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Why in the World?

Would you spend the night in the forest with jaguars?

Carolina Sáenz-Bolaños, UMass Amherst PhD student studies jaguars.
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For me, field work is everything,” says Carolina Sáenz-Bolaños, UMass Amherst PhD student in environmental conservation. “I love all the things that I live: to share with park rangers and indigenous, local people, to see millions of stars, to taste fruits that we cannot find in the city, to hear the grass-hoppers at night and cicadas during the day.”

Sáenz-Bolaños bushwhacks her way through the forests of Costa Rica tracking Panthera onca, the jaguar. Jaguars are threatened throughout Central and South America by habitat loss, poaching for trophies and dubious cures, and conflict with ranchers who view the big cats as a threat to their livestock. Using camera traps and radio collars, and recording tracks with a notebook and pencil, Sáenz-Bolaños is one of three researchers working with Professor Todd Fuller to study jaguars’ distribution through different forest biomes.

The first time she installed a radio collar on a wild jaguar was a wonderful experience, Sáenz-Bolaños says. “I could smell what a jaguar smells like. To touch a jaguar is like touching a big dog with thick hair. I never imagined that it could be so soft.”

Understanding is a critical factor in the jaguar’s survival, so Sáenz-Bolaños also shares her scientific knowledge of jaguars with local people. “If they don’t know what they have, how can they understand that it is important to conserve or coexist?” she says. “We explain why jaguars go outside of protected areas and hunt livestock, why it is not good to poach the jaguars’ prey or fragment the ecosystem, what to do if you see a jaguar in the field. We try to turn bad beliefs into good beliefs.”