The conservation status of jaguars, pumas and tapirs and their potential as indicator species in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest
The Atlantic Forest of Brazil, which has been reduced to about 7% of its original size, is believed to harbour nearly 7% of the world’s species, many of which are endemic and threatened with extinction.
Most of the remaining Atlantic Forest of the interior is found in the Pontal do Paranapanema, a triangular area surrounded by rivers in the state of Sao Paolo. This includes a state park of 36,000 ha and many small forest fragments adding up to about 12,000 ha. Most of the land in this area is privately owned. Recently, government land reform has subdivided many large farms to settle over 3,000 impoverished families and plans to settle 3,000 more. In many cases, the land given to the settlers is next to forest fragments.
The remaining forest fragments still support an outstanding diversity of species, including the Critically Endangered black lion tamarin, jaguar, ocelot, puma, tapir, white-lipped peccary and Blue-and-yellow Macaw. However, farming practices of rural communities are causing biodiversity loss as forest edges are eroded by fires, cattle grazing, the spread of invasive plants and the use of pesticides. Moreover, the isolated forest patches are now too small to maintain their ecological integrity.
Laury Cullen has worked with the Brazilian environmental organisation, IPE, for over a decade, and is now their Research Coordinator. A Masters graduate of the Tropical Conservation and Development Programme from the University of Florida, he passionately believes that the best way to protect species in nature is to approach the task at the landscape level. Such an approach combines scientific study and biodiversity management with human activities.
To conserve this ecosystem, Laury has determined that there needs to be a halt to deforestation, the impact of human activity on the forest edge must be reduced and the genetic exchange between surviving fragments needs to be possible to ensure the survival of endemic species. These outcomes can only be achieved by working with the local communities, which in the case of Pontal de Paranapanema, includes mainly new settlers.
Laury has forged a strong alliance with the Sem Terra settlers movement and its local Director has developed a great enthusiasm for jaguar conservation, often assisting Laury in the field. Settlers are learning that they are key to halting deforestation of the Atlantic Forest and are learning to recognise the value in facilitating the long-term stewardship of their new lands. They are now working with Laury to plant endemic and economically useful trees across their properties, particularly on the forest edge and between fragments. By developing buffer zones consisting of agroforestry parcels around primary forest, they are helping to ease conflicts with wildlife and reduce forest edge erosion.
Elsewhere, locals are planting stepping stones. These are small patches of trees rich in certain flowering and fruit-bearing species that increase connectivity among forest fragments, thus, contributing to the genetic flux of many species by promoting animal and plant dispersal. Buffer zones and stepping stones, both of which provide resources for the community, are helping to save the forest itself.
Laury Cullen received a Rufford Small Grant in 1999 for his earlier work with jaguars and pumas in the Atlantic Forest, which involved using radio-collared animals to provide information about these animals’ movements and territorial ranges. This initial research developed into a broader project for which Laury won the Whitley Gold Award in 2002, followed by Continuation Funding two years later.
Continuation Funding has enabled Laury to increase and expand the number of buffer zones and stepping stones from the existing 75 hectares planted as a result of the Whitley Award to a target 170 hectares over the next four years. This will further reduce the erosion of the forest edges. Laury then hopes to expand the tree planting programme from its current 300,000 trees per year to 390,000 trees per year, which, assuming a 75% survivorship rate, will mean that there will be over 1.8 million additional trees planted over the life of the project. Laury is now striving to increase his community-based activities – 300 families have been trained in agroforestry so far but Laury aims to increase this to include 800 families so that the maximum impact can be achieved for the Atlantic Forest.