So what do we know about it? The jaguar is an elusive animal.
Over the years scientists have found it difficult to access its natural habitats, such as thick tropical rainforests, and observe it in action.
But more progress is being made now with the availability of new technologies.
The jaguar lives in biodiversity-rich regions of Central and South America.
It prefers forest habitats and areas close to water sources (such as wetlands, rivers, lakes etc) as it loves water and is a great swimmer.
For example, the Amazon River Basin and the wetland area of Pantanal in Brazil are home to important populations of jaguars (Ref. 1).
Other important jaguar animals' habitats include Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala and Mexico’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.
Wildlife Conservation Society refers to jaguars as a landscape species and states that “they require more than one habitat for their survival” (Ref. 2).
The jaguar roams over a large area of land to hunt for prey and naturally visits and utilises many different habitats.
The jaguar thrives in relatively healthy habitats.
As a simplified example, the jaguar preys on white-lipped peccaries which prey on a number of other animals in a rainforest, which in their turn feed on plants.
The plants, in their turn, get nutrition from the rainforest’s soil which is worked by millions of insects which need all sorts of other organic material to feed on, and so this interdependent chain of animal – plant interactions goes on and on.
So before the jaguar gets its food, lots of different components in a habitat need to connect to each other to produce various forms of life. And this is an indication of the habitat’s health.
Recent advances in technology for observing and studying animals have brought on new opportunities for researching the jaguar.
The use of motion-activated cameras hidden in a forest is now replacing a more crude method of radiotelemetry - attaching radio transmitters to an animal's neck which requires that the animal be captured and tranquillised.
Researchers use this new technique to estimate the numbers and movements of jaguar animals in a particular area. Data such as these are very important for conservation purposes.
The jaguar is a nocturnal animal – it hunts for prey mostly during the dark hours of the day. (Ref. 3) Though we have heard of some recent evidence of the jaguar’s daytime hunting as well. (Ref. 4)
The jaguar is a very adaptable animal.
A jaguar’s stocky and muscled build is a result of its millennia’s long adaptation to its environment.
The jaguar is exclusively carnivorous which means it only eats meat (that is, other animals!). It has a very varied diet and eats lots of different types of prey.
The jaguar is a very intelligent, stalk-and-ambush hunter. As Peter Freidrici gives its excellent description:
“… jaguars … hunt by stealth, ambushing their prey from dense cover. Long canine teeth and powerful jaw muscles enable them to kill large animals swiftly, often with a single bite to the nape.” ( Ref. 5)
Forest jaguars are much smaller in size than the ones inhabiting open areas. This may be due to the fact that forests have a smaller number of large herbivorous prey. (a)
We also know that the jaguars commonly take refuge in brush thickets (b) and, when the forest floor is flooded, can live on the trees for months (c).
I wonder if this could be another of jaguar's adaptations: the smaller the animal is, the easier it is for it to live generally on the forest floor and specifically on the trees, and avoid potential threats.
Is the jaguar a truly solitary animal?
Though it acts alone in its hunting pursuits, it does not mean a total lack of social awareness.
There is more to the jaguar’s social contact than just for mating purposes and when cubs stay with their mothers for a couple of years before venturing out on their own to establish their own territory.
The jaguars mark their territory by leaving their scrape marks and scat behind. And this gives them a “remarkable ability to know where their neighbours are” (ref. 6) and helps them avoid encroaching on each other’s territory.
Fiona and Mel Sunquist bring to our attention interesting results of some long-term studies of solitary cats.
They point out that whereas male cubs ultimately leave their mothers’ territory to find their own,
“young females, on the other hand, often take over their mother’s range or settle next to her. The result is that neighbouring females are usually grandmothers, sisters, daughters and aunts. … These females do not hunt together, but they know each other by scent and often encounter each other along boundaries.” ( Ref. 7)
Though jaguars have not been specifically mentioned here, we may perhaps assume that this may also apply to them.
In the last 10 – 20 years we have seen a lot of action in the area of jaguar conservation.
