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Jaguar

Jaguar Family Photo
A jaguar family plods through Kaa Iya National Park, Bolivia, near the Isoso Station of the Santa Cruz-Puerto Suarez Gas Pipeline. WCS conservationists confirm that the mother, nicknamed Kaaiyana, has lived in the area for six years.
© Daniel Alarcon
Jaguar Photo
As the largest great cat in the Americas, the jaguar exists in a wide variety of habitat types.
Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

Historically found as far north as the southwestern United States and as far south as southern Argentina, the jaguar is the largest land carnivore in most of its range. This powerful yet somewhat furtive animal has captured the human imagination for ages. In some cultures, it was believed that shamans could transform into jaguars. The ancient Mayans believed the big cat’s spotted coat represented the night sky and the people of the Amazon saw in the jaguar’s shiny, reflective eyes proof of its connection to the spiritual world.

The jaguar is smaller than the lion and tiger, and is characterized by a powerful, compact body that exudes strength, and is built more for stealth and sudden capture than running. Jaguar diets vary across its range but the animal’s natural prey includes peccaries, large rodents (paca, agouti, capybara), armadillos, and deer. The jaguar’s massive head and muscular jaw provide its extraordinary biting power. Where the jaguar co-exists with domestic livestock, such as cattle and pigs, these animals sometimes become prey. This creates conflicts with humans and the endangered jaguars, which are targeted for retaliatory killing.

Jaguars need cover for hunting, adequate natural prey, and security from direct conflict with humans. These cats occupy a variety of habitats, from short dry forests, through mosaics of savanna and forest, to deep primary and secondary rainforest. At present, there are pockets of apparently stable jaguar populations scattered between Northern Mexico and Northern Argentina, with the largest single contiguous range for the iconic big cat centered around the Amazon Basin. Because human-jaguar co-existence, though possible, is challenging, the guarantee of long-term large wild areas is critical to ensure the species’ survival.

Fast Facts

Scientific NamePanthera onca
  • Jaguars are typically yellowish with a pattern of black spots, called rosettes, which are essentially rings with dots within. Each jaguar can be identified by its unique pattern of spots.
  • Jaguars range in size from 85 to 230 pounds.
  • A jaguar’s canines can puncture the skull of large mammalian prey, and the cat easily consumes large reptiles into nourishment.

Challenges

The primary challenges jaguars face are massive conversions of habitats for human economic interests, being shot or poisoned by livestock owners concerned about ongoing or potential losses to jaguars, and the depletion of the cat's natural prey base via overhunting. The prey of humans and jaguars overlap, with both preferring large mammals. This introduces an element of competition between rural people and jaguars. Some protected areas remain susceptible to uncontrolled human activities that can be detrimental for jaguars. Securing existing strongholds can help assure the cat’s future.

WCS Responds

The WCS Jaguar Conservation program began in 1999 to support scientific research that helps us understand what jaguars need and to work with the people who live with jaguars to minimize conflicts. We evaluate key protected areas, and work to improve the status of those refuges where jaguar populations are not secure. In much of their range, jaguars live in close proximity to cattle ranches and other human settlements. WCS works with livestock owners of both large and small herds to communicate ways domestic animals can be managed to improve production and reduce losses to cats. Our goal is to reduce the frequency of retaliatory hunting of jaguars by livestock owners. We also work, pro-actively, with indigenous communities who live with jaguar to promote co-existence. We help ensure that jaguars are safe on the periphery of protected areas and can even pass between them.

We are always seeking new ways to enhance livelihoods sustainably while promoting wildlife conservation in jaguar territory. For example, in the Nari Awari Indigenous Reserve of Costa Rica, we are experimenting with the use of live fences (barriers made from woody plants and hedges, in lieu of barbed wire) to keep wildlife out of livestock pens. We are also testing out methane biodigesters—a waste treatment system that can provide clean and renewable energy and cut down on use of firewood, preventing environmental pollution that originates from runoff from animal pens, and reduce diseases caused by the use of untreated manure as fertilizer.

Beginning in 1990, with financial support from USAID, WCS joined with the governments and conservationists of Central America to establish an initiative known as the Paseo Pantera or Path of the Panther. The proposal called for the designation of biological corridors to connect and reinforce the relatively small protected areas of the jaguar. The concept was adopted by all seven countries of Central America, and the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor was born, creating a framework for jaguar conservation and other innovations to maintain biodiversity in the region.

Between 2007 and 2009, with support from the U.S. State Department and the Panthera Foundation, WCS developed multiple projects in multiple countries to begin realizing this vision, by identifying jaguar dispersal routes, evaluating protected areas, working with ranchers and indigenous communities, and educating the public. Since then, WCS has focused on ensuring and improving the status of the protected areas needed to ensure the jaguar’s survival, and helping our friends in jaguar range co-exist successfully with this iconic symbol of tropical America. For example, in the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve and Caribbean Jaguar Corridor of Honduras, we are working with ranchers to understand their concerns and discuss jaguar-related conflicts, evaluating ranch management practices, and pursuing solutions that will include marketing, model ranches, and education.

WCS Projects

Sustaining biological and cultural diversity in Bolivia

Bolivia’s Madidi-Tambopata landscape has a wide range of altitudes as well as a high diversity of ecosystems and peoples. WCS works to conserve its cultural and biological heritage via initiatives that improve land-use and livelihoods.

Controlling Forest Fires in the Maya Biosphere Reserve

The Maya Biosphere Reserve, spanning Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, is one of Latin America’s last remaining rainforest strongholds. But forest fires are growing rampant, and climate change research predicts that the problem will grow worse without concerted efforts to halt them.

From the Newsroom

Bolivia: Land of Giant Anteaters and Fairy ArmadillosJuly 23, 2013

A newly published WCS database shows the range of 116 species of Bolivian mammals, from the obscure “Count Branickii’s terrible mouse” to the mighty jaguar. The database will help shape future conservation decisions for some of South America’s most threatened and charismatic wildlife.

Dramatic Photo Shows Jaguar and Cubs from Bolivia’s Kaa Iya National ParkDecember 21, 2011

Bolivia’s Jaguars Set a RecordOctober 19, 2011

In a recent study conducted in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park, WCS researchers have identified a record number of jaguars through a digital camera trap survey.

Apex Predators: A Scary LossJuly 20, 2011

In a recent study, WCS Conservationist Joel Berger concludes that the loss of large predators in the wild may be humankind’s most pervasive influence on nature.

The Grass Gets Greener for Cows and JaguarsMay 4, 2011

A WCS study finds when Brazilian ranchers rotate crops in the Pantanal and Cerrado, they get bigger cows, bigger profits, and better ecosystems for wildlife.

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