Feline Conservation Federation

FCF Supports DNA Study of Felines in Paraguay

May, 2011
The Feline Conservation Federation approved $800 Conservation Grant for Marianela Velilla to perform non-invasive methods of DNA testing of collected fecal samples to determine the number of individuals and species present in the Chaco of central Paraguay.  Her report follows.
Conservation of felids in Paraguay: Obtaining the first estimates of cat abundance
    Paraguay is a 406, 752 km2 country situated in the heart of South America with diverse habitats like the Atlantic Forest, the Chaco, Pantanal, Cerrado and Grasslands; which translates into a rich biodiversity. The Paraguay River divides the country into an Eastern region and a Western region, each with their unique plant and animal species. Unfortunately, Paraguay lags well behind other South American countries in terms of biodiversity research and conservation. This lack of knowledge hinders the development of conservation programs in the country and one of the most affected groups is the Felines, for which no baseline data on populations or ecology currently exists. The country nevertheless hosts eight species of felids: ocelot (Leopardus pardarlis), Oncilla or little spotted cat (Leopardus tigrinus), Geoffroy's Cat (Leopardus geoffroyi), Margay (Leopardus wiedii), Pampas cat (Leopardus colocolo), Jaguarundi (Puma yagouarondi), Puma (Puma concolor), and Jaguar (Panthera onca). In addition to this paucity of information, most of the research to date has been carried out by non-Paraguayans. These studies have not involved training of Paraguayans, which is unfortunate since ultimately it will the responsibility of Paraguayans to develop a conservation program for felids in the country.
    The major threat to Paraguay's rich biodiversity is deforestation. The country has experienced a massive change in forest cover over the last few decades, even in western Paraguay (also known as the Chaco). However, it is this region, the dry forests of the Chaco, which holds a high potential for Cat conservation and was identified as a site of highest conservation priority for Jaguars. Even though the Chaco still holds big portions of forests and has low human population (only 2% of the population lives in this area that holds 60% of the country's area), and the area is under great pressure to be converted into grazing lands. These practices have increased dramatically during the last three years, and from 2008 to 2009, about 5000 km2 of forest was converted into pasture at a rate of approximately 700 hectares per day. As a result of this deforestation, important habitat for biodiversity has been lost, which, in the case of Felines, increases the chance of wildlife-human conflicts, mainly through livestock predation.
    Conservation of cats in this environment is a complex issue; however, actions must be taken while there is still time and habitat left for the species. Eventually, the future of Cats in the Paraguayan Chaco would depend on our ability to protect the species in human-dominated areas. One of the first steps toward planning conservation actions is to determine how many individuals each species has in an area and how much habitat is necessary to protect them. Currently, Cat conservation in increasingly human-dominated and fragmented landscapes is a big challenge; nonetheless it can be accomplished with basic information on the species population and on those habitats that are vital for their recovery, as well as the creation of landscape linkages that allow species to move through corridors. Corridors are habitat patches that are connected with each other and can be extremely useful in Cat conservation because they can link protected areas across human landscapes. Thus, ranches could serve as corridors and facilitate Cat dispersion; increasing their chance of survival.
    Therefore, I choose to conduct my study on a private ranch in the Chaco, the Faro Moro Ecoresearch Ranch, a 500 km2 located in the central Chaco. Private ranches and indigenous communities surround this area and it is about 110 km south of Paraguay's biggest protected area, the Defensores del Chaco National Park. The study site hosts a high diversity of medium and large mammals, including threatened, rare and elusive species, as well as five species of felids (Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Geoffroy's cat and Jaguarundi). Faro Moro is one of the few areas remaining in the region with a high amount of natural dry forest. Thus, Faro Moro may well serve as a corridor that connects felines in South and Central Chaco to populations in North Chaco, where there are six protected areas.
    Consequently, the main objectives of this study are to estimate the abundance or number of individuals of five felid species: Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Geoffroy's cat, and Jaguarundi; and to determine the food habits of the cats, paying particular attention to the frequency of livestock in diets, which could create problems with the ranchers. This information will be the first estimation of numbers for felids in Paraguay, which is seen as the first step toward developing an understanding of the status and ecology of felids, and to establish a countrywide conservation program for felids in Paraguay.
    To determine how many individuals of each species are present in Faro Moro, I used a new genetic technique that is not invasive (there is no need to capture or handle, which reduces stress for the animal), which allows the identification of individuals of a certain species from the DNA that is found in the intestinal cells of the species, found in their feces. I collected the feces from May to August, over an extensive network of roads and trails.  These samples will be identified to the species and individual level at the American Museum of Natural History, which will provide the information to determine how many animals there are. In addition, I will analyze the hair content of the feces of each species to determine which animals are important for each cats' diet.
    How will my study contribute to the conservation of felids in Paraguay?
                * It will provide the first estimates of felid abundance in Paraguay.
                * Help to identify the importance of specific sites as possible stepping-stones in corridor delineation.
                * Determine the extent of livestock in felid diets, which may work to reduce rancher-felid conflicts.
    After my project, I expect to provide basic but important information about the abundance of the studied species in the area, which would serve as baseline that will be used by the government and by local NGO's as part of their action plans to develop a conservation strategy for felids in the country. Specifically, I will work with the NGO Guyra Paraguay, who is one of the key stakeholders in the Chaco. The information that results from this project will be made available through publications in journals, newsletters, workshops, and materials directed to the general public.
                * Technology transfer to local biologists and students actively involved in field research
                * Inform the general public about Feline conservation issues in Paraguay
   A very important aspect of my project would be the technology transfer to local biologists and Biology major students actively involved in field research. I will train 2-4 local students from the National University of Asuncion in terms of data collection and research methods.
    Additionally, this project will be used to inform the general public about the current situation of felids and explain how fragile is the Chaco ecosystem and its biodiversity. I feel it is my responsibility as a Cat conservationist to educate the public and to create awareness. Hopefully, this project will be the first step toward a long-term conservation program for Felines in Paraguay.