Jaguar Conservation Is Key to Safeguarding South America’s Pantanal Wetlands

Conservation scientist leverages partnerships to protect one of the world’s highest jaguar densities

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Jaguar Conservation Is Key to Safeguarding South America’s Pantanal Wetlands
A close-up of a jaguar walking across a river toward the camera, with lush greenery in the background.
A jaguar prowls a river in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland complex.
Gerald Corsi Getty Images

The Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland complex, spans 44 million acres across Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay—an area the size of the U.S. state of Missouri or the Brazilian state of Acre—with Brazil hosting approximately 80% of its floodplains and associated ecosystems. The biodiversity hotspot is home to South America’s wildlife “Big Five”: jaguars, giant anteaters, giant river otters, maned wolves, and Brazilian tapirs.

The Brazilian Pantanal has one of the highest densities in all Latin America of the Panthera onca, also known as the jaguar, with around one jaguar for every 3,000 acres.

However, throughout the last few decades, the species—the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere—has lost nearly 50% of its historic geographic range, leading to its classification as “Near Threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The cats are under pressure from habitat loss and fragmentation.

Pew’s conserving the Pantanal and Gran Chaco of South America project seeks to support the region’s conservation by elevating and expanding ongoing efforts to improve the management standards of existing protected areas and secure new protections for key habitats; supporting Indigenous territorial management to advance conservation and sustainable use; encouraging a standard for sustainable ranching in the Pantanal; and advancing long-term conservation financing mechanisms for durable protection.

One of Pew’s partners in this project, Panthera Brasil, manages the Jofre Velho Conservation Ranch, a jaguar research base covering nearly 25,000 acres of the Brazilian Pantanal. The group uses this ranch, and the research conducted there, to showcase how jaguar conservation can coexist with (and ultimately benefit) cattle ranchers, local communities, and the ecotourism industry.

Fernando Tortato, Panthera Brasil’s lead conservation scientist, has helped elevate Panthera’s leadership in wild cat conservation around the globe. His expertise has led to effective action for jaguar conservation, especially jaguar-cattle conflict resolution within the Brazilian Pantanal.

This interview with Tortato has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Can you share some background about your journey into jaguar conservation, particularly in the Pantanal?

A close-up of a man with a mustache and light beard wearing a baseball cap bearing the logo of the organization Panthera.
Fernando Tortato has worked for more than a decade with Panthera, a Pew partner organization in Brazil focused on conserving the Pantanal—home to one of the densest jaguar populations in Latin America.
Sebastian Kennerknecht

A: My connection with the Pantanal began in my childhood; my family moved to Porto Murtinho, a city in the southern Pantanal, when I was 5 years old. Growing up there, I developed a deep appreciation for the region’s unique wetland environment and diverse wildlife, including tapirs, deer, and giant anteaters. I spent weekends exploring the area’s ranches, roads, and rivers, fostering a love for nature that guided my career aspirations from a young age.

As an undergraduate at Universidade Regional de Blumenau in Santa Catarina, Brazil, I initially focused on carnivore ecology and conservation. However, my passion for the Pantanal led me to intern at Embrapa Pantanal, a governmental organization conducting research in the region. This experience solidified my desire to work in the Pantanal and shaped my academic and professional path.

So during my master’s and subsequent Ph.D. studies, I focused on understanding and mitigating human-jaguar conflicts, particularly those related to cattle ranching. I also explored jaguar tourism’s potential as a conservation tool. This dual focus on research and practical conservation efforts has been central to my work with Panthera and has allowed me to make meaningful contributions to jaguar conservation in the Pantanal.

Overall, my journey into jaguar conservation has been deeply influenced by my upbringing in the Pantanal, my academic pursuits, and the opportunities I’ve had to work with dedicated researchers and conservationists. It’s a journey that continues to inspire me to protect this unique ecosystem and its magnificent wildlife for future generations.

Q: Why is the Pantanal—“this unique ecosystem,” as you call it—so important?

A: The Pantanal stands out as one of the world’s largest tropical inland wetlands, situated at the heart of South America. And wetlands, including the Pantanal, play a crucial role in providing ecosystem services, particularly in water management.

This region serves as a convergence point for various biomes, including the Gran Chaco, Atlantic Forest, Cerrado, and Amazon. This unique blend of ecosystems results in a rich diversity of species, with the Pantanal boasting one of the highest densities of jaguars globally. Additionally, the Pantanal supports robust populations of many endangered species, such as the marsh deer, giant anteater, giant armadillo, giant otter, and white-lipped peccary. These species find a stronghold in the Pantanal due to its highly productive environment and diverse habitats.

What sets the Pantanal apart is its history over the past 250 years of complete occupation by humans, who were drawn by economic opportunities—particularly cattle ranching. But at the same time, the region is also a unique example of global ecosystem balance and how an area with such an exceptional ecological makeup can make it possible for economic use and biodiversity protection to coexist.

Q: Does that mean that conservation and economic development are not mutually exclusive in the Pantanal?

A: Absolutely. Protecting the region’s iconic species requires collaboration with cattle ranchers. They’re integral to the ecosystem’s balance. Deforestation poses a threat, but the solution lies in engaging ranchers, offering them opportunities that align with conservation goals. In essence, preserving the Pantanal’s biodiversity hinges on fostering partnerships and sustainable practices within its unique landscape.

Q: The word “unique” keeps coming up when you talk about the Pantanal. Can you say more about that?

A: Unlike other regions where conservation efforts focus on preserving pristine environments, the Pantanal is not pristine, thanks to its history of cattle ranching. But interestingly, this history hasn’t obliterated the native vegetation—over 80% of which remains intact.

