How Factory Farms Are Pushing the Jaguar to Extinction

The following excerpt is from Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were, by Philip Lymbery (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017)

Saving Brazil’s jaguars from the relentless march of soya

When I think of jaguars I imagine them skulking through grassland or slinking through the dense vegetation of a tropical rainforest, so when my quest to see one of these iconic big cats in the wild took me to a flat and featureless expanse of soya in Brazil’s agricultural heartland, I couldn’t help feeling I must be in the wrong place.

I had flown from São Paulo to Goiania, in the country’s Midwest region, where I’d picked up a Chrevrolet 4x4 hire car for the journey through mile upon mile of undulating cattle pasture. Travelling through the state of Goias towards neighbouring Mato Grosso, the land finally flattened out into endless crop prairie, mind-numbingly dull.

Grinding on through prairies of monocultures that seemed to go on for ever, as I was beginning to lose the will to live, suddenly a copse of eucalyptus trees came into sight. It was the landmark I’d been looking for. Finally I’d arrived at the ranch of someone I’d been calling ‘the jaguar man’.

I could tell at once that I had come at a bad time. The man I’d travelled all this way to meet – Leandro Silveira, a Brazilian biologist with a lifelong passion for big cats – looked distracted. It was clear he had something on his mind. Flustered but trying to be welcoming, he extended a hand and a faint smile. ‘Give me half an hour and I’ll be back,’ he said briskly, before disappearing in his pickup.

He returned cradling a pink towel like a proud father. Peering in, I saw the tiny black head of a new-born jaguar blinking back at me. I was amazed at how small she was. ‘It was a bit of a surprise, as I didn’t even know the mother was pregnant!’ Silveira said. Apparently a black jaguar he had adopted as an orphan had sprung the surprise cub on him just as we were arriving. No wonder he had been so distracted.

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Leandro Silveira, president of the Jaguar Conservation Fund, cradles a baby jaguar (image: Compassion in World Farming)

Silveira was my first port of call on what was to be an epic journey through Brazil investigating how its wildlife is faring in the face of breakneck agricultural expansion.

Brazil has the richest biodiversity in the world, and is on the global frontline in the bitter clash between the activities of multinational ‘Big Ag’, local economic interests and efforts to save endangered wildlife. Famed for the Amazon rainforest, it is a vast and contrasting countryside, from the expansive wetlands of the Pantanal to the savannah grasslands, known as the Cerrado, which have long covered much of the Midwest region.

Now the world’s third-largest agricultural exporter overall, Brazil is ranked fourth for pig meat exports, and is the undisputed number one when it comes to exports of poultry meat and beef. Nearly all of the country’s pigs are kept in industrial systems, with breeding pigs kept in narrow ‘gestation crates’ where they can’t turn round for months on end. An estimated 95 per cent of the country’s egg-laying hens are kept in battery cages

Soya on the Savannah

I had long thought that the US boasted the biggest, most industrial agriculture on the planet. When it comes to soya production, I now see it has a serious rival.

Here in Brazil, the remorseless march of soya – fuel for factory farms – is gobbling up the rainforest and savannah, ravaging a once rich and varied landscape. There is precious little left for the wild animals whose habitats have been sacrificed.

This is bad news for the jaguar. Today there are still some 15,000 of these big cats left in the wild – but for how much longer?

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A baby jaguar in Brazil (image: Compassion in World Farming)

Historically, jaguars could be found from the Grand Canyon of the US through the Amazon all the way to Argentina. Now, the species is much more restricted and found largely in the Amazon. Home to half the world’s remaining jaguar population, Brazil holds the fate of this iconic species in the palm of its hand.

The pace of agricultural expansion in this rapidly developing nation is unlike anything I have seen in the world. When people think of deforestation they tend to associate it with logging, or with felling trees to make way for housing and crops for human consumption. In fact, here, the real driver is farming of soya and corn – much of it destined for farm animals. Vast areas of rainforest and savannah are turned over to these industries.

As their habitats are razed, jaguars are being driven out. Seen as pests by cattle ranchers, they are often shot on sight.

I had expected Silveira to rail against the misery wrought by the machines and the chemicals, to despise every aspect of the new monoculture. I was in for a surprise.

