Environmental authorities in Colombia’s Antioquia department announced Thursday that they had identified six suspects accused of killing a protected jaguar on a small ranch in the Medio Magdalena region.
“After nine days of combing the area … and searching for evidence that could establish the veracity of posts shared on social media, Corantioquia, police and municipal administrations have identified the person who it seems killed the jaguar,” said officials with Corantioquia, a regional government environmental group, in a statement Thursday.
According to the statement, the person identified admitted to killing the jaguar but claimed it was an act of self-defense. Five other suspects are also being investigated.
The situation first came to light via a series of photos shared on social media last week. In the images, two men with rifles pose next to a dead jaguar. Other photos show a woman with the animal and bullet holes in its pelt.
“Information and details regarding the suspects have been handed over to the police and the public prosecutor’s office so that they can take necessary measures,” said Corantioquia.
Late last week, several residents of the area had acknowledged that large cats were recently sighted, but no one confirmed knowledge of a hunt. The breakthrough came after authorities offered a $5 million peso ($1,600 USD) reward for information that would permit the capture of those responsible.
National police also reportedly used facial recognition technology on social media to search for the two men featured most prominently in the photos.
Colombian law provides up to nine years in prison plus steep fines for “trafficking, commerce, or financial gain” from hunting protected animals. Killing a jaguar carries a minimum of one year in prison.
Jaguars, which are the largest felines in the Americas, are threatened by hunting and habitat loss. Only 15,000 remain in the wild in a range that extends from South America to northern Mexico, according to the World Wildlife Federation.
“It’s important to remember that these zones have traditionally been home to a diversity of felines and other wild species that have been displaced by human colonization, the growth of agriculture and livestock farming,” said Corantioquia representatives last week.
The organization urged anyone who spots a jaguar or other protected animal near human populations to alert authorities.
A recent study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE found that jaguars and industrial farming can co-exist in Colombia but only under certain best practices. Its authors warned that without protections, Colombian jaguars could become extinct in as little as ten years.