Animal Conservation

Stunning wildcat named after Cornell

It was supposed to be a birding trip, organized by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But the most jaw-dropping sight for a group of alumni, staff and supporters came four days into their journey and was no bird at all. They were treated to a close-up view of a magnificent jaguar – the largest wildcat found in the Americas – lounging amid jungle greenery on the banks of the Miranda River in Brazil.

“My heart was in my throat,” said Cornell Lab’s Bramble Klipple, who captured the video of the big cat. “The jaguars in this part of Brazil, called the Pantanal, are not afraid of people because their hunting is prohibited. It was one of the most incredible days!

“I held my breath as our boat slowly motored along the shady shore,” said Lab supporter Patricia Ryan, “So there she was! So close, so big and mighty. Magnificent!”

But there is more to the story. A South American ecotourism and conservation company named SouthWild carefully monitors many Pantanal jaguars. The company confirmed that this animal had never been documented in the area before.

“We keep a photo gallery of every jaguar we’ve seen,” explained biologist Charles Munn, who founded SouthWild and led the tour. He has been studying Pantanal cats continuously since 2005. “Each jaguar has unique markings, like fingerprints in humans. We had no trace of this animal until the Cornell group documented it.

Munn also determined that the jaguar was female and pregnant. SouthWild placed it in its registry as “Cornelia”, in honor of Cornell, at the suggestion of the birdwatching group.

“It’s really special that this magnificent animal is named after the university,” said Ian Owens, executive director of Cornell Lab, who was on the trip. “Cornell is synonymous with conservation efforts around the world. That this spectacular animal bears the name of the university is a special honor.

Cornelia wasn’t the first jaguar the group saw. They had previously seen two documented animals named Victoria and Hunter. But Victoria was far away and the view was obstructed. Hunter was seen swimming and patrolling along the river, about 100 yards away. Seeing Cornelia was the most exciting because she was closer – about 30 meters away.

“She seemed to be relaxed, though alert,” said Cornell Lab board member John Foote. “Cornelia is reasonably safe from human predators and appears to be in her prime. Our hope is that she will live a long life on the Miranda River.

Only about 185,000 of these secret cats remain in the wild. Many of them live in the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, where they feast on abundant capybaras and caimans along the riverbanks. They are strong swimmers, can hunt day or night, and will kill and eat just about anything, having the most powerful bite for their size of any wildcat. Deforestation and poaching are the most serious threats they face.

Munn points out that the economic benefit of having jaguars alive is far greater than killing them and has created more than 1,000 conservation and tourism jobs in this small region of Brazil. Some former poachers have even “reconverted” into knowledgeable guides. Munn says the number of jaguars in the area has increased, virtually guaranteeing visitors will see one or more.

Meanwhile, Cornelia is due to give birth to her young in early October. The SouthWild team will be taking pictures over the next few months, although it may take time to find the cat family at first.

“Jaguar mothers keep their young very well hidden until they are four to five months old,” Munn said. “Then the little ones start walking with their mom in plain sight. We’ll be sending baby photos!

Munn is an ornithologist, and with his guidance, the group uploaded a list of 227 species to eBird. Yet he admits the power and beauty of the jaguar mesmerizes humans when seen up close in the wild – one top predator meeting another.

“The Jaguar is the biggest conservation lever I’ve ever found to pull on,” Munn added. “I can generate huge conservation gains for many species, including the millions of songbirds that share the Pantanal with these big cats. I like to call the jaguar a ‘mass conservation weapon!’