1964-1966 flood rescue data suggests there were never as many jaguars in Suriname as World Animal Protection claims have been poached
PARAMARIBO, Suriname––Claims recently amplified on social media about the alleged extent of jaguar poaching in Suriname appear to have inflated at most a handful of rare, scattered incidents occurring over many years into a purported “crisis” for which there is little tangible evidence.
The purported motive for the poaching––supplying jaguar parts to China––seems to have been invented wholly from racially charged supposition.
Numbers pulled from math model
But the numbers attributed to poaching were apparently inflated mostly because there were probably never as many jaguars in Suriname as the hyperbolic claimants supposed, basing their guesstimates on a math model published by the Public Library of Science online journal PLOS One in March 2018.
That, with or without poaching, means jaguars may be closer to extirpation from Suriname, and perhaps to regional extinction, than even exaggerated guesswork has hinted.
At the same time, jaguars have persisted in Suriname for nearly 60 years since the first documentation emerged that they had become vanishingly scarce.
The March 2018 study published by PLOS One was based not on actual jaguar sightings in Suriname, or discoveries of tracks, scat, and other remains, but rather on the estimated carrying capacity of the habitat, projected from findings elsewhere.
The PLOS One projection of the number of jaguars in Suriname ended up 168 times higher than could be projected from the actual findings of Operation Gwamba, which in 1964-1966 rescued more than 10,000 animals from 870 miles of dense rainforest following the completion of the Afobaka Dam on the Upper Suriname River.
As fast-rising water rapidly marooned most of the animals in the Afobaka basin on small islands and in treetops, Operation Gwamba project leader John Walsh and team took the opportunity to do one of the most comprehensive wildlife inventories on record.
Since few of the terrestrial animals in the soon-to-be-underwater habitat could escape to dry land without help, Walsh et al at minimum collected a highly representative sampling of the species that had been living there.
Many reports, but just one source
Familiar with the Operation Gwamba data, ANIMALS 24-7 was already skeptical of the PLOS One projection when articles by Citizen Truth correspondent Alex Muiruri, of Kenya, Jane Dalton of The Independent, based in the United Kingdom, and Sky News, also of the U.K., in late October 2018 went viral on social media.
All three of these articles, and soon many others amplified by other sources, cited a September 2018 report by World Animal Protection investigations advisor Nicholas Bruschi.
The Bruschi report included four photographs said to have been taken in February 2018 by unidentified people at unspecified locations, not necessarily even in Suriname, showing what may be only two dead jaguars.
The photos depict a female jaguar hanging from a pole, possibly the same female jaguar lashed to a pole but lying on the ground, a male jaguar apparently in a canoe, and perhaps the same male jaguar on a four-wheeler with a woman posing for the camera, flashing a “V-for-victory” sign.
The Bruschi contentions include that jaguar poaching in Suriname is much under-reported, as is most poaching, and indeed most crime. But experienced criminologists use time-tested methods for estimating under-reporting that do not appear to have been used by World Animal Protection.
No before-&-after data
Jaguar poaching in Suriname is said to be increasing as the Chinese presence in the nation increases.
This claim is unsubstantiated because there is no before-and-after poaching data, and no before-and-after jaguar population data either, unless one takes both the Operation Gwamba and PLOS One projection wholly at face value. In that case, one could conclude that there are now 168 times as many jaguars in Suriname as there were more than three decades before 21st century Chinese immigration began.
The Bruschi report alleges that poachers bait jaguars in Suriname by staking out dogs or goats, a technique commonly used in Asia by tiger and leopard hunters, and also used by renowned Wildlife Conservation Society scientist George Schaller, in researching his 1978 book Snow Leopard, co-authored by Peter Matthiessen.
(See Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World.)
Describing this technique accordingly adds no authenticity to the report; just an emotive trigger for animal advocacy donors.
Trapped jaguars are said to be shot multiple times, another emotive trigger, and a detail which, if true, suggests that the alleged poachers are not skilled in handling either their weapons or their targets. These are not traits of experienced participants in an established traffic.
Finally, the remains of poached jaguars are allegedly boiled into a paste and smuggled to China as a substitute for traditional medicinal products made from tigers.
Teeth and claws are purportedly sold separately as personal ornaments.
