In 2013, it was estimated there were 250 jaguars and 2,500 pumas in the entire Caatinga biome in northeastern Brazil, but the numbers today are likely lower, conservation experts say.
A growing threat to the big cats is the rapid growth of wind farms in this semiarid biome, with four operating in the Boqueirão da Onça protected area complex, the stronghold for both species in the Caatinga.
The development of these installations comes with noise, deforestation, and loss of access for the big cats to water sources, which pushes them into closer proximity to human settlements, placing them in conflict with ranchers.
Experts say there’s a general lack of public policies aimed at preserving the Caatinga, where less than 10% of the biome is protected yet hosts 85% of the country’s wind farms.
Between March 2017 and January 2018, researchers tracked the movements of a female puma as it prowled around the Boqueirão da Onça protected area complex in the north of Brazil’s Bahia state. They’d named her Vitória, the first puma (Puma concolor) in the region to be captured and fitted with a radio collar, which researchers from the Amigos da Onça program, a wildcat project affiliated with conservation nonprofit Pró-Carnívoros, used to map her movements.
During this particular period, they noticed a change in Vitória’s roaming. In a part of her range, a wind farm was being constructed, an activity associated with lots of noise, clearing of vegetation for roads, a constant human presence, and a high frequency of vehicle traffic. Quickly, the puma began to avoid the work area and its surroundings.
“In those 10 months, she didn’t cross the area of wind turbines,” says Carolina Esteves, a researcher at Pró-Carnívoros and co-founder of Amigos da Onça. “And this greater movement of the puma, circling the entire complex to reach a water point, implies a bigger energy cost.”
Researchers also observed the same behavioral change, of maintaining distance from the construction site, among the region’s jaguars (Panthera onca).
Pumas and jaguars occur across a range of Brazil’s biomes, with each population differing to a certain degree based on their habitat, Esteves says. Here in the Caatinga, in Brazil’s northeast, the cats, both dun and dappled, are smaller, have stiffer whiskers and thicker leg hair to deal with the hotter open ground than their cousins in, say, the lush forests of the Amazon or the wetlands of the Pantanal. To survive in this biome, being able to find water is also crucial.
“We usually say that if we catch an adult [puma or jaguar] from any other biome and release it in the Caatinga, it probably won’t survive, especially during the dry season,” Esteves says. “When a cub is born, for a year and a half to two years the mother will teach him everything he needs to know to survive. In the Caatinga, in addition to how to hunt and protect itself, it will also show you where the main water points are.”
The problem with the impact of wind farms, which jars with their reputation for generating clean electricity, is that the Caatinga big cats are on the verge of extinction, and they depend on the native forests to survive.
It’s estimated there are only 250 jaguars and 2,500 pumas left in the entire biome. Of this total, 30 jaguars are found in Boqueirão da Onça. The complex is made up of a national park, which is strictly protected, and a larger environmental protection area (APA), where some degree of sustainable human activity is permitted. Together, the park and the APA cover 853,000 hectares (2.11 million acres), accounting for the largest protected area complex in the Caatinga.
The jaguar is listed as critically endangered in the Caatinga, one level shy of being declared locally extinct from the wild here. The puma fares better, but its classification as endangered in the Caatinga is worse than in all the other biomes in Brazil, where the species is classified as vulnerable.
Compounding the problem, the population estimates that Esteves and her team are working with may be overly optimistic, as they come from a 2013 survey. “From the reports we have of hunting and proven removal of individuals, the current estimates are not good,” she says.
Growth of wind farms in the Caatinga
If Vitória was already showing changes in her movements six years ago, it’s easy to imagine that the big cats in the same region face a much more difficult reality today, researchers say.
There are currently four wind farms operating in the Boqueirão da Onça APA, one of them with 500 towers. “And there are six more wind farms to be installed,” says Cláudia Bueno de Campos, a carnivore biologist and co-founder of Amigos da Onça, who is also an official with the Brazilian Ministry of Environment’s Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio).
In addition to wind farms, the region has also become attractive for solar energy generation. In 2021, the first solar plant was built here, clearing 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of native Caatinga vegetation in the process.
“The removal of vegetation on the tops of the mountains alters the natural flow of rainwater that feeds the surroundings, and this affects nearby springs, which can dry up,” Campos says. “These springs are extremely important for the big cats, because during droughts they become the only water points for them to drink, not to mention their importance for the local people.”
