The emblematic top predator of South and Central America — the jaguar — is sliding towards extinction because of rising demand for meat around the world. Researchers say a “drastic reduction” in meat consumption both inside and outside the jaguar’s range will be essential to protect the species.
Alfredo Romero-Muñoz of Humboldt University Berlin, and colleagues, outline the situation in the new edition of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. They explain that much of the jaguar’s habitat has been destroyed in recent years and replaced with cattle ranches and vast fields growing soybeans – most of which are exported to Europe and Asia to feed livestock and poultry being reared for their meat.
“Across Latin America, beef and soy production now extend across an area half the size of the United States,” says Romero-Muñoz. “And they keep expanding rapidly into huge expanses of forests and savannahs… This is depleting jaguar populations and nature in general across huge areas.”
The cats are not only losing their habitat. The spread of farmland and ranching also leads to more jaguars being hunted and killed, in part to protect livestock. The researchers calculated that about 180 jaguars were killed in one year on just 115 ranches in lowland Bolivia. Given that those ranches occupy just 3% of the total ranching area, the true figure is likely to be much higher.
Romero-Muñoz says people’s appetite for meat is the main reason that jaguars have disappeared from half of their historic range. But with demand for meat rising, prospects look dim for the jaguar and millions of other species that share its habitat.
Latin American exports of both soy and beef are increasing, particularly to Europe and Asia. And countries that the jaguar calls home have plans to clear more forests to meet rising demand for these commodities. Bolivia, for example, aims to triple its area of farmland by 2025. Brazil is also promoting agricultural expansion, including in the Amazon.
“Consumers in Europe and Asia are having an increasing contribution to habitat destruction and accompanying hunting in South America’s forests, which are the most biodiverse areas on the planet,” says Romero-Muñoz. He says a “drastic reduction” in meat consumption would be needed to halt further expansion of beef and soy production into remaining forests.
“I believe that this is unlikely to come from producers, while there is no regulation and there are financial incentives to keep expanding production into previously forested lands,” he says. “These changes have to come from the public and the policymakers.”
Reference: Romero-Muñoz, A. et al. 2020. Beyond fangs: beef and soybean trade drive jaguar extinction. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18: 67-68. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2165
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