By Kylie Stott
PUERTO IGUAZU, Argentina - The musty jaguar pelts on display at a government office in Buenos Aires are a grim reminder of the big cat's precarious existence in Argentina's northern forests.
The Iguazu waterfalls that border Paraguay and Brazil mark what is now the outer limit of the jaguar's range. Just 50 of the big cats are estimated to live in the sub-tropical jungle around the famous falls.
Out of sight of the tourist hordes, Argentine scientists have been monitoring one of the nation's last remaining jaguar populations since 2003.
Project Jaguar's aim is to fit the animals with GPS tracking collars in order to observe how they are affected by farming and other activities.
Most years they normally register two or three animals during a month-long tracking campaign, but this time not a single jaguar has been trapped for fitting with a collar so far, team leader Agustin Paviolo told Reuters Television.
"The population risk studies we've conducted in collaboration with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago indicate that in a medium-term period of between 20 and 30 years, the likelihood of extinction is quite high if we don't take action to reduce the threats to this population," he said.
Argentina's northern forest have been classified as one of the areas where jaguars are least likely to survive, along with parts of Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana and most of its ranges in Central America and Mexico.
The jaguar used to roam up into southern parts of the United States and down to Patagonia, but they now occupy only 40 percent of their historic range.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that only 15,000 are left in the wild as deforestation deprives them of prey and makes them more vulnerable to hunters.
HUNTING STILL A THREAT
About 18,000 jaguars were killed globally every year for their fur in the 1960s and 1970s and hunting remains a threat to them today despite anti-fur campaigns.
The stuffed jaguar, jaguar-skin rug and jackets on display at the government's Environment and Sustainable Development office were seized by officials in recent years.
Red Yaguarete (Jaguar Network), a voluntary group that works to get hunters prosecuted, was involved in the first two cases in Argentina in which people were fined for selling jaguar skins last year.
"People used to show us the bodies and the skulls when we visited different areas," said Nicolas Lodeiro Ocampo, president of the group. "That hardly ever happens now because people are more aware of the penalties."
The group says there is increasing evidence that foreigners are hunting the animals for sport, though most animals are killed by farmers who lose livestock to the jaguars.
But despite some progress to crack down on poaching, hunters are rarely convicted by over-stretched courts.
"(If a) judge has 5,000 or 6,000 cases to handle, among them kidnappings or drug-trafficking, that affects ... the interest they could have in environmental issues like jaguars," said Marcelo Silva Croome, an official at the government's National Wildlife Directorate.
In Iguazu, the Project Jaguar team says the forest needs the jaguar as much as the jaguar needs the forest.
"In areas where large predators are disappearing ... the ecosystem starts to lose equilibrium," Paviolo said. "For the jungle to remain as it is, we need to have these predators."
(Additional reporting by Juan Bustamante; Writing by Helen Popper; editing by Patricia Reaney)