Jaguar may signal environmental progress at border

A sighting of the big cat in southern Arizona could be the result of US and Mexican activists teaming up.

The big cat moved through nighttime shadows with a hunter's stealth, pausing just long enough to be filmed by a motion-activated camera in a rugged Arizona canyon.

For the public, this rare sighting of the elusive jaguar in December – the first time it's been spotted north of the Mexican border since 1996 – has been a source of fascination. But to environmentalists like Kim Vacariu, it means much more: Their efforts are making a difference.

"This has suddenly made it very clear to a lot of people," he says, "that a jaguar is up here simply because there's an undisturbed corridor between here and protected parts of the Sierra Madre," a vast mountain range in northern Mexico.

Mr. Vacariu is the Southwest representative for the Tucson-based Wildlands Project, which works with Mexican landowners and government officials to preserve habitat in the Sierra Madre. More and more, it's such cross-border efforts that are getting things done – and could be at least partially responsible for such events as the jaguar sighting.

These binational efforts come as the border region is facing increasing development under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Tighter border security is adding strains, too. But armed with expertise and much-needed resources, US groups ranging from the Wildlands Project to the Nature Conservancy are working hand in hand with Mexican officials and activists, addressing everything from pollution controls to habitat restoration.

"It's really an arm-in-arm cooperative deal," says Vacariu. "We're as aware as anybody that large American-based conservation groups cannot just stroll into Mexico and expect to make progress without really partnering with Mexican conservation groups."

A boost to their cause

To emphasize the need for binational conservation, environmentalists couldn't have found a better poster child than the beautiful, exotic jaguar. Biologists believe the animal, about 130 pounds and between 2 and 5 years old, probably traveled north from Mexico to mate or to forage for food. While the cats were once plentiful in the US Southwest, predator-control policies wiped them out in the 20th century.

In Mexico, cattle ranchers often shoot jaguars and other large predators on sight. Environmentalists are working to change that attitude, says Craig Miller, Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. This US organization may compensate ranchers who help protect the cats, a strategy similar to the group's efforts to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves in parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

The wolf project, in fact, has "provided opportunities for Mexican biologists to join the program, work on the field team, and then transfer that experience to Mexico," Mr. Miller says. Indeed, he notes that they're working with several large landowners in Mexico – one of whom already has 22 Mexican wolves.

The Nature Conservancy is also treading south of the border. In an effort to protect the San Pedro River, which stretches from Arizona into the Mexican state of Sonora, the organization is providing technical assistance and funding to a quasi-governmental organization. Then, "not only are they able to do conservation in the long term," says Victoria Khalidi of the conservancy's Tucson office, "but also in specialized areas related to science, private lands, or institutional development."

Meanwhile, in addition to its efforts to help the jaguar, the Wildlands Project has worked to create conservation reserves in Mexico. It protected 6,000 acres of old-growth forest near the village of Cebadillas with the help of two big Mexican conservation groups, Naturalia and Pronatura. The 2000 agreement for the forest was the first of its kind in Mexico, says Vacariu.

Ultimately, the Wildlife Project hopes to create a continent-wide system of connected conservation reserves.

Careful how they step

In all these ventures, US environmentalists are finding that they must be careful not to export a heavy-handed attitude to Mexico, where citizens are traditionally suspicious of outsiders attempting to dictate land-use policy. "Pieces of Mexico have been sold to everyone over the last 500 years," says Dick Kamp of the Arizona-based Border Ecology Project. "When conservation groups from outside try to create easements or protect land, they're always open to being called imperialists." But in some cases, the fears could be justified, he says. "It's legitimate to worry that [setting land aside] can take away someone's economic rights in a struggling economy."

On the other hand, many environmentalists are seeing more hope in Mexico under President Vicente Fox, who has pledged to emphasize environmental progress. Says Miller of Defenders of Wildlife: "Opportunities to make significant conservation advances are greater south of the border than they currently are with the Bush administration."

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