Carnivores, such as large cats, are extremely important to maintain the ecological equilibrium in areas because they guarantee the diversity and resiliency of ecosystems. As predators, large cats can help control herbivore populations. Also, large cats usually leave behind a great part of their prey for several reasons, including providing food for scavenger and decomposer communities.
However, large cats are being killed worldwide, especially due to conflicts between large cats and rural communities. In Brazil, the big cats, jaguars and pumas, have lost their natural habitats and preys, which lead them to coexist with human populations and domestic herds. As domestic animals have lost most of their natural instincts, they are easy prey to large cats. This is a serious conservation problem for feline species, which are currently severely threatened.
Cats have always been the subject of human fascination and fear, generating a huge history of conflicts. In Southern Brazil, traditional pasture systems where animals feed without specific husbandry practices is typical, but this system makes the area vulnerable to puma attacks. This kind of conflict is one of the most urgent wildcat conservation issues in the region, and the human perceptions and interactions with these animals needs to be studied for the sake of conserving large cat populations.
Puma Country – A Protected Areas Mosaic in Rio Grande do Sul
We studied the conflict between the local population and pumas in a Protected Areas mosaic in the northeastern state of Rio Grande do Sul, Southern Brazil. The area belongs to the Atlantic Forest Domain, which is characterized by plateaus surrounded by steep cliffs, with slopes at the eastern part covered by the Atlantic Forest up to 700 meters and Araucaria Forest at 700–1600 meters. As a consequence of anthropogenic fire used to expand the livestock area in the region, the fields above the mountain divide the landscape with forest remnants. The annual average temperature is between 14°C and 20°C and annual precipitation rates are relatively high, more than 2.000 millimeters. At the highest part of the region, near the upland top, fog is a constant phenomenon. The regional economy is mainly based on forestry, traditional livestock and small agricultural practices. An extensive livestock system means low demand for economic investments; natural factors are determinant in the productive processes. The demographic density is low with large areas of pastures and plantations in the region.
Talking to People about Pumas
In 2011, we conducted 45 face-to-face interviews with local farmers guided by a standard questionnaire with open-ended questions and with closed semi-structured questions (which can be answered with few words or with yes/no answers). As part of our criteria, we put our questions in a sequence, in order to make respondents more comfortable and confident to give honest answers about delicate questions. The first respondents were indicated by the Local Environmental Agency, and the other respondents were indicated by a snowball method. At the end of the interviews, an illustrative board with four pictures of felines – jaguar, puma, ocelot and jaguarondi – was shown to the respondents to test if they could correctly identify a puma. We had to see if they really knew the animal they were talking about.
Better Management Could Relieve Puma-People Conflict
The responses, the conflict, the puma attacks described, the characteristics of attacked farms, and estimated financial losses were all evaluated. Our data suggested that pumas used to attack in favorable condition of visibility (during the night and during foggy days) and on easier prey (especially sheep). Most of the attacks reported were close to forested areas and were focused on free herds during feeding activities. Some farmers said they gave up their sheep breeding activity due to losses caused by the puma attacks. However, we can expect that some farmers could overestimate their loss. Moreover, pumas were considered a threat to domestic herds, and it is important to point out that jaguars were extinct in the region and pumas are being illegally killed.
The results of the questionnaires suggests that puma attack episodes are related to the fragmentation of their habitat in addition to the incorrect management of herds in the farms studied. Strategies and mitigation actions to avoid and reduce puma attacks need to be implemented to manage and preserve these animals. In this sense, some husbandry practices need to be changed and educational programs should be implemented. The traditional way of life of the local population should be preserved within a conservationist perspective, engaging people to tolerate and exploit their natural landscape and wildlife in a positive way.
Conservation is all about the people and we have to deal with people conflicts and listen to what rural communities have to say. Finding out how to manage rural communities’ fears and thoughts is the best means to prevent the illegal killing of pumas, in southern Brazil and everywhere.
Francine Schulz is a biologist with a Masters in Civil Engineering (Waste Management focus). Currently, she works for Rio Grande do Sul State Sanitation Company. She composed her final graduation work in southern Brazil, studying the conflict between pumas and the local population.
Larissa Rosa de Oliveira works with the conservation of marine mammals in South America and Antarctica since 1994 and recently became interested in human dimensions of conflicts with carnivores.
Rodrigo Cambará Printes is a biologist with a PhD in ecology, conservation and wildlife management. He is an environmental analyst of Brazilian Institute for Biodiversity Conservation and currently working on the implementation of protected areas in the Western Amazon.