Monday, February 05, 2007

Brazil: Endangered jaguars continue to be killed

Monday February 5, 2007
By Henri Paget
In Manaus, Brazil

The stench of death worsened as the sun poked out from behind the clouds, casting shadows of looming vultures as the gruesome and corrupt trade-off was completed.

A lone officer filled out papers as he chatted with the locals on the river bank. Once the skin was removed, the body was gutted and the carne de onça — described by locals as delicious — was shared around. The policeman took a large chunk of the meat for himself, and he watched as the precious spotted skin was placed into a cardboard box destined for the black market.

The magnificent 3m beast, one of only a few hundred jaguars believed to be left in the Brazilian Amazon, had made a fatal mistake the day before — coming back for seconds.

I came to see the carcass after word of the killing reached the jungle guides at the lodge where I was spending my holiday. Although deforestation is increasing the rate at which these animals are encountering humans and subsequently being killed, a dead jaguar is still big enough news to get locals talking.

When I arrived, blood was dripping from the jaguar's mouth as villagers crudely propped it up with a few sticks on the grass. A small group of locals and tourists gathered to take a look at the beast while it still had its skin on.

The killer, 53-year-old Jose Inacio Ferrea, said he had no choice but to shoot the animal.

"She killed a cow," Ferrea explained to me. It was obvious he wasn't proud of what he had done. "I waited for her at the farm yesterday afternoon, and she came back again to kill another."

"I had to do it. If I didn't kill her she would keep on eating our animals."

After talking to him, I'm fairly certain the animal wasn't killed for its skin — although it probably was a nice bonus. Standing there with the magnificent dead feline and the sheepish killer, I realised both the beast and the man were just doing what they needed to do to survive.

With the government here too corrupt to care about preserving wildlife, the only thing that can save this animal from extinction is outside help.

Jungle tour guide and conservationist Edson Sarmento, 24, has lived in the area his entire life and seen only five jaguars.

"In the Amazon no one can say with confidence how many still exist," Sarmento said, clearly upset by the killing. "Deforestation has forced jaguars to enter our farms and kill livestock to survive."

"It's even becoming dangerous for us humans because there are many kids walking from place to place in the jungle. Due to lack of food they are getting frustrated and will attack us" Sarmento said.

"We need somebody to help us tranquilise these animals instead of killing them. They can be moved deep into the jungle where they can live unaffected by us."

After the meat, skin and onlookers went their separate ways, the vultures descended and stood silently on the blood-soaked grass.

The sky darkened as we returned back to the lodge. I could see the lights of Manaus, the biggest city in the Amazon, casting an eerie artificial glow from 100km away on an impressively large corner of the jungle sky.

Unable to take my mind off the jaguar and how it could avoid extinction with humans in its habitat, I found myself wondering — is it already too late?

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