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Spot Patterns Key to Counting Jaguars

'Camera traps' used to count Belize Jaguars

Using a technique first used 10 years ago to count tigers in India, a team of scientists from the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has completed the first-ever census of one of the world's most elusive big cats - the jaguar. The team looked at a population of jaguars living in a dense tropical rain forest in Belize, which WCS helped establish as the world's first jaguar reserve in 1986.

The jaguars in the area were counted by using a grid of remote camera traps set along game trails, then statistical analysis was used to determine the population density. The researchers estimated that 14 jaguars live in a 55-square-mile area.

The camera trap methodology to census tigers began 10 years ago in India, when WCS conservationist Dr. Ullas Karanth used the cat's stripe pattern - unique to each individual -- to identify and count animals captured on film. A jaguar's spotting pattern is also unique, which made it possible to determine how many animals frequented the study area.

According to the WCS, the new methodology could be applied to other areas throughout the jaguar's range from Argentina to the southwestern United States. It could determine not only how many cats are, but more importantly, where conservationists should focus efforts to preserve jaguar populations.

"Up to this point", says WCS conservationist Dr. Linde Ostro, "scientists have based their efforts as to where to protect jaguars largely on anecdotal evidence. With this new methodology, conservationists can focus often limited resources in the best areas.

"The methodology can be used for any cat with a unique striping or spotting. It's much more efficient than collaring individual animals, then tracking them for years."