What is the jaguar?
Jaguars are the only big cat in the Americas and the third biggest in the world after tigers and lions. They look a lot like leopards, which live in Africa and Asia, but jaguars’ spots are more complex and often have a dot in the center.
These powerful cats were worshipped as gods in many ancient South American cultures, and representations of the jaguar show up in the art and archaeology of pre-Columbian cultures across the jaguar’s range.
Diet and behavior
Unlike many other cats, jaguars do not avoid water. In fact, they are quite good swimmers. They hunt fish, turtles, and even caimans, using their incredibly powerful jaws to pierce the animals’ skulls. Jaguars also eat deer, peccaries, capybaras, tapirs, and a number of other land animals, which they prefer to ambush at night.
Jaguars live alone, and they’re territorial—they define their area by marking with their waste or clawing trees.
Females have litters of one to four cubs, which are blind and helpless at birth. The mother stays with them and defends them fiercely from any animal that may approach—even their own father. Young jaguars learn to hunt by living with their mothers for two years or more.
Range and habitat
Jaguars once roamed broadly from central Argentina all the way up to the southwestern United States. Since the 1880s, they’ve lost more than half their territory. Their main stronghold today is the Amazon Basin, though they still exist in smaller numbers through Central America as well.
They’re typically found in tropical rainforests but also live in savannas and grasslands.
Threats to survival
Jaguars face a number of threats, including habitat fragmentation and illegal killing. South and Central America’s high rates of deforestation—for grazing land, agriculture, and other uses—have not only destroyed jaguars’ habitat but also broken it up. Fragmented forests mean that cats get boxed into patches of forest and can’t travel far to find new mates. That kind of isolation can lead to inbreeding and local extinctions.
Another threat jaguars face is retaliatory killings from ranchers. As grazing land replaces forests, jaguars are more likely to hunt cattle. In response—and sometimes in anticipation—cattle owners kill jaguars.
Poaching is another growing problem for jaguars. They’ve long been hunted for their pelts, and now there’s a growing illegal, international trade in jaguar teeth and jaguar bone products going to China.
Jaguars are classified as near-threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The species has national protections in almost every country it’s found, and trade in its parts is banned by CITES, a global treaty that regulates the cross-border wildlife trade. Still, poaching and the illegal trade continues so strengthening law enforcement is important.
There are major efforts to support and develop jaguar corridors to connect isolated populations as well as to work with ranchers to reduce human-jaguar conflict. Workshops help ranchers learn better husbandry practices, and a growing number of programs compensate ranchers when they lose cattle to jaguars, so that they’re less motivated to kill the cat in retaliation.
Fighting deforestation, which a number of international NGOs and indigenous groups are involved in, is critical.