Legalized tiger farming
If any of this is true, the supposed Chinese market for smuggled products from poached jaguars was jeopardized by in October 2018 by the anticipated emergence of cheaper and fully legal competition from within China.
Explained John R. Platt, editor of the “Extinction Countdown” column for the Center for Biodiversity news web site The Revelator, “Under China’s new rules, which overturn a 25-year-old ban, farm-raised tiger and rhino ‘products’ can be approved for use in medical research or by accredited doctors in hospitals, despite the fact that the body parts have no known medicinal value.”
Having reportedly as many as 6,000 tigers on 200 “tiger farms” already in operation, many of them doubling as quasi-zoos, China would appear to have plenty of tiger parts to more than meet the relatively limited demand.
In mid-November, however, senior Chinese cabinet official Ding Xuedong told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that the decision to allow legal sales of tiger parts and rhino horn had been “postponed after study.”
“Second Opinion Doctor”
Much of the Bruschi report appears to echo an anonymous article posted, apparently in 2009, at a web site entitled Second Opinion Doctor.
Asked the author, “How is the jaguar population in Suriname really doing? No one seems to know. There isn’t even one environmental conservation organization that can provide adequate information about the jaguar.”
The Second Opinion Doctor author cited seven specific locations in Suriname where jaguars had reportedly been seen in recent years, or poached, despite legislation nominally protecting jaguars.
IUCN: world total of 50,000 jaguars
“According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,” the Second Opinion Doctor author recounted, “approximately 50,000 jaguars live in the wild,” in Mexico, Central America, and much of South America.
“The World Wildlife Fund Brazil states that about 18,000 jaguars were killed for their skin in South-America in the sixties and seventies,” the Second Opinion Doctor author continued.
But even the World Wildlife Fund had no information specific to Suriname.
Neither did Panthera, the organization founded by the late Alan Rabinowitz, who before his recent death designated a “Jaguar Corridor,” including some of southern Suriname, “to protect existing genetic paths between the jaguar populations,” the Second Opinion Doctor author summarized.
(See “We can still save them”: wild cat conservationist Alan Rabinowitz, 65.)
Jaguar killing in 2007
“In September 2007,” the Second Opinion Doctor author recalled, “a jaguar was shot in the Reeberg area of Wanica, Suriname, by two brothers. The Dagblad Suriname [newspaper] published a sensational article with a picture of the two brothers posing with the clay-cold jaguar. The two men had lured the jaguar into a trap. They used a little goat as bait. The meat of the jaguar was shared amongst the local residents to use it for medical purposes.”
That jaguar was killed, said the Second Opinion Doctor author, because “The brothers were indignant that the death of four cows and some goats [said to have been killed by the jaguar] was not compensated by the government.”
Chinese in Suriname
Though people of Chinese ancestry appeared to have little or nothing to with the incident, and certainly not with the reported motive behind it, Jim Sanderson of the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation linked it to “More and more Chinese [having] come over to Suriname. You can safely say,” Sanderson claimed, “that there is a growing market for the jaguar.”
Suriname has in truth had small Chinese enclaves since 1853, when the first of several boatloads of laborers were brought from Guangdong and forced into quasi-slavery. Historical accounts have not singled out the Suriname Chinese in connection with hunting, poaching, or wildlife trafficking of any sort.
As of the 2012 Suriname census, 7,885 Suriname residents, 1.5% of the total Surinamese population, claimed Chinese ancestry.
“Immigration has substantially increased since the late-1990s, adding (according to official sources) about 10,000 people to the existing Chinese community,” reported Nicholas Bourcier for the Guardian in June 2015.
Only speculation unsubstantiated by data or even well-documented anecdotal case reports seems to link the growing Chinese population of Suriname to any increase in poaching.
Poaching vs. vegetarian food policy
Indeed, poaching for meat is known to have been a way of life for many rural Surinamese for as long as the nation has existed and has had wildlife laws.
For that reason, to ensure the safety of the animals rescued during Operation Gwamba, project leader John Walsh introduced––and followed––a strictly vegetarian food policy for all participants, almost all of whom were locally hired.
Operation Gwamba was ancestral to World Animal Protection
Ironically, Walsh was sent to Suriname by a direct ancestor of World Animal Protection, called the International Society for the Protection of Animals. The International Society for the Protection of Animals was formed in 1959 through a merger of programs of the Massachusetts SPCA, Royal SPCA of Britain, and the Humane Society of the United States, then only five years old.
