A puma ate my alpaca:

Human-wildlife conflicts in Ecuador tax private landowners and further threaten rare and endangered wildlife  

A puma photo-captured at an alpaca kill.

Cuenca, Ecuador (2 October 2014) -  "It's true. Soon after a kill, or even before the alpaca expires, pumas lap up their blood from wounds on the neck. It would be easy to think that this is an old wives' tale," continued Stuart White, Fundación Cordillera Tropical founding board member, during a presentation at the First National Symposium on Human-Wildlife Conflicts in Quito this past Thursday, September 25th, 2014, "but it's not." He and his wife, Patricia, have managed the Mazar Wildlife Reserve, in southern Ecuador for more than three decades and report losing an average of six alpacas per year to puma attacks. The pumas kill on average 2.5 alpacas per event by clamping down on their throats and nose, apparently suffocating them, and then pull them into the forest where they consume body organs, meat and blood. Wildlife attacks on domestic animals, such as these, are a frequent occurrence in the Andes of Ecuador, South America's most densely populated country.

This past Thursday, FCT Senior Scientist Becky Zug, Board Member Stuart White, and Executive Director Catherine Schloegel were in Quito to contribute to a national conversation about how to reduce and mitigate human-wildlife conflicts.  From condors to caimans, bears to birds, the presenters reported sustained conflicts between vulnerable and endangered wildlife and nearby residents and their private property.


Alpacas grazing on the Mazar Wildlife Reserve.

Stuart White, an alpaca rancher in southern Ecuador since 1985, observed a pattern in puma depredation of alpacas:  nearly 100% of the attacks occurred at night.  In 2002, following more kills and threatening his business, White began to construct night corrals: movable enclosures with two-meter high fences that pumas could not jump over, nor burrow under.  While the corrals had a positive effect on alpaca depredation (admittedly not reducing it to zero), this mitigation technique has significant primary and secondary costs.  White estimates that purchasing the chain link fencing for the corrals, changing corral locations periodically, the daily labor of enclosing the alpacas at night and releasing them the next morning, the incidental costs of higher parasite loads and trauma from the corral use, and the value of the predated alpacas, generates expenses of $11,600/year. 

Nor have the corrals been a silver bullet.  Carnivores, such as the puma, acquire ever-greater savvy over time, prompting White to develop new strategies as well.  By mid-2013, he had lost nine alpacas to puma attacks during daytime, a new pattern and one that suggested a particular puma.  At least a few individual pumas had changed strategy previously, and so did White.  Using a large cage and a freshly predated alpaca as bait, he trapped a large puma male, estimated to weigh 170 lbs.  With help from Ecuadorian authorities, White removed the puma from the Mazar Wildlife Reserve and released it into similar habitat far from people and their property.  Following the removal of this problem puma, daytime alpaca depredation ceased.  As in other cases of livestock depredation by large carnivores, new threats can originate from a single ¨problem animal¨ and do not represent the strategy of all individuals.  

As human populations in Ecuador expand and more individuals live adjacent to forests and national parks, the conflicts between wildlife and humans will only increase.  White suggested that mitigation measures must take into account both the productive and social landscape.  As he related, solving the puma problem on the Mazar Wildlife Reserve will not resolve attacks on his neighbor’s livestock.  Without sustained and sufficient support for landscape conservation, a majority of rural property owners would resort to retaliatory killing, having neither time nor experience to dissuade further attacks.  A few, like White, are taking a different approach.

Currently in Ecuador, the costs of wildlife conservation on private lands are borne by private individuals with little economic or technical support.  National environmental authorities must strive to become better conservation allies and provide credible and meaningful support to those on the front lines of wildlife conservation. 

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