The Pantanal’s character is defined by extremes. Half the year, it’s submerged in water, while the other half sees drought. These natural rhythms have served to limit human activity; extensive cattle ranching was the only viable option here, and the region avoided more destructive land uses, such as traditional agriculture or confined types of cattle ranching. Attempts to deviate from this pattern were often thwarted by the environment’s resilience, reinforcing a kind of natural selection.

Q: What are some of the threats that the Pantanal is facing? You mentioned deforestation.

A: The threats can be understood at various scales. Deforestation is a significant issue and has led to the loss of approximately 20% of the Pantanal’s native vegetation; this deforestation has been driven by changes in land ownership, with new landowners often applying practices from other regions that prioritize productivity over conservation.

And over the past two decades, the Pantanal has also experienced increased aridity, leading to a reduction in water levels and making it easier to develop land and introduce non-native pastoral species.

Despite these threats, new legislation, such as the recent Pantanal law in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, offers hope. If enforced effectively, these laws could protect significant portions of the Pantanal and promote sustainable practices.

However, the most significant threats to the Pantanal originate outside its boundaries. The surrounding plateaus have been heavily deforested, reducing the amount of water that flows into the Pantanal. Additionally, proposed projects like the hydropower waterway in Cáceres, north of the Pantanal, could further disrupt the region’s hydrology.

A: Yes. The Pantanal’s ecosystem depends on rain patterns in the Amazon rainforest, because a dry Amazon leads to reduced flooding in the Pantanal—which affects the Pantanal’s productivity and biodiversity. And deforestation in the Amazon reduces rainfall in central Brazil, including the Pantanal.

Q: What’s the effect when flooding is reduced in the Pantanal?

A: Reduced flooding in the Pantanal impacts soil nutrients and vegetation growth, which in turn affects the abundance of prey for animals like jaguars.

Ultimately, the Pantanal’s future hinges on protecting its hydrological system. If the Pantanal fails to flood, its productivity and biodiversity will suffer, leading to increased conflicts between wildlife and cattle ranching—a situation we must avoid.

Q: Can you elaborate on the significance of protecting jaguars in the Pantanal?

A: Protecting every species—whether bats, ants, or jaguars—is vital. My organization, Panthera, focuses on jaguars because they hold iconic status and play a crucial ecological role, intertwined with traditional communities and Indigenous cultures across the Americas. The Pantanal, situated at the heart of South America and connected to various biomes like the Amazon, Cerrado, and Chaco, serves as a critical region for long-term jaguar conservation; although the Amazon holds the largest jaguar population globally, the Pantanal boasts the highest density of jaguars.

Q: So protecting jaguars also protects the Pantanal?

A: Yes. Jaguars serve as a flagship species, drawing attention to broader conservation efforts and generating regional income through the popularity of sustainable ecotourism. So, by safeguarding wild cats like jaguars, we are effectively protecting entire ecosystems: Preserving jaguars requires conserving vast habitats, which in turn ensures the protection of a myriad of other species within the ecosystem, including frogs, birds, and more.

Q: What, specifically, does your organization do to help protect jaguars?

A: Panthera’s focus in the Pantanal is the jaguar corridor, a crucial habitat linkage that connects jaguar populations from Mexico to Argentina.

Panthera’s partnership with Pew in the Pantanal, specifically in the Cuiabá River complex, is a key aspect of our conservation efforts. This collaboration focuses on protecting jaguars and their habitats by working with a range of stakeholders, including ranchers, traditional communities, and conservation organizations. Together, we aim to reduce human-jaguar conflicts, support protected areas, and develop sustainable practices that benefit both wildlife and local communities. The partnership underscores the importance of collaborative efforts in conservation and highlights the role of public-private partnerships in protecting biodiversity.

Under cloudy skies, Fernando Tortato sits astride a wooden fence in a small clearing, holding a small antenna aloft and looking down at a hand-held device. A few feet away, a silver pickup truck with both the front and back doors open on the driver’s side is parked alongside lush green trees.
Fernando Tortato uses a signaling device to try to find a jaguar that’s wearing a GPS collar. These collars help researchers monitor the routines, habitats, and population size of jaguars within the Pantanal—providing a glimpse of how the cats live day-to-day in the region.
Sebastian Kennerknecht

Q: Are you optimistic about the future of the Pantanal?

A: As conservationists, we must remain optimistic despite the tremendous challenges we face. Every day, we’re bombarded with negative news about the state of conservation, but we must believe that change is possible. Working alone, the task would be daunting; but working together, we can make a difference. We are grateful to Pew for its trust and support in Panthera’s work.

A prime example of what I mean by “working together”—within our partnership with Pew and coordinating with the local community, cattle ranchers, and local and regional governments—is the upcoming creation of a private protected area (known by its acronym RPPN in Brazilian Portuguese) on Panthera’s ranch, spanning approximately 635 hectares (1,569 acres) of riverine forest. This area is a crucial habitat for jaguars, giant otters, and other species, and its protection through an RPPN ensures perpetual conservation.

Another initiative stemming from our partnership with Pew is the promotion of a management plan for the Encontro das Águas State Park adjacent to Panthera’s ranch. Although this park is the regional center of jaguar tourism, it currently lacks a management plan, public use plan, and adequate measures for ecotourism, surveillance, and wildfire prevention. As the Pantanal becomes drier, wildfires are likely to become more frequent and intense, making it even more crucial that a management plan is put in place.

I believe that, by working together, we can ensure that the Pantanal remains a vital ecosystem in the heart of South America. I dedicate my life to protecting jaguars and the Pantanal, ensuring that future generations can witness its rich wildlife and natural beauty.

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