A number of reserves have been established, either specifically for protection of the jaguar, or for protection of the jaguar alongside other animals (as part of broader animal conservation efforts).
And a huge amount of work has already been done.
But what is the current conservation status of the jaguars? Are they really endangered animals?
The current jaguar population is estimated to be around 15,000 individuals (see jaguar facts).
The fact that this animal is classified as a Near Threatened species by the IUCN – World Conservation Union even further highlights the importance of jaguar conservation. (Ref.8) This means that the jaguar is not endangered or vulnerable at the moment but is likely to become threatened in the near future. (Ref. 9)
We can track the beginning of a significant decline in the jaguar s’ numbers back to the end of the 1960s when trade in jaguar animal skins was rampant, driven by demand in the then fashionable jaguar fur coats.
Just imagine that during that period the pelts of 15,000 jaguars were imported into the US and Europe every year. (Ref. 10)
Since 1975, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) prohibited trade in jaguars, this threat to the jaguar’s existence was more or less eliminated. (Ref. 11)
Most of the current threats are similar to the ones faced by many other endangered animals.
Below are the main threats that present a danger to the jaguar’s long-term survival.
1. Rainforest Development
Rainforest development is probably the biggest area of concern from the jaguar conservation point of view.
Virtually all the countries that are home to the jaguar animal are developing countries. They have to find the right balance between the need for economic progress and environmental protection.
Rainforests contain invaluable natural resources and it is obviously very difficult for their owners to resist the temptation of exploiting them.
So in the past several decades we have witnessed an accelerated development of rainforests. For example, we saw the construction of roads and dams which probably even further facilitated both legal and illegal logging. Vast underground resources in tropical rainforests attracted a number of large multi-national corporations – so, mining was another major development.
This all has led to deforestation and consequently fragmentation of the jaguar’s habitat. Such fragmentation is particularly bad for this animal as it needs vast areas of land to survive.
2. Rancher Shooting
Once the rainforests had been “opened up” by construction and logging, more migrants started moving into the forests and claiming the “free” land in search of a better life. This also contributed significantly to deforestation.
As these new ranchers started settling down and breeding cattle, jaguars started attacking and killing ranchers’ livestock. This led to revenge shootings by ranchers. Rancher shooting now presents a serious risk to the jaguar animal’s existence, and indeed a big hurdle to jaguar conservation.
We can find a good example of the rancher–jaguar conflict in the Corcovado National Park in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica.
As the Corcovado Foundation reports, illegal hunting of white-lipped peccaries – one of the primary food sources for the jaguar – inside the park has led to a dramatic decrease in the peccaries’ numbers.
This shortage of food caused the jaguars to leave their natural habitats, move into populated areas of the park and hunt for goats and dogs. As a result, we witness jaguars being killed for attacking livestock. (Ref. 12)
Poaching of jaguars had most likely existed before the large-scale development of rainforests. And though the hunting and trade in jaguars had been banned in most of their home countries, it is very likely that the opening of large forest tracts made it even easier for poachers to do their business.
One of the areas driving poaching is the illegal sale of jaguars as pets to the populations of their native countries.
As you can imagine, old traditions die hard and so it is tricky to persuade people to refrain from owning wild animals and not to accelerate this ongoing decline in their populations.
Take, for example, some Central American countries such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras where the wildlife pet trade is indeed very popular. (Ref. 13)
The big issue here is that owners of wild animals very often realise that they cannot manage their pets once the animals are big and, well, “wild”.
And so you can often find such pet owners turning their pets in to rehabilitation units. In poorer countries the infrastructure of such units leaves much to be desired. Additionally, every unit obviously has a limited capacity and cannot keep accepting an unending stream of new customers.
At the same time some experts point out that the domestic markets would not have been flooded with wild animals had it not been for the global demand for them. (Ref. 14)
4. Fighting for Territory Among Jaguar Animals
Jaguars’ male fights between each other over territory are perhaps the only real non-human related threat faced by this animal, that can lead to injury, infection and death. (Ref. 15)
As developing countries are struggling to balance their need for economic development with the need to conserve their tropical rainforests and wildlife, I would say that the change of attitude towards wild animals especially in these countries would be a good starting point.
