“Sleek yet magnificent, calm, and keen, at night he stalks
and ambushes his prey. He jumps and pierces the prey’s
skull and kills with a powerful bite. He swims and roars; The
one who kills with a single leap…”

The above refers to none other than Panthera onca, the Jaguar; a magnificent creation of mother nature. As the name implies, “the one who kills with a single leap”, jaguars are prominent carnivores, and the one-and-only member of the big cat family, native to the Americas, living in wild. Since their modern distribution restricts to American continents, they are an important component in those ecosystems. However, irrespective of their importance, jaguars are fighting a survival battle against anthropogenic activities, which are threatening their habitats, survival, and overall life quality. Let’s explore more facts on jaguars, the threats they have, as well as what we can do for their conservation, on this International Jaguar Day 2022.

Insight into Jaguars: Who are they?

Jaguars are carnivores belonging to the order Carnivora, family Felidae, and genus Panthera. Due to being a member of the big-cat family, jaguars possess shared features with other big cats such as cheetahs, leopards, etc. Jaguars are the second largest in the cat family, with respect to body weight. An adult jaguar weighs from 57kg to 113kg with a body- length of 112- 185cm, and with a tail length of 45-75 cm. Within the big cat family, they are the heaviest cats that climbs well.

Anatomically, they possess a robustly- built body, along with similar features to leopards, but with a larger, deeper, and broader head, larger paws, and a shorter tail compared to a leopard. Moreover, they possess the shortest fore and hind limbs relative to the body among other pantherine cats along with a retractile claw on each digit. In addition, jaguars have a powerful bite, due to the presence of relatively larger canines in the lower jaw than other pantherines.

Basic anatomical features of jaguars
Figure 01: Basic anatomical features of a jaguar

Possessing a highly variable coat pattern is a characteristic feature. This aids in differentiating jaguars from other big cats such as leopards and cheetahs. The coat’s background color may range from pale yellow to tan to reddish yellow. These rosette-like dark patterns in the coat are highly unique. Generally, in jaguars, the spots are a black, interrupted outer ring, with coat color in the middle.  However, in small numbers melanistic individuals occur, who we know as “Black panthers”. Jaguars are capable of living for 20-27 years.

Rosette-like patterns in skin of jaguars
Figure 02: Rosette-like patterns in jaguar skin

Habitats & distribution: Where do they live?

Though initially, they were abundant in Africa, Asia, and Europe, the modern distribution of jaguars in the wild mainly inhabits the American continents, which is almost 63% of the historic distribution. Their range ranges from the Southwestern United States, Mexico, through Central America into northern South America including various countries such as Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Colombia, etc. It says that they are extinct in Chile, El Salvador, Uruguay, etc. (Their distribution heavily revolves around Amazon Rain forests in South America). None of them can be seen in the wild in Asia/ Sri Lanka.

Distribution of jaguars in the American continents
Figure 03: Distribution of jaguars in the American continents

Although jaguars can occupy a wide variety of habitats, they prefer areas with dense cover. This provides an advantage, where the vegetation cover assists in stalking the prey. Therefore, jaguars are common in dense lowland and mountain tropical rainforests, with a strong affinity towards habitats with water. Apart from that, they inhabit thorn scrubs, dry grasslands, and evergreen woodlands on the