Fast Fact Attack: Endangered Species No. 93 – The Jaguar


Jaguar sleeping in a tree

“Only when the last tree is cut, only when the last river is polluted, only when the last fish is caught, will they realize that you can’t eat money”
Native American proverb

With destruction levels of South America’s rainforests set to hit an all time high, these wild and beautiful big cats are being forced to move closer to human settlements.  This is not their choice, they simply have nowhere else to go.  Their habitat is being lost at an Young jaguar in the undergrowthalarming rate, and with it most of their wild prey species.  Many of the ungulates eaten by the jaguar are also hunted by humans.  Over-hunted, in fact.  Farmers, who will shoot jaguars on sight, view them as pests, and as a threat to both themselves and their livestock. This, of course, is not without foundation; but when you deprive an animal of its own natural prey, there is a great possibility it will look elsewhere in order sate its appetite.  The human population is growing as fast as the forests are disappearing, making it difficult for the jaguar to avoid contact with man, therefore increasing the potential for slaughter.  As a result the jaguar has become extremely vulnerable;  and he is not the one carrying a gun.

Another threat to the jaguar is hunting for pelts.  Although there was a huge decline in the 1970s, due to CITES involvement and protest campaigns, the wearing of fur has once again become popular.  The age-old demand for paws, teeth and other body parts also continues unabated.

Jaguar melanistic - black colour morphThe jaguar is the largest cat of the Americas, and the only living member of the genus Panthera found in the New World.  After the tiger and the lion, the jaguar is also the third largest cat on the planet. Noted for its power and agility, this iconic animal can weigh anything between one and three hundred pounds, stand three feet at the shoulder and reach as much as six feet in length.

These wild and graceful creatures have large, broad heads housing exceptionally powerful, short jaws.  One bite is enough to kill its prey.  Cats can tear their food and crush it, but are unable to chew.  Food is swallowed whole and, when in the stomach, the digestive juices break it down.

Pantanal Jaguar - Panthera onca palustrisThe base coat of the jaguar varies from yellow to reddish-brown with a white underside.  The spots on the head, neck and legs are usually solid, whereas on the back they appear as rosettes with spots in the middle.  The pattern of each coat is different and allows for identification of individuals.  It also provides perfect camouflage in the undergrowth.  When comparing leopard and jaguar, the leopard does not have spots in the centre of the rosettes.  This is an easy way to tell the difference at a glance.

jaguar melanistic Melanistic variants commonly occur in jaguars due to a dominant gene mutation.  They were once often referred to as “black panthers”.  This is, of course, now politically incorrect and they are instead known colloquially as “black jaguars”.  They are not, however, strictly black.  All the distinct markings of the jaguar are there underneath, but are hidden by the excess black pigment melanin.  It is quite possible to see these markings with the naked eye. Melanistic cubs can be born to non-melanistic parents and vice versa.

Jaguar in tree ready to pounceThis enigmatic and elusive cat spends its time either resting in the trees or hunting down its prey.  It hunts on both land and in water, and is a skilled swimmer.  It is capable of moving through the water with astonishing speed and stealth, often pouncing on its prey unannounced.  The prey is stalked in silence on huge padded paws, and after one agile leap, rapidly disposed of with a single powerful bite to the neck, suffocating the creature almost instantly.  In fact, the name Jaguar is said to come from the Native American word “yaguar” which interprets as “he who kills with one leap”.  A solitary creatures, the jaguar will defend its territory fiercely if other males attempt to encroach. This is when those huge canines come into action.

Like the tiger, lion and leopard (all genus Panthera) this large felid has the ability to roar, due to the unusual square shape of the vocal chords and the thick pad of elastic tissue towards the front.  Cats of the genus Panthera are the only cats which actually can roar.

Jaguar and melanistic cubs born in captivityJaguars only come together to mate.  Normally, they are solitary. There is no specific breeding season for the species.  It is the mother that takes care of the cubs – the father moves on.  As with tigers, there is always the risk of the father killing and eating the cubs. With perhaps this in mind, the mother soon sees him off after the birth if he lingers.  Following a gestation period of up to one hundred and ten days, typically, one to three cubs will be born, each weighing one and a half to two pounds.  The cubs will be born blind and remain so for the first two weeks of their lives.  They will be weaned at three months but will stay in the den, relying upon their mother for food, until they are about six months old. At this age, they will be ready to accompany their mother on small hunts.  They will stay with her until they reach maturity and can establish a territory of their own.  During this time the cubs will have perfected the art of finding food and shelter, and defending themselves. Females are mature at about three years of age and males four years of age.

Natural Habitat
Jaguars have a vast array of habitats including rainforest, deciduous forest, seasonally flooded swamp, grassland and mountain scrub.  They are almost always found living near water.  Where habitat is concerned, there are certain criteria essential to maintaining healthy populations:  dense cover, plentiful prey and a good supply of water.
Where
Remote regions of South and Central America, largely in the moist  Amazon Basin.
What they eat
Jaguars are obligate carnivores with a preference for large ungulates.  But, they will eat almost anything, including sloth, reptiles, amphibians, fish and monkeys.  In all,  jaguars are said to prey on over eighty-five species.   
Threats
Extensive and aggressive deforestation, persecution, human conflict, hunting for pelts, and hunting for paws and teeth for mythological reasons. “Those who excelled in hunting and warfare often adorned themselves with jaguar pelts, teeth, or claws and were regarded as possessing feline souls” (Saunders 1998).  Although hunting for pelts has declined dramatically over the last thirty years, demand is rising again in the markets, and claws are still seen as having the same mythical properties.
Status: Near Threatened
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is listed on the  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species  as Near Threatened (likely to become endangered in the near future).  It is also listed on  CITES Appendix I.  The jaguar is fully protected at national level across most of its range, with hunting either prohibited or restricted.
Various groups are involved in  Jaguar Conservation.  Recovery programs are in place,  and there  is an active  Jaguar Species Survival Plan.  Yet the species is still declining!  

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