Demand for meat is driving jaguars towards extinction

Jaguar looking at burger

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

Photo credit: Canva.com

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Pastoralists in the Media: Three ‘E’s please

Once upon a time, not so long ago, we were all mobile. Movement was what enabled our ancestors to track resources that were here today, gone tomorrow. In parts of the world where water, pasture or good hunting are not constantly available, mobility is still the key that unlocks scattered resources. It is the key to resilience. And as the climate changes, this ancient strategy could become more important.

Yet in many countries, governments marginalise mobile pastoralists and would prefer them to settle instead of roaming the land. Dominant policy narratives cast pastoralism as a backwards, unproductive activity that takes place in marginal fragile areas, where unpredictable rainfall leads people to overgraze and damage the land.

New research coordinated by the International Institute for Environment and Development with funding from the Ford Foundation has identified gaps in such policy narratives in the Indian, Chinese, Kenyan and global contexts. These policy narratives overlook both the dynamics of dryland ecosystems and how dryland communities have long learnt how to live with and harness variability to support sustainable and productive economies, societies and ecosystems.

The narratives ignore the ways that mobile herding can increase people’s resilience in a changing climate. They also ignore the three ‘E’s –the economic value of pastoralism, the environmental benefits that herding brings to rangelands and the equity that should be at heart of good policymaking.

The role of the media

Media stories both contribute to and reflect the dominant policy narrative around pastoralism. As part of the project, I analysed media stories on pastoralism from Kenya, China and India and surveyed dozens of journalists in those countries (see the full research paper or a four-page summary). I found significant gaps – and inter-country differences – in how journalists perceive and portray pastoralists and pastoralism.

  • In Kenya, pastoralists feature mostly in ‘bad news’ stories of conflict and drought. They appear vulnerable and lacking in agency. Stories make almost no mention of the benefits that pastoralists bring.
  • In China, the media presented pastoralists as the cause of environmental degradation and as (generally happy) beneficiaries of government investment and settlement projects.
  • In India, newspapers tended to portray pastoralists with more pity, as people whose rights to grazing land had been taken away and whose livelihoods were at risk as pastures dwindle and locally resilient livestock breeds disappear. Overall coverage of pastoralism in India was rare, however, and journalists there stated that pastoralists are ‘invisible’ to editors of national newspapers.

In all three countries, important topics such as climate change, and the links between mobility and resilience were under-reported. While 51% of Kenyan articles mentioned drought, only 3% mentioned climate change.

Very few articles in any of the three countries referred to the economic importance of pastoralism (4% in Kenya, 12% in China and 15% in India) or the fact that meat and milk pastoralists produce contributes to food security outside of pastoralist communities (1% in Kenya, 4% in China and 10% in India). The voices of pastoralists feature in less than half of the articles about them (41% of articles in Kenya, 36% in China and 25% in India). Stories that focused on women and children were even less common.

Towards improved narratives

Incomplete media coverage of pastoralism helps to sustain partial narratives that underpin policymaking and this prevent pastoralists from fulfilling their potential to provide food and sustain resilient livelihoods in a changing climate.

Yet opportunities to reframe pastoralism abound. In Kenya, for instance, an alternative narrative could show how the new constitution could work best for the drylands and their communities. In India, an alternative narrative could show how herding is part of the wider dryland agriculture system that can increase food security in the context of climate change. In China, an alternative narrative can relate how support for pastoralism can increase food security and better manage rangelands for economic benefits.

Journalists and editors can act to create more balanced, nuanced and accurate narratives around pastoralism. This will involve reporting on the economics of pastoralism, as well as on the other values of pastoralism that are harder to price. It will involve a better understanding of mobility and markets, of resilience and vulnerability. It will require journalists and researchers to communicate better together and it will require the media to give more voice to the pastoralists themselves.

Donors and development agencies can act to encourage more accurate, relevant and useful media coverage of pastoralism by supporting training programmes, opportunities for journalists to travel to areas where pastoralists live, and initiatives that bring together journalists, pastoralists, dryland researchers and policy makers.

The test of success will be whether future media reports of pastoralism do more to cover the three ‘E’s – environment, economy and equity.

This post was first published on 13 May 2013 on the Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.