A second merger, in 1981 with the Dutch-based World Federation for the Protection of Animals, created the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which renamed itself World Animal Protection in 2014.
Time is Short And The Water Rises
Walsh in his 1967 book Time Is Short And The Water Rises, co-authored by Robert Gannon, listed 9,737 animals rescued by Operation Gwamba, acknowledging that in the rush of the work the participants had neglected to record the recovery of another several hundred of the most common species.
Among the animals inventoried by Walsh and team were 2,104 three-fingered sloths, 1,051 nine-banded armadillos, 973 tortoises, 927 tree porcupines, and 840 two-fingered sloths.
There were 671 deer and 528 monkeys.
Rarest were three jaguars, a margay and a domestic cat.
Operation Gwamba findings
The Afobaka Dam inundated about 2253.29 square kilometers. This was equivalent to about 16% of the potential jaguar habitat identified by the PLOS One statistical modeling exercise, the title of which was “Estimating large carnivore populations at global scale based on spatial predictions of density and distribution ± Application to the jaguar (Panthera onca).”
The Operation Gwamba data, projected to the whole of Suriname, indicated a total population of just 19 jaguars in the nation, at a time when the human population was about 331,800, about two-thirds of the present human population of 558,000.
The population increase since Operation Gwamba could reasonably be presumed to have cut to some extent into the potential jaguar habitat.
Real-life jaguars in real time
Applying the PLOS One modeling formula to the region that Operation Gwamba evacuated suggests that there should have been at least 50 jaguars where Walsh and team found just three.
Could 47 jaguars have swum to safety before Walsh and team arrived in boats?
Maybe. Nearly 60 years later, there is no way to know for sure.
What is known for sure is that Walsh et al handled real-life jaguars in real time, not jaguars projected from map study, based on data from elsewhere.
Projections from elsewhere
The 21 PLOS One study participants estimated that Suriname contains 142.700 square kilometers of habitat, with 2.24 jaguars per 100 square kilometers, adding up to 3,190 jaguars total, the seventh most of any nation––but none of the input data for jaguar presence actually came from Suriname.
“We used 1,266 jaguar records collected by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1999 and 2006,” the PLOS One study participants reported, plus “data from field surveys, including camera trapping, track records, and interviews with hunters and cattle ranchers conducted across Venezuela between 2009 and 2015.”
Also included were camera trapping data from other surveys “conducted in South and North America between 2002 and 2014.”
PLOS One says 173,000 jaguars
Overall, the PLOS One study projected 173,000 jaguars remaining in the wild.
This conclusion may be accurate, but a common problem associated with statistical projections that apply data from a few specific well-studied sites to the whole of large habitats is that the numbers “wobble” at the ends, tending to either overstate or understate whatever is going on in the relatively small corners of habitat from which there is little or no information to input.
Indeed, the PLOS One projections for the whole of jaguar range would not be hugely different if no jaguars at all remain in Suriname.
“Hunting usually has no measurable effect”
Concluded the PLOS One study team, “A large proportion of our estimate was attributed to the forested areas of the Amazon basin,” south of Suriname, “which were characterized by relatively high probabilities of jaguar occurrence and moderate to high densities.
“In most of this forested area,” the PLOS One study team wrote, “human population densities are low. In such conditions hunting usually has no measurable effect on populations of jaguars and their prey base, and jaguars have a high ability to persist, unless deforestation and cattle operations are introduced.
“However,” the PLOS One team warned, “rates of jaguar extirpations continue to increase, mainly due to habitat alteration. During the last 100 years, the range of this species in South America has been reduced to approximately half of its historical distribution. Despite legal protection in all countries, jaguar populations continue to decline.”
United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization data indicates that heads of cattle raised in Suriname have declined since 1965, the midpoint for Operation Garamba, from 41,000 to 35,750 in 2016, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
The 45,000 hectares of Suriname in cultivation in 1965 increased to 78,000 hectares in cultivation as of 2016, but this remains less than 5% of the total land area of the nation.
In theory, therefore, whatever number of jaguars lived in Suriname in 1964-1966 could still be there. Unfortunately, that number may be fewer than the resident population of some major zoos.