In countries with little conservation infrastructure, like Honduras, how does Panthera protect wild cats? This Central American country is an important setting for biodiversity and is home to several protected areas that support resident populations of jaguars, cougars, ocelots, margays and jaguarundis. While other areas may not have resident populations of wild cats, they still play an important role as stepping stones for dispersing populations of jaguars and cougars. Unfortunately, most protected areas in Honduras are considered “paper parks” due to the lack of park guards appropriately equipped to safeguard these important havens.
This creates a challenge for conservation changemakers like Panthera. But we have been working on a solution for years now — and are closer than ever to our goal. After several years of research using camera traps, interviews and genetic studies, Panthera has defined key priority areas for the jaguar corridor in Honduras. In 2015, Panthera started a site security program in two of these areas. Our program decided to take three actions that would change jaguar conservation in the country forever: hire more park guards and equip them with proper training, utilize SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) and implement anti-poaching acoustic monitoring.
Thankfully, we are making headway. Our program continues to grow every year, thanks to support from donors and collaborators including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Dairy Private Company-LACTHOSA, Wallacea Operation, National Park Ranger Program-SINAPH-MOCAPH, the Instituto de Conservación Forestal-ICF and the Honduran Military-FFAA. We measure our site security effort using the distance patrolled by the park guards and in Cusuco National Park, the database shows that patrol effort per year has increased from 239 km in 2015 to 3,662 km in 2021 (Figure 1). In 2021, we had a particularly high patrol effort, 3,662 km, for two reasons: the National Park Ranger Program from SINAPH (Programa Nacional de Guardabosques) hired and assigned to Panthera full-time park guards and the incorporation of the Honduran Military (FFAA) during patrols.
Although we now have stronger patrol efforts, we want to ensure this correlates with a reduction in threats to wildlife. To measure this, we’ve used acoustic monitoring to respond to these questions since 2018. But how does it work? First, we contacted experts at the Cornell Bioacoustics Program and acquired their technology and training. We used Swift units (remote sound recorders) capable of picking up firearm sounds up to one kilometer away, which we placed in protected forest areas for several months every year, using Raven software to collect and analyze the data. Bioacoustics enable us to monitor poaching activity within the park — we can determine where poachers are most active and when they are more active, including the exact date and time a shotgun is fired in the park.
We compared the results from our first acoustic survey from March to June 2018 to our latest survey conducted from April to June 2021. In both years, we deployed the same number of Swift units in the exact same localities. The Swifts registered 89 poaching events in 2018 — and only 19 poaching events in 2021. The rate of poaching events was .24 in 2018, while in 2021, we had a much lower rate, .06. Additionally, in 2018, all six units deployed detected firearm sounds, while in 2021, only three out of six units detected such sounds. We also used camera traps equipped with a strong sensor and dark light, Browning Dark OPS. We deployed the spy cameras high in the canopy, directed at trails, and have been able to obtain pictures of poachers carrying their guns. Forty-three pictures of poachers were registered between 2019 and 2020. But only four photos of poachers were captured in 2021, the year with the highest patrol effort.
While patrolling, park guards register poaching evidence or observations such as hunting platforms, hunting camps and empty bullet shells. 196 poaching observations were made between 2015 and 2021 in Cusuco National Park. Data show that the poaching encounter rate has gradually decreased in the past six years, with the year 2021 showing the lowest rate (Figure 2). This correlates with the acoustic data and confirms that our patrol efforts are working.
Camera traps deployed in the park continue to detect important species such as tapirs, collared peccaries, brocket deer, white-tailed deer, pacas and highland guan, as well as the five species of wild cat native to Honduras. We believe that our efforts have successfully reduced threats to wildlife and are creating a much-needed opportunity to recover. While our team patrols the park´s core area and the southeast side of the buffer area, deforestation and, most likely, poaching is affecting the northwest side, where our team is not sufficient enough to be. We have a long way to go, but increased anti-poaching efforts and building capacity are demonstrating that Honduran parks can be transformed into havens for biodiversity and wild cats.