Together with his wife Ana he has studied jaguars and other carnivorous mammals in the Cerrado grasslands for over two decades, founding the Jaguar Conservation Fund in 2002. Its mission is to promote the conservation of the jaguar as well as of its natural prey and habitat, throughout the species’ natural geographical range – ‘as well as its peaceful coexistence with man’.

The objective of achieving ‘peaceful coexistence’ underpins the charity’s approach to the competition between wildlife and big agriculture.

Silveira believes the real threat to the jaguar’s future is less the march of crops, and more the intensifying conflict with cattle ranchers. Jaguars are now considered vermin by these farmers, who resent the loss of the occasional animal being reared for beef.

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This baby jaguar was born while I was visiting Leandro Silveira of the Jaguar Conservation Fund (image: Compassion in World Farming)

His dream is to reconnect as many of Brazil’s jaguar populations as possible by providing corridors of continuous habitat running right across the country. Jaguars use natural corridors like river valleys to visit different zones. It’s nature’s way of making sure the big cat population doesn’t become inbred – a real threat to survival.

This is the thinking behind Silveira’s most ambitious project: the Araguaia River Biodiversity Corridor, which aims to reinstate a corridor along the river valley running from Emas in Brazil’s central south, all the way along the Amazon delta to the north of the country. To make this happen, he needs to recruit what he describes as ‘jaguar-friendly’ farmers and ranchers all along the 2,000-kilometre corridor.

I pressed him further on the interplay between ‘Big Ag’ and wildlife habitats. When you deforest the land, and remove their prey species, even if you’re doing farming of soya bean and corn… you’re directly affecting the cat, Silveira admitted. ‘You are silently wiping out the species but you don’t see it. Jaguars in some areas of Brazil are doing OK, but in some areas they are virtually on the line of extinction.’

He sees the corridor as a lifeline to save the species for a future when land-use policies may be more favourable. I could see the merit in his approach and sincerely wish him well with it. Jaguars need all the help they can get. However, my instincts were telling me that expanding monocultures were more the problem than the route to a solution.

Brazil is second only to the USA in soya production, and is the world leader in soya exports. Mato Grosso alone produces nearly a tenth of the global soya bean harvest, accounting for nearly a third of Brazil’s soya output in an industry worth nearly $7.3 billion a year. Soya production continues to expand by hundreds of thousands of hectares every year in Brazil, largely into existing cattle pastures that have already been deforested.

In theory, soya is a wonder crop. It contains all the essential amino acids needed for human nutrition, making it one of only a handful of plants that provide a complete protein. Yet only a fraction of it goes to feed people. The vast majority is for animal feed. Most of the soya beans (85 per cent) are crushed to give oil and soya meal. Oil makes up less than a fifth of the pulped beans and largely goes for vegetable oil, with small amounts finding their way into soaps or biodiesel. Nearly four-fifths of the pulped bean becomes soya meal destined for the feed troughs of intensively farmed animals like pigs, chickens and cattle.

When defenders of factory farming suggest that cramming animals into airless barns ‘saves space’, they fail to take into account that the business model is wholly dependent on large amounts of ‘space’ elsewhere. This is what happens if you keep animals indoors, and bring food to them. It has to grow somewhere – and often that place is Brazil, which exports much of its soya. The European Union imports about 35 million tonnes of the stuff every year, nearly half coming from Brazil. Some 13 million hectares of South American land – an area roughly equivalent to the size of Greece - is dedicated to growing soya for the EU, much of it to be consumed by Europe’s industrially reared farm animals.

At the end of my trip, I asked myself how many people realise that the reason the forest and savannah are disappearing – and wildlife with it – is to feed factory-farmed animals, often on other continents. The bitter truth is that cheap meat in Europe, the US, and the rest of the world, whether it’s beef, pork or chicken, is likely to have been reared on soya from the deforested plains of South America.

As I settled in for my last night, the hotelier brought me a booklet about jaguars in the region. It featured a glossy centrefold picture of tourists in Porto Jofre photographing the big cats. Looking at the picture of the eager foreigners, I couldn’t help wondering how many of them had arrived stoked up on cheap meat from soya-fed animals.

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