"If you take a big-picture look at the jaguar range, it's composed of pixels -- each a place where jaguars occur," Polisar said. "Jaguar conservation needs some tailoring to local realities, although you can boil down general components of how to conserve jaguars. Among other items, we need to try to get past the distrust and antipathy some people have inherited towards jaguars."

The good news, Polisar added, is that jaguars still occupy approximately 45 percent of their original range (compared to less than 7 percent for a species like the Asian tiger). The jaguar still has options, especially as efforts continue to keep populations connected.

And the level of commitment to efforts like those on the Osa is encouraging. At the very least, some people in some places are finally now thinking twice before killing jaguars.

For the people who are doing everything they can to protect wild cats, the work is truly a labor of love. Despite years of relentless research and campaigning for the sake of the animals, Bustamante and her colleagues have never actually seen a jaguar in the wild.

"The locals say you'll see them once every 10 years or twice every 25 years," Bustamante said. "We've been here for eight. None of the three of us have seen jaguars. It's really hard."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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