A trail cam photo shows a jaguar in Panama in December 2018. A group of 15 students and two faculty members from UW-Whitewater traveled to Panama in January and helped a conservation project that identified previously unknown jaguars at a wildlife corridor. The group named this jaguar Agua Blanca.


Miles into the Panamanian rainforest, a jaguar roamed.

Except, for a while, some conservationists didn’t really have proof of that.

That was until January—when they saw the photo.

A group of UW-Whitewater students and faculty trekked into the rainforest at Chagres National Park to collect what donated camera traps captured, which included photos of two previously undocumented jaguars.

Two faculty members and 15 students made the trip in January for more than two weeks, said Stephen Levas, a UW-W assistant professor in environmental science who went on the trip.

He said ranches are popping up and encroaching on that area of the country, which as a national park is not open for people to live in.

But there’s no enforcement, so the corridor is slowly becoming smaller and smaller.

“The more and more that people go in, the more and more destruction of the rainforest you have,” he said. “And the more disturbance you have for natural habitats of jaguars.”

As the ranchers move in and clear-cut the area, jaguars are killing more cattle. That leads to ranchers shooting the jaguars, which is illegal—but again, “there’s hardly any enforcement,” Levas said.

The jaguars appear to be using the area as a corridor from the space south of Panama closer to Central America. And so now groups have some proof that jaguars are using the area to move from habitat to habitat, Levas said.

Having photos of the jaguars can aid the conservation effort, said Butch Beedle with Save the Rainforest, a nonprofit group started in Dodgeville in 1988. The photos give documented proof of what they’re trying to save.

“You usually don’t want to save something if you don’t know about it,” Beedle said.

Levas, who joined UW-W in 2016, said the location where the jaguar was spotted was a two-hour hike beyond the last rancher they saw. But for a jaguar, they can travel that distance in 20 minutes.

“And so 20 minutes away, (the jaguar) ends up on his ranch,” Levas said. “And unfortunately, (it) most likely would get shot.”

That rancher was starting to take poachers into the rainforest because it was easy money, Levas said.

Being in Panama instead of only reading about it in a textbook gives the students a better understanding of the seriousness of the subject, Levas said. At the same time, students are helping the local conservation efforts.

For the assistance, they named one of the photographed jaguars Agua Blanca (Get it? Whitewater).

Nicole Price, a junior at UW-W studying marine biology and freshwater ecology, was one of the students who went to Panama in January to get “first-hand experience with tropical conservation.”

She called the trip “surreal.”

“It’s definitely something that after doing once, you just love the experience and you just want more of it,” she said.

A Panamanian organization, Green Rainforest, and Yaguará Panamá, a feline research group, worked with Levas and Beedle’s group to set up the trip. Beedle said in an email the students’ efforts “laid out a path to protect this important wildlife corridor from further deforestation and farming ...

“Without the class coming, there would not have been any research there.”

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