Saving the Jaguar
Doctoral student Anthony Giordano will spend one year in Paraguay on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the jaguar population.
by Kristina Woods Butler
It's almost dawn in the forests of Paraguay. Anthony Giordano wakes up after a night of sleeping outdoors. He rolls over on his cot and peers down at the ground below. What he finds is a clue to what he is searching for, a fresh set of jaguar prints neatly pressed into the dirt beside where he slept. But he's not frightened of the curious animal that visited his camp during the night. It's the reason he's there.
Jaguar numbers in the Paraguayan Chaco might be declining each year due to a combination of factors. Among them, retaliation by ranchers for actual or perceived threats they pose to livestock. According to Giordano, a doctoral student in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, jaguars are losing their habitat as more of this land is converted to pasture and by other development. also they lose the prey they depend on. That's when they could begin to take more than the occasional cattle.
"As other predators do in the United States, such as wolves with cattle, coyotes with sheep, and pumas with both, jaguars take cattle in the Chaco and throughout other parts of South America. And they're shot for it," Giordano said. "It is part of the ranching culture to shoot them as soon as they're seen, even if that particular cat is not necessarily guilty of taking your livestock. For many ranchers, a good jaguar is a dead jaguar; kill it before it kills something of yours, or your neighbor's. Help prevent future losses. That's the reasoning anyway, as it was and still is to some extent, in the United States."
Giordano will spend the next year traveling around Paraguay on a Fulbright scholarship, investigating this interrelationship of jaguar ecology, genetics and various aspects of jaguar conflict with people. At his primary study site in the North, he will spend about 12 hours a day covering parts of an area nearly 8,000-square-kilometers in extent, collecting jaguar excrement samples, or scat, recording visual signs and tracks, interviewing people, and putting out cameras, in order to gather more data on the species.
"With samples such as scats and hair follicles, you can use new genetic techniques to not only identify what species the sample belongs to, but the animal's gender as well, and at higher resolution, even to which individual of that species," Giordano said. "For each sample collected in the field, you also have a spatial and temporal record of the target species and individuals, and over time, this can allow researchers to amass important information. One of my goals is to develop a genetic model such as this, for effectively estimating the relative abundance, or population size, of jaguars in an area of the Chaco."
Giordano will also acquire similar samples from other regions throughout Paraguay and neighboring countries with the help of national partners, as well as international collaborators from Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil. With such samples, he hopes to describe the landscape genetic processes affecting jaguars across much of south-central South America. Ultimately, he hopes these results, and those of other projects he is planning, can be incorporated into a regional conservation strategy. The key to success in this instance, Giordano believes, is the need to effectively engage and recruit the cooperation of the Chaco's many landowners.
"For many countries, depending on the land-tenure system, real on-the-ground conservation can only occur with the support and commitment of those who own, manage, and use the land," he said.
From Left: A jaguar relaxes in the brush; Map of extent of the Gran Chaco Ecoregion; View from Cerro Leon, the highest point in Chaco Defensores National Park; Tracks of a young jaguar on the middle road through the park; Jaguar in a tree; Cattle truck taking livestock to market along the Park's east road. Click images to enlarge.
U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program
The U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, was established in 1946 by Congress to enable the government to increase mutual understanding between people from the Unites States and people of other countries.
The program offers scholarships to students, scholars, and professionals to study abroad for one year in order to study, teach, lecture, and conduct research.
College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources
The College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources is made up of six departments: Agriculture and Applied Economics, Agricultural Education and Communications, Animal and Food Science, Landscape Architecture, Plant and Soil Science, and Natural Resources Management.
The college also consists of eleven research centers and institutes, including the Cotton Economics Research Institute, the International Cotton Research Center and the Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute.
Vision for the Future
The reason he chose to study endangered species is that extinction is a concept he still can't fully grasp. Even early in his childhood, he remembers wrestling with the finality of it.
"I've taught courses in conservation, doing my best always to emphasize the science. I've even taught the subject in part at Texas Tech, but these issues are more than just challenging puzzles or intellectual problem-solving endeavors. The finality of human-caused extinctions has been part of my drive throughout my life; it is there at a deep emotional level," Giordano said. "By trying to do work like this, I'm not only addressing my professional interests and scientific curiosity, but I'm satisfying an emotional need as well. Effective conservationists often do both, so long as that guiding emotional element doesn’t interfere with the scientific process."
Giordano began his journey to natural resources management as a motivated college student, double majoring before his junior year in zoology and environmental science at Long Island University-Southampton College. He then received his master's degree in conservation biology and applied ecology from the University of Maryland-Frostburg State.
After college, he accepted various technician and field assistant positions and traveled around the world from Australia to Malaysia to study many different species including sharks, tigers, bats and raptors. He said he always planned on returning to graduate school to pursue his doctorate but was not sure of his focus until he spent some time in Paraguay.
Shortly after, he spoke with Warren Ballard, his major professor and academic advisor in the Department of Natural Resources Management at Texas Tech. With Ballard's help, they were able to piece together some funding for him to initially attend the university. Later, however, one funding opportunity that arose was the Fulbright scholarship, which Giordano admits, he never expected to receive.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program provides the opportunity for about 1,500 U.S. students, young professionals and artists to study abroad for one academic year.
"My approach to the Fulbright was simple: it was a long shot, but I'll give it my best, and I shouldn't get my hopes up about it," Giordano said. "But here it is! And the experience has honestly been life-changing. As a graduate student working internationally, a Fulbright scholarship is quite possibly the highest honor I could receive. In many ways, it's also an acknowledgment of all that I have done up until now, and that means so much. It is giving me the opportunity to spend an extended period of time in Paraguay, where I can really make a difference for jaguars, for the people of Paraguay, and for the conservation of a unique ecoregion. So, to say this Fulbright has been an unbelievable opportunity for me is a bit of an understatement."
Giordano will try to work with local ranchers to find ways to mitigate conflict between them and the resident jaguar populations. He hopes to conduct two workshops this year, both partially sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The first is geared toward building capacity in Paraguay and the continued development of Paraguayan biologists, particularly with respect to ways to effectively monitor and manage jaguars and other carnivores. The second workshop, Giordano said, intends to be a hands-on outreach and brainstorming session with landowners suffering livestock losses at the hands, or teeth rather, of jaguars.
"We hope those landowners in the highest conflict zones will attend these workshops. We hope to listen to them and their concerns and learn from them. We want to understand what they're doing on their land so we can better understand the problem and propose solutions," he said. "In the end, only by working cooperatively and involving landowners at all levels can we ever hope to protect jaguar populations into the future."
Kristina Woods Butler is a Sr. Editor in the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.