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Conserving Costa Rica's big cats

August 8, 2023

ASU wildlife ecologist travels to Central America this summer as part of jaguar protection research

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of Q&As highlighting Arizona State University researchers working around the world this summer. Read about tool excavation in Africa, a bioarcheologist in Cyprus and motorbike research in Vietnam.

There is a lush, tropical forest on the west coast of Costa Rica, where North and South America merged more than 3 million years ago. It’s home to the largest spotted cat species in the Americas — the powerful and elusive jaguar. 

And for the past 20 years, in a research station in the country’s Cordillera Talamanca mountain range, Arizona State University wildlife ecologist Jan Schipper has worked to protect these fascinating felines. 

The Costa Rican forest once stretched across the Central American country, providing ample grounds for jaguars to roam freely, find food and sustain their species.  

As rainforests were converted to farmlands, the jaguars’ habitat has diminished, reducing prey and forcing the animals to look to livestock for food. Naturally, this shift made them an adversary to the area’s agriculture community.

This is one of many problems Schipper is working to solve. It is a complex conservation collaboration involving the government, researchers and local community members.

Google map screenshot of Costa Rica

ASU wildlife ecologist Jan Schipper works in the Cordillera Talamanca mountain range, protecting jaguar populations.

Schipper and his team, together with Garth Paine, an acoustic ecologist at ASU’s School of Arts, Media and Engineering, have set up a gunshot detection program throughout the rainforest, which can immediately direct guards to poachers on the prowl. 

Schipper is also is working to create a corridor that connects La Amistad International Park (on the Continental Divide of the Americas) with Corcovado National Park (on the Pacific coast) to create a protective pathway that will enlarge the jaguars’ habitat. Overpaths and underpaths will circumvent the Pan-American Highway, help wildlife populations navigate a human-dominated landscape and reconnect isolated jaguar populations on both sides of the country.

Schipper, an associate professor in ASU’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences and a research associate at the Phoenix Zoo, returns to Costa Rica this month. ASU News caught up with scientist to learn about his work and plans for this trip.

Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Jan Schipper is an ASU scientist and spotted cat specialist doing research in Costa Rica.

Question: You’ve worked in jaguar conservation for more than two decades. What drew you to this work? 

Answer:  Having worked in Costa Rica for a lot of my career, I started with smaller cats — like the margay, which is the size of a house cat and very arboreal. Then I studied the oncilla — which interestingly only lives in the cloud forests of the Cordillera Talamanca mountains.

And I just worked my way up the food chain to the puma and finally the jaguar, which is the biggest cat in the Americas.

My greatest interest was in the national parks in the area and how effective they were in containing the entire ecosystem.

Q: What is the connection between the survival of the jaguar and that of the ecosystem?

A: As a top predator, jaguars have a “top down” influence on food webs, and, as such, control the health of the prey populations. We have seen this very clearly in restoring the wolf population to Yosemite (National Park); entire ecosystems recover after the top predator is reinvigorated. 

Jaguars can thrive in many types of habitats and recover from decades of hunting and habitat loss. 

If we can create "jaguar friendly" communities by both reducing hunting of jaguar prey species and reducing retaliatory killing of carnivore species, these magnificent cats can return to their native habitats — including Arizona.

Q: How much of the jaguar population has been eliminated?

A: Satellite imagery indicates habitat loss, so we expect less jaguars overall. That combined with hunting, and the picture looks pretty gim. 

The largest population remains in La Amistad International Park, where we work. But the populations in Central America are still much worse off than in the Amazon. Areas we considered safe havens a decade ago are now being seriously challenged. 

Q: Hunting is a huge problem. Why is poaching on the rise? 

A: In Costa Rica — which is close to the Panama Canal, an Asian trade route — a spotted jaguar can be worth as much as $10,000, and a black (melanistic) jaguar is worth about $20,000. They are taken to China and sold as parts. That's enough incentive to keep local poachers hunting — a year's salary in one kill. Also a lot of North Americans and Europeans like to come shoot things in Costa Rica ... and jaguar is top on the menu. 

So between sport, subsistence by Indigenous people and retaliatory killing ... there are a lot of jaguar mortalities.

Q: How is your team putting a stop to that?

A: Our research is designed to reduce jaguar poaching and educate poachers and their families, many of which we try to employ to work for us in tracking wildlife. 