Conflicts with farmers
For decades, conservationists had pushed for the creation of a large protected area in the Boqueirão da Onça region as a way of ensuring the conservation of the wildlife in this relatively well-preserved part of the Caatinga.
Finally, in 2018, then-president Michel Temer signed a decree transforming an area of 347,557 hectares (858,832 acres) into Boqueirão da Onça National Park, and, adjacent to it, 505,692 hectares (1.25 million acres) for Boqueirão da Onça Environmental Protection Area.
The decision not to establish the entire area as a national park left environmentalists frustrated. But energy companies welcomed the move, as the region demonstrated enormous potential for their business.
Brazil’s northeast region is home to 90% of the country’s wind farms, 85% of them in the Caatinga, mostly in the states of Rio Grande do Norte and Bahia. State and municipal governments have welcomed the investments that these projects have ushered in, but for conservationists they’ve exacerbated an age-old problem: the deliberate killing of big cats.
“When faced with wind farms and having to move much farther to find resources such as water and food, big cats often end up getting closer to rural properties where there are domestic animals or even herds of goats, something common in this region,” says Paulo Marinho, an ecologist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte and specialist in Caatinga mammal conservation. “This intensifies conflicts between farmers and these cats, resulting in deaths.”
To prevent the economic losses from the predation of their livestock, farmers set traps that end up killing pumas and jaguars.
That’s why, in addition to studying and monitoring the cats’ populations, Amigos da Onça runs an “education for conservation” program for local communities and livestock ranchers to get them to co-exist more peacefully with the predators. This includes a specific project to prevent retaliatory killings by the ranchers, but the ultimate objective is to find ways to ensure the cats don’t attack domestic animals and livestock in the first place.
To that end, the researchers have helped develop special pens that the big cats can’t get into, unlike the traditional corrals that are completely open. At night, goats and sheep are herded into these pens, which, as an added benefit, are well ventilated and warm, resulting in better health and quality of the meat for future sale.
The ugly duckling of Brazilian biomes
Until the beginning of this century, there were barely any studies on the big cats of the Caatinga, although there was no doubt that they’d always existed in this semiarid region: rock paintings, some dating back 25,000 years, depict jaguars among the wildlife native to the region. The sheer abundance of biodiversity in the Amazon, to the east, and the Atlantic Forest, to the south, has long overshadowed the Caatinga, leaving it little studied as a consequence. It was even believed that the aridity of the soil indicated a scarcity of flora and fauna, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
The first warnings about the worrying situation of big cats in the biome came from a survey carried out between 2006 and 2011 by ICMBio’s National Center for Research and Conservation of Carnivorous Mammals (CENAP). The main focus was on jaguars, but it was noticed that pumas were also under threat; and without protecting one, the other wouldn’t survive.
“It was possible to see the fragility of the species,” says Campos. who participated in the research.
Following the survey, she saw an urgent need to take action to protect the felines. Thus Amigos da Onça, or Friends of the Big Cats, was born in 2012.
Yet despite the efforts made over the past decade by the researchers and their collaborators in the field, all working voluntarily for the conservation of these animals, the reality that’s unfolded has been a dismal one.
“The opening of roads for these wind farms, for example, facilitates access for hunters,” Esteves says. “Many test wind turbines are installed without prior permission from the licensing body. Companies open access roads and place towers with measuring devices for approximately one year. At this point, the damage has already been done.
“Reports from residents are heartbreaking,” she adds. “With each conversation, more roads are opened, vegetation is removed.”
Esteves says one of the aggravating factors continues to be the way in which the Caatinga is perceived in relation to other Brazilian biomes.
“The big challenge is to bring the attention of the population, public policies and the media to the biome. The Caatinga is seen as the ugly duckling of biomes. This is reflected in the lack of resources for its improvement,” Esteves says. “Look how long it took us to understand the value that the biome has. The Caatinga is still not considered a national heritage by the Constitution. That needs to change.”
Even as that perception persists, the march of renewable energy development is relentless. With every passing moment, conservationists warn, the few remaining pumas and jaguars that still survive in the Caatinga grow ever more threatened.
“It is important to make it clear that the power generation proposal is extremely relevant and important,” Esteves says, “but what needs to move forward at the same speed is the understanding of the impact of these projects in conserved regions.”
Banner image of a puma in Boqueirão da Onça Environmental Protection Area, Bahia state, Brazil. Image courtesy of Roland Brack/ Amigos da Onça.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Aug. 14, 2023.