The jaguar Panthera onca is the largest cat in the Americas and the third-largest in the world (after the lion and tiger). Its head-body length can reach around 240cm, and its shoulder height up to 75cm.
Home on the range
Today, the jaguar is found in South and Central America, from Mexico to northern Argentina. The species’ range formerly spread over the US border into the southern states of America, but had become wiped out there by the 1940s due to hunting. There have been sporadic sightings in Arizona in recent years, however.
The Pantanal in Brazil is one of the best places in the world to see jaguars. The best time to visit is the dry season, from late April to early November.
Spot the difference
Jaguars can be distinguished from other big cats by the shape of their spots. The spots resemble roses, and as such are known as rosettes.
The first jaguar preserve – the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize – was created in 1986. The sanctuary now protects 240km2 of tropical forest. Though the species is doing well there, your chances of seeing one are still minimal – apparently 17,000:1.
Jaguars have incredibly powerful jaws, strong enough to pierce a skull and crack a sea turtle’s shell. They are fearsome predators and will hunt anything from frogs, fish and reptiles to livestock, cows and deer.
With fragmentation of habitat a major threat to the species, a ambitious project – the Jaguar Corridor Initiative, proposed by renowned zoologist and former Panthera CEO Alan Rabinowitz – was launched in 2004 to create a continuous north-to-south habitat corridor throughout the species’ range, enabling it to roam and breed.
Jaguars are solitary animals. Males defend a range of up to 80-90km2 and only come together with females to mate. Breeding occurs throughout the year, and females have up to four cubs, which disperse after two years.
Jaguars can survive in many different habitats. They are normally found near water, and prefer swampland or tropical rainforest. They also survive in forests, grassland and scrub.
Jaguars are competent climbers, and will scale trees. They often use their vantage point among the branches to pounce on unsuspecting prey below.