In the next year, we are creating a wildlife path across the Pan-American Highway and a network of private landowners under the “Jaguar Friendly” label to produce coffee and cacao to support the jaguar movement. Our goal is to create stepping stones so jaguars can move across the human dominated landscape between national parks. We do this by empowering and not displacing communities. Reconnecting people with nature is as important as reconnecting parks.

We know that jaguars are coming back in a few places unexpectedly — including Arizona. It speaks to the broader resilience of jaguar populations to rebound if given the chance. As we see in Costa Rica and elsewhere, if we just stop killing them, they will gradually come back and often learn to adapt.

ASU water visualization tool recognized for sustainable impact

NASA-funded Long-Range Scenario Modeling of the Colorado River Basin project earns Governor's Award for Arizona's Future

August 8, 2023

Water from the Colorado River Basin, which spans 250,000 square miles of the Southwest from Colorado to the Gulf of California, is essential to seven states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. A nationwide drought has made the use of that water a highly contested and controversial topic. States, cities, counties and tribal communities dispute how use of the water should be shared and managed.

An Arizona State University research team has been developing solutions to help decision-makers manage this precious resource. In 2019, the NASA’s Earth Science division awarded the Center for Hydrologic Innovations at ASU a $1 million grant for its Long-Range Scenario Modeling of the Colorado River Basin project. Group photo of the research team from the Center for Hydrologic Innovations at ASU as they receive the Govenor's Award for Arizona's Future. The research team from the Center for Hydrologic Innovations at Arizona State University accept the Governor’s Award for Arizona's Future from the sustainability nonprofit organization Arizona Forward. The center, led by Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Professor Enrique Vivoni, developed a tool available online that simulates the effects of climate change on the Colorado River Basin. Photo courtesy Enrique Vivoni Download Full Image

In collaboration with the Central Arizona Project, or CAP, and 14 other water management agencies, ASU’s team of researchers developed an online visualization tool, CRB-Scenario-Explorer, which can simulate scenarios like droughts and forest disturbances. With the ability to determine the outcomes of these scenarios, the tool enables users to explore and understand the impact of climate change on the Colorado River Basin.

“Information is power,” says Enrique Vivoni, professor of civil, sustainable and environmental engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU and director of the Center for Hydrologic Innovations. “We’ve created an online tool that is free to use and is designed with a user in mind to encourage exploration. Anybody can use it.”

Vivoni says the most difficult part of the project is that conditions are constantly changing in the basin, requiring a quicker response from decision-makers.

“Agencies who have a stake in the Colorado River Basin are not necessarily in agreement about changes in policy,” says Vivoni, a faculty member in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. “As a result, decision-makers are seeking unbiased information, data and models from universities and other research organizations that can help them in the difficult tasks that lie ahead. Our challenge is to provide outcomes that are clear, actionable and communicate the uncertainties involved.”

For this reason, Vivoni says it was important for the team to collaborate with various organizations across states to ensure the project's outcomes and models accurately represented the diverse perspectives of the basin.

He emphasizes the importance of recognizing the collective effort behind this project and that its success was achieved through the collaboration of researchers, students and stakeholders. This means the project's impact extends beyond the boundaries of Arizona and can serve as an example for water initiatives across the country.

Recently, the project received the Governor's Award for Arizona's Future from the environmental organization Arizona Forward, a recognition given to projects with significant sustainability impacts. Vivoni says that the award is a testament to the project's ability to provide policymakers with valuable insights to guide water resource management.

“The work of Vivoni and his team exemplifies the type of use-inspired research we seek to advance as we develop solutions to real-world challenges,” says Ram Pendyala, director of the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment. “Congratulations to the team for this impactful work, which will help address one of the biggest issues confronting the Southwest — the future of water.”

Future improvements to the project will include updating the water visualization tool so that it auto-populates with real-time data and modeling information from NASA and other agencies.

“What we have developed to date is a static tool that visualizes a set of far-future scenarios,” Vivoni says. “We are now working on a more dynamic, web-based platform that will be capable of monitoring current conditions and forecasting the near future. For example, we could find out from the tool what the state of the Colorado River Basin is now and what the water projection is in the next year.”

As Arizona faces mounting water resource challenges, leaders of the simulation project hope to continue bringing together scientific expertise, engagement with decision-makers and innovative modeling techniques.

“The future will be more challenging,” Vivoni says. “There will likely be less water due to warming temperatures and the loss of snow cover. This use-inspired research comes from a real need for Western states to rethink how they use water now and in the future. We also must think about equity. Equity comes in all shapes and forms. It's not only about water for the most important economic output — it's about water fairness as well.”

Bobbi Ramirez

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering