New Study Explores Jaguar Killing without “Cowflict”

A jaguar sitting attentively in an exhibit at the Chester Zoo.
Chester Zoo by Nigel Swales. CC BY-SA 2.0

Often, the persecution of predators like jaguars (Panthera onca) is blamed – at least in part – on livestock depredation: jaguars kill cattle, and hence people kill jaguars. But what happens when there are no cattle? In areas where human communities do not rely on livestock for their livelihoods, would they be more tolerant of jaguars?

That is the question that Jillian Knox and her co-authors (et al.) set out to answer. They studied jaguar tolerance in three non-ranching communities in the Bolivian Amazon, and what they learned was not encouraging.

Study Areas

Knox et al.’s (2019) study focused on three protected and indigenous territories in Northwestern Bolivia: Santa Rosa del Abuná, Tacana II, and the Manuripi National Amazon Wildlife Reserve (MNAWR). The economies of all three areas revolve around Brazil nut collection, not livestock production. More on each location:

Santa Rosa del Abuná

Santa Rosa del Abuná is a protected area encompassing more than 170,000 hectares (420,079 acres) of rainforest. It is home to 2,200 people of Andean and Amazonian descent, and its main goal is to, “promote sustainable development that does not conflict with biodiversity conservation” (Knox et al., 2019, p. 3).

Tacana II

Tacana II spans 350,000 hectares (864,869 acres). It is an indigenous territory, and over 700 Tacana people inhabit it. They manage the land according to their own customs and governance structures, which have been lauded as effective sustainable management practices.


As Knox et al. (2019) report, MNAWR is, “the only nationally-protected area in Bolivia containing Amazonian Humid Forest” (p. 3); the broader category “Amazon rainforest” contains multiple sub-types of ecosystems. 1,500 people dwell within MNAWR’s 725,000 hectares (1,791,514 acres).

A jungle lake in Bolivia.
A lake in Bolivia. Image by Maxim Schönmeier from Pixabay.


Knox and her colleagues collected their data using a questionnaire that contained both closed and open-ended questions. The former type of inquiry involves prompts that can be answered in one or two words (e.g. “Yes” or “No”), whereas open-ended questions encourage people to elaborate.

Knox et al. (2019) designed their questionnaire to measure four factors that might affect people’s tolerance of jaguars: attitudes towards jaguars and jaguar killing, social norms concerning jaguar killing (e.g. whether a respondent’s neighbors would approve of killing jaguars), past jaguar-killing behavior, and emotions regarding jaguars.


People in all three study areas – Santa Rosa, Tacana II, and MNAWR – mostly held negative or neutral attitudes towards jaguars, despite the lack of livestock depredation.

Two cows grazing in a mountain pasture.
Apparently, cows are not necessary for disliking jaguars. Image by Christian B. from Pixabay.

More worryingly, participants in all three locations believed that jaguar killing was common in their communities: half of all respondents in Tacana II reported killing jaguars themselves, whereas 33% and 20% of the participants in MNAWR and Santa Rosa admitted to the same behavior, respectively. Respondents often said that they killed jaguars out of fear or in self-defense, even though they claimed that they were unlikely to be attacked by jaguars.

Social norms were also linked to past jaguar-killing behavior, especially in Tacana II. There, a specific class of norms called descriptive norms were to blame, which means that respondents in Tacana II who believed that their neighbors killed jaguars were more likely to do the same (descriptive norms describe what other people do, whereas subjective/injunctive norms describe what people ought to do).

Social norms also influenced attitudes towards jaguar killing in all three study areas. However, attitudes did not impact actual jaguar-killing behavior. This goes against ‘common sense’ reasoning, that attitudes = behavior.

Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence demonstrating that while attitudes are reasonably good predictors of behavior, they are not perfect. When trying to predict how someone will behave, it is therefore best to consider more than just their attitudes.

A jaguar licking its paw.
This post explores the attitude/behavior link in more detail. Wild Jaguar by Petr Kratochvil. Public Domain.

Closing Thoughts

Knox et al. (2019) discovered that negative perceptions of jaguars, and self-reported jaguar killings, were relatively common in non-ranching communities in the Bolivian Amazon. Apart from being bad news for a species that is already under pressure, this study reinforces the notion that large predator persecution is driven by more than just livestock depredation.

The fact that participants often claimed that they killed jaguars out of fear or in self defense, even though they knew that the chances of being attacked by jaguars were low, is curious.

Risks that are unpredictable and severe – despite having low probabilities of occurring – frequently evoke more dread than risks with much higher likelihoods. For instance, when I bring up the possibility of mountain lions (Puma concolor) returning to the Eastern U.S. in conversations, people usually freak out. Yet, they drive like maniacs on the highway, apparently unafraid of the much greater risk of getting in a car accident.

Part of the reason for this is that obsessing over high-probability risks – such as car accidents – would make normal life impossible. As such, most of us choose to be terrified of risks that will probably never happen, like getting attacked by mountain lions or jaguars.

Risk-related ramblings aside, Knox et al.’s (2019) paper contains much more information about jaguar persecution in Northwestern Bolivia. Click below to read it!

10 Thoughts

  1. Risk ramblings are very interesting! The human mind is another one of those things I would love to study if I wasn’t studying wetlands. Then again I have a list 50 topics deep on different things I would study and in conclusion, I think I just like ALL science. Thanks for summarizing the article though I enjoyed your perspective on it.

    Liked by 1 person

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