In Colombia, the greatest threat to the endangered jaguar is no longer poachers–it’s the palm oil tree, local media reported Monday.
South America’s largest wild cat is not the first animal to lose out to the palm oil plantation. Indonesian palm oil production has completely wiped out the natural habitats of orangutans, while tigers there reportedly avoid the plantations entirely–a restriction that impedes the endangered tigers’ movement and therefore their gene flow.
But rare photographic footage shows the jaguar may prove more adaptable than its South Asian counterparts: With few other options, jaguars and their cubs have been spotted traversing palm oil plantations in the northern Colombia department of Magdalena.
Their movements suggest the cats may “avoid the kind of isolation that tigers now suffer,” said Howard Quigly, executive director of the jaguar program for the wild cat conservation group Panthera. “Plantations can be part of the landscape mosaic that jaguars will use.”
But, he emphasized, “careful planning that avoids large-scale replacement of forest with huge palm oil areas will be essential.”
Colombia is key to facilitating jaguars’ movement between Central and South America, Esteban Payan, Panthera’s South American jaguar program director, told Discovery News in June.
“Typically, jaguars can move across human-dominated landscapes by travelling through riparian forests or using road underpasses,” he said in the interview. “But until now, scientists had no photographic proof that jaguars entered oil palm developments in this region. Given the extensive amount of jaguar habitat overtaken by oil palm plantations in Colombia, we hope that certain plantations can be part of the Jaguar Corridor, enabling jaguars to reach areas with little or no human disturbances.”
Jaguars once thrived in the Western Hemisphere, but are now extinct in North America largely because of habitat destruction. Panthera’s “Jaguar Corridor” seeks to create protected areas for jaguars that range from northern Argentina up to Mexico, “preserving their genetic integrity so jaguars can live in the wild forever,” according to Panthera’s website.
Palm oil, extracted from the trees’ fruit, is a common cooking ingredient in African, Asian, and South American countries, and in recent years has received much attention as a potential source of biofuel. Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, for instance, sought to advance palm oil development to provide work for the rural poor as well as demobilized paramilitary soldiers.
But the razing of tropical forests to make way for palm oil plantations has come with its price. Not only have Afro-Colombian groups lost their homes to the encroachment of plantations; jaguars, a symbol of the country’s rain forest to many Colombians, have also lost huge tracts of dense jungle undergrowth–its ideal habitat–to the tree.
Colombia is the fourth-largest producer of palm oil in the world and the largest in Latin America, according to the think tank FoodFirst.org. In 2011, Colombia’s Fedepalma reported 890,000 tons of palm oil production, a 20% growth from 2010.