Further education of the local populations about a) the real value of wildlife and b) international conservation efforts would also help move the local mentality in the right direction.
As such, people are destroying what they are destroying not for the sole fun of it but out of necessity – that is, to support themselves and their families. The root cause here is obviously the poverty itself, and its alleviation as such would certainly help relieve pressure on tropical rainforests and their wildlife.
We have already seen examples of “alternative” types of employment such as research and eco-tourism jobs for the local populations. (Ref. 16)
As for concerns about rancher shootings, other really interesting and promising innovative methods have recently been put forward, for example:
a) Guarding dogs living together with the livestock to help protect them
b) “Conditioned Taste Aversion” therapy – when a non-lethal salt is injected into a dead cow, for example, which a predator eats, gets sick and ultimately develops an aversion for this sort of prey
c) Electric shock fences that surround pastures and keep predators away
Read more about the economic value of the jaguar and how new business ideas can help promote jaguar conservation efforts further down in this article.
Currently, important jaguar animal conservation efforts are focussed on the jaguar’s most significant habitats which we've already mentioned above.
Specifically, these areas are the wetland area of Pantanal Brazil (“a critical jaguar range area”, ref. 19), Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize (the only reserve specially created to protect jaguars, ref. 20), the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala and Mexico’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve.
We discuss these and other jaguar reserves in more detail here.
The jaguar is a “flagship species”.
That is exactly why this animal has been chosen to highlight the problems in ecologically sensitive areas of the earth and galvanize the public into action.
Conservationists hope that flagship species like the jaguar can help save entire ecosystems in which they live.
Here is how Columbia Encyclopedia defines the term "ecosystem":
“… ecosystem consists of a community of plants and animals in an environment that supplies them with raw materials for life, i.e., chemical elements and water. The ecosystem is delimited by the climate, altitude, water and soil characteristics, and other physical conditions of the environment.” ( Ref. 21)
As a predator, the jaguar keeps the number of its preys’ population under control. (Ref. 22)
In short, it guarantees that such “controlled” populations of other animals can consume only a certain amount of plants and other animals within the ecosystem that they all share (for example, a small forest). So these interactions between animals and plants of this specific ecosystem, which the jaguar somehow “oversees”, result in a stable distribution of this ecosystem’s “members”.
On the other hand, not all the scientists agree with this theory, and this may be just the natural variability of animal and plant populations.
Also, as part of the biodiversity pool of each ecosystem in which it lives, the jaguar contributes to the general health and resilience of this ecosystem.
It is really easy to derive aesthetic pleasure from admiring this strikingly beautiful animal! Its glamorous spots and stunning colours bring out the best emotions in everyone, from children to adults.
This world would certainly be a sadder place without the jaguar’s beauty in it. So let’s not allow this to happen!
The jaguar really does capture the imagination of many wildlife lovers. And with that comes a great potential for monetizing this “asset” for those who co-exist with this animal and secure its welfare. That is, the caring local population.
In fact, many ranchers now realise that the jaguar conservation can generate some great business opportunities (possibly a lot more profitable than traditional cattle ranching) and so they put efforts into making these new ideas work. (Ref. 23)
The most popular business idea so far that would benefit jaguar conservation?
You guessed it. Ecotourism is the buzz of the day.
“Eco” tourists show a big interest in seeing jaguar animals in their natural habitats and paying good money for this unique chance. And as a result, we see a lot more private efforts to preserve jaguars. (Ref. 24)
We like the following statement about this new phenomenon:
“… true ecotourism should simultaneously benefit tourists, the environment and the local society and economy.” ( Ref. 25)
Ecotourism is certainly taking off.
We believe it can work in the long-term if all the sides to this equation (including the jaguar!) get fair values from this economic activity.
Written by: Irina Bright of Tropical-Rainforest-Animals.com
Publication Date: November 2007
Updates: December 2011