In today's NYTimes, zoologist and writer Alan Rabinowitz offers an alternative perspective on the issue of jaguars in the U.S. Rabinowitz is president and CEO of Pantera, a wild cat conservation group. The core of his position is that while the American West was historically a part of the jaguar's range, at present only nomadic individual cats stray across the border from Mexico. Human presence on the American side is, according to Rabinowitz, simply to pervasive to allow jaguars to attain a population foothold. He maintains that our resources would be put to better use by focusing on those areas of Mexico, Central America and South America where jaguars have a realistic chance for survival. [See the core species range map borrowed from the Pantera website -- green represents the current range of jaguars, yellow for lions, orange for tigers, and purple for snow leopards. Click on map to enlarge.]
While I am in agreement with Rabinowitz about the need to focus attention and resources where they will do the most good, I am in respectful disagreement with him concerning his criticism of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to designate critical habitat for the endangered jaguar. I take what I consider to be a longer view -- yes, we must use our conservation resources wisely. Let's call this the moderate stance. As in any controversial effort to effect change in our world (the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the antiwar movement, to name a few), in order to achieve deep and lasting change, both moderate and radical voices are needed, working within the system and outside it. Thus in the environmental movement, there is a need for moderate organizations like The Nature Conservancy and The National Audubon Society, as well as a need for more activist groups like Greenpeace and Earth First! .
This writer holds that we absolutely must, as Rabinowitz asserts, support conservation efforts in all nations in which big cats, in this case jaguars, live in the wild. This includes not merely setting aside minimal islands of habitat as refuges, but large tracts of continuous and contiguous habitat in which human presence is limited to research, conservation and minimal ecotourism.
At the same time, it is vital that we push the envelope, as we did successfully in re-introducing gray wolves to portions of their former range in the northern Rockies. The gray wolves' return was (and remains) controversial, but controversy is no reason to shy away from doing what is right. The wolves and jaguars and bison and mountain lions and bald eagles were here long before European settlers arrived. It is my contention that all native flora and fauna should have legal standing, with legal representation on behalf of their interests in all decisions which affect them. If that means putting a crimp in human presence or activity, so be it. Human overpopulation lies at the heart of just about any instance of environmental degradation you can name. We must take responsibility for limiting our own numbers to a level which the planet can sustain.
It is long past time to take a stand, for the sake of our own future, and for the sake of the furred, feathered, scaled and leafed creatures which inhabit the planet with us. They do not belong to us. We belong to them.