Jaguars at the Crossroads of the Continents

Gregory Willis

Jacalyn Willis setting a camera-trap.


I was excited to see jaguar photos from our camera-traps after 60,000 photos of other animals. I have run a mammal census since 1983 on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama. In 1994, my husband Gregory Willis set up cameras at our research site to learn about ocelots and their prey, and to supplement trail transects with data on elusive and nocturnal species.

In 1983, Greg saw a jaguar on BCI. It stopped on the trail ahead of him, and provided the first evidence of a jaguar on the island since 1924. The next jaguar sighting on BCI was in 1993. Although the island is only 16 square Km, and 200 meters from the mainland of the Panama Canal Zone, it is difficult to observe the 5 feline species found there. No one has seen the recent jaguar, although our cameras show that it spent at least 12 days on BCI.

BCI lies in the center of the canal that divides the continents, and is a crucial location for maintaining gene flow for jaguars, yet no one knows how many jaguars are in Panama. Human hunting pressure on jaguars is very severe, even in national parks. It is clear that they exist at very low densities right now. We fear that if hunting is not stopped in the next few years, the population will be unable to recover to its natural level. My colleagues Ricardo Moreno and Aida Bustamante did two years of camera-trapping in the Darien area in eastern Panama and found just four jaguars in an area of almost 300 square kilometers. They interviewed hunters and found that jaguars are under great pressure from humans who hunt jaguars with dogs and compete with jaguars for the same prey. Greg and I have set up camera-trapping locations in other critical habitats in Panama to provide convincing data to push for stronger conservation efforts.