Conserving Big Cats

Lisanne Petracca, A06, discussing the future of big cat conservation. Poaching remains a significant threat to many species.
Lisanne Petracca, A06, discussing the future of big cat conservation. Poaching remains a significant threat to many species.

Lisanne Petracca, A06, is working on the leading-edge of conservation science – applying the latest in Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to wildlife conservation.

A geospatial analyst at Panthera, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring the future of all 37 of the world’s wild cat species, Petracca combines spatial data with field research to monitor populations of jaguars, lions, tigers, snow leopards, and other big cats.  Petracca recently returned to the Medford campus, where she spoke in Tisch College’s Rabb Room during a lunch and learn sponsored by the Environmental Studies Program in the School of Arts and Sciences, and the Tufts Institute of the Environment.

A mother jaguar and cubs, taken by a Panthera photo-trap in Columbia.
A mother jaguar and cubs, taken by a Panthera photo-trap in Columbia.

“Every species of big cat is in trouble,” said Petracca.  “The main threats are poaching, overhunting of prey species, and habitat loss due to agricultural conversion. Tigers are found in less than 7% of their historic range, and only 3,200 tigers remain in the wild. One hundred years ago, there were over 200,000 lions – the latest population estimate is less than 30,000. Jaguars and snow leopards are also on the decline.  Conservation action is essential right now, not just for the cats themselves, but for whole systems of animals, plants, and land that sustain them.”

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, Petracca was fascinated by wildlife and the outdoors.  But it was at Tufts that she discovered her true passion for environmental science.

“I had never experienced the combination of academic challenge and sense of purpose that I found here,” she said.  “Tufts made anything seem possible.”

Petracca cites two experiences in particular that continue to shape her work to this day: the semester she spent studying wildlife conservation and ecology in Tanzania, and Prof. Colin Orians’s “Tropical Ecology and Conservation” course – one of many courses listed on Tisch College’s Active Citizenship in the Curriculum guide.

“It was in Tanzania, in the Serengeti, where I saw lions in the wild for the first time,” said Petracca, who studied biomedical engineering and psychology, in addition to environmental studies.  “I performed a three-week independent study project on giraffe demography between two protected areas, and I got to see one of the world’s last black rhinos in the Ngorongoro Crater. I realized there was no turning back.”

While she was in Africa, Petracca wrote an essay to apply to Prof. Orians’s course, which was a mixed graduate and upper-level undergraduate seminar, and required instructor permission to enroll.  She was accepted, and her project is still featured on the course syllabus as a model.

Gecarcinus quadratus, the"Halloween crab."
Gecarcinus quadratus, the “Halloween crab.”

“We went to Costa Rica for two weeks in the field,” said Petracca.  “I worked with two other students on the impact of land crabs on local invertebrate diversity. They’re very colorful, land crabs, they have purple claws and red legs, but they’re small, maybe two inches across at most, and they dig burrows that can get very deep.  We compared how the density of land crabs burrows compared with the diversity of local invertebrates, which we captured using pitfall traps – basically a covered hole that the animal slips into, and that way you can survey the population and examine individuals.  It was a totally different perspective on ecology for me, literally ground up.  Intellectually, I knew how important small, even microscopic creatures are to an ecosystem, but I think it’s not until you experience something like that first-hand that you really appreciate how significant, how intricate the inter-relationships between species are, and how delicate the balance is.”

After graduating from Tufts, Petracca spent two years teaching science and English in the Marshall Islands with the NGO WorldTeach.  She enrolled in the master’s program in environmental management Duke University, and quickly identified Panthera as the organization doing the kind of work she wanted to be involved in.

“I just kept bugging them,” said Petracca, laughing.  “My second semester I worked on an analysis of jaguar habitat connectivity, and Panthera hired me the following summer as a consultant in southern Belize, conducting interviews with local farmers and hunters to ascertain the status of the jaguar and their main prey species in the region.  The rest is history. I did my thesis on the identification of a jaguar corridor in this area of Belize, and following another summer of fieldwork for Panthera, I was very lucky and they brought me on full time as their Geospatial Analyst.”

Petracca, with her field team in Belize.
Petracca, with her field team in Belize.

“A lot of people think that field work is glamorous, but most of the time it isn’t,” Petracca continued.  “You work to conserve a species, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you spend a lot of time with it.  I’ve done more work on jaguars than I have on any other animal, and I’ve never seen one in the wild.  In part that’s because they’re elusive, they really avoid humans.  But it’s also because this species is on the decline and there are so few of them.”

To understand where jaguars are in the wild, and what areas they use as they move across their range, Panthera turned to the people who live most closely with these animals.

“The things you really need to know you find out from the people who live there,” said Petracca.  “Have they ever personally seen a jaguar?  How often do they see prey species?  What are their attitudes about the animals?  What development projects are going on in the area, and what kinds of development projects would be of most use to them?  For conservation to succeed you need to have good relationships with the people who live and work and farm in these areas, and Panthera is committed to helping our host countries and communities become better stewards of their resources.”

Panthera is currently completing surveys across the whole of the jaguar’s range, from Mexico to Argentina, with all of Central America to be completed by the end of 2013.  Equipped with the most detailed research about the animals, Petracca’s role has shifted to geospatial analysis – which Petracca says is a needed form of active citizenship.

“I love making maps,” she said.  “Not just because they’re useful, but because they’re engaging.  Scientific papers are often drowning in statistics, but a good map can tell a story, and can paint a complete picture of an ecological trend or the plight of a species. A really good map will keep telling you more and more, the longer you look at it.  That’s a powerful thing.”

Panthera's map of the jaguar's range shows where populations are concentrated and how they move.
Panthera’s map of the jaguar’s range shows where populations are concentrated and how they move.

 

Jaguar family photo by Esteban Payán Garrido for Panthera.  

Halloween crab photo by Eduardo Mena.