I have always been deeply passionate about big cat conservation. Though big cats remain threatened worldwide, I am hopeful that current conservation approaches will work, and that we will develop new strategies to integrate conservation with local community needs. Whenever I have doubted the feasibility of my passion or my ability to reach my goals, the HDTF community has supported me unfailingly and bolstered my confidence in pursuing this path.
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Lucrecia Aguilar speaks about big cats with the kind of wonderstruck glee that one might express when describing what it’s like to view a total solar eclipse or traverse the Great Wall. It’s the sense of something magnificent, mysterious, larger than life. “There is just something so majestic about big cats,” she enthuses. “There is a confidence in the way they move in the world that I find inspiring. It’s not ego-driven in the way that humans can be. Big cats are magical…kind of like the dragons of the real world.”
Unlike mythical creatures, however, the threat to big cats is real. Whether through loss of habitat, wildlife trade, human conflict, or climate change, these creatures are pressed on all fronts. Take deforestation, for example. “People in rural areas of Belize are, understandably, doing what they can to make an income,” explains Aguilar. “But when they fell trees to clear land for agriculture, or to sell the timber, jaguars lose territory, and jaguar populations decline.”
“The world is so focused on economic development, it’s hard to get people to focus on ecosystem conservation,” laments Aguilar. “Compounding this is the fact that conservation is often seen as only for the elite of the West. Yet people in developing nations often stand to benefit the most from conservation.” Aguilar believes one of the keys to big cat conservation is to focus on big cat-human coexistence, identifying practical ways to mitigate cat-human conflict. “We’ve learned that the jaguars in Belize may be able to exist pretty well in landscapes that are sustainably logged, as opposed to clear-cut. This approach both preserves jaguar habitat and enables a means of income for residents.”
That’s not to say that big cat conversation is an easy sell. Even in the U.S. and Europe, where fascination with big cats leads to support for conservation efforts, that support may not extend to the predators close to home. This is where the coexistence approach advocated by Aguilar and other big cat experts has much work to do. A bit of positive data? “One interesting study showed that if we let pumas recolonize their historic eastern range in the U.S., and they began to rebalance the ecosystem by eating overpopulated deer, we could prevent 155 human deaths and $2.13 billion in costs caused by deer-vehicle collisions every 30 years.”
For now, Lucrecia Aguilar is learning all she can about the “magical” animals she loves and the conservation challenges they face. Following her graduation from Rice University in 2018, she began a Watson Fellowship to work with different big cat species, conservation groups, and local communities in multiple countries. She hopes that this experience will help her identify current challenges and successes in big cat conservation, so she can better protect these species going forward. Since August 2018, Aguilar has visited the homes of big cats in Indonesia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Currently, she is learning about an array of carnivore conservation efforts at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit in the United Kingdom as she prepares for her next stop in India.
Aguilar credits the Thoreau Foundation’s Jen Galvin, and the entire Thoreau Foundation community, for helping her come this far. “When you’re younger and have an interest in wild animals, people aren’t sure if it’s a serious interest. When I got to college, I wondered if maybe I needed to just ‘grow up’ and do something more ‘serious and reasonable.’ Mentors like Jen helped me see that if I’m willing to work hard for it, being able to do this work is not only feasible, but crucial.”
Lucrecia observes a lion in a tree at Tarangire National Park, Tanzania.
Lucrecia compares her hand to a lion paw print in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.