Victor Hugo Luja Molina won last year’s awards with an image showing a relationship few people have ever seen. Once Again Being a Mother, shows a female jaguar in an intimate moment with one of her cubs amid a mangrove forest in Mexico. After two years of trying, Dr. Luja got his perfect shot of Janis, a female mangrove jaguar. Dr. Luja managed to capture this great moment of Janis with her cub.
Luja says, “I love this picture because the jaguars that live in the mangroves here in Western Mexico are special and unique. This is one of the very few photos that exist of jaguars in mangrove ecosystems and I hope this image can inspire a new generation of conservation photographers.” The mangrove ecosystem in Western Mexico is facing huge conservation problems, with much of the mangrove being lost to urban development and illegal shrimp farms. Dr. Luja adds,
Mexico has an estimated 4,000 jaguars. Within that population is a small but dense population that lives in the Marismas Nacionales within the state of Nayarit. The Marismas Nacionales is a mangrove ecoregion full of lagoons and estuaries. Underneath the cover of the mangrove canopies, jaguars have developed a unique diet. “They feed on a wide variety of prey. From crabs to mammals. An important part of their diet is birds.” says Luja. The jaguars have also been seen preying on turtles, fish, and even American crocodiles. Dr. Luja has spent years studying and photographing the jaguars in Nayarit through his non-profit Jaguares Sin Proteccion project.
In April of 2013, cameras at the nature preserve of La Papalota in western Mexico first recorded Janis. At this time Janis was a two a half year old beautiful female jaguar. No one knew then that she would become the Queen of the Mangroves, the iconic jaguar of Mr. Luja’s research. Janis soon became a regular on camera traps placed around the state of Nayarit. In 2017 camera traps were able to record her with her twin cubs (Emi and Beto)! In February of 2020, after several years of catching her on camera, she was placed with a GPS collar to help Dr. Luja and other scientists gain data on her movements. “Janis is the flagship of the JAGUARES SIN PROTECCIÓN project,” says Luja.
Sadly at the very end of 2020 Janis was hit by a car and died. After seven years of video recordings and recent GPS data, those who knew her were devastated to lose her. Even with the short time she was collared, data was collected on her range and her preference on hunting locations. Janis left behind a great legacy and at least three known offspring. Against all odds Janis was able to raise her cubs into adulthood. Her three adult cubs are still seen on cameras throughout the region.
“We have the data to put signs and speed bumps at specific places where jaguars cross those roads. We hope the authorities are interested and listen to us this time (because in 2019 they did not) to avoid more fauna deaths.”
The Marismas are the largest coastal ecosystem in the Mexican Pacific full of a wide diversity of species, including 29 species of mammals, jaguars being the largest. In 1995 the region was designated a Ramsar site, and in 2010 it became a Biosphere Reserve. Though the Marismas have international recognition, mangroves in this area are rapidly being harvested to open the land up for illegal shrimp farms, agriculture, and highway expansions with expanding human developments. A canal was also built in Nayarit, Canal de Cuautla, that completely changed the hydrology of the surrounding mangrove estuaries, increasing the salinity and killing off large portions of the black and white mangroves. Each of the threats to mangroves is a threat to the jaguar species in the area. Not only are the jaguars at risk of losing habitat, but they are also hunted for the black market, hunted by farmers who lose (or are worried about losing) livestock to predation, and they are at risk of being hit by cars as highways expand.
It was these threats to mangroves and the jaguares within them, that led Dr. Luja to name his research project “Jaguares Sin Proteccion,” (Jaguares without Protection). He wants his research, and his winning photo, to bring attention to the conservation needs in western Mexico. Jaguars need to be protected and preserved; their habitat and range must also be protected. Jaguares sin Proteccion works to gain more data on the jaguar population in Nayarit through further use of camera traps and GPS collars. Their data collection has produced exciting results. In May 2021, one of their cameras registered 7 different jaguars in 15 days! This type of data is priceless in conservation efforts for the western Mexico jaguar. Along with their research, Dr. Luja and his team work closely with local communities. They focus on education and outreach to help locals coincide and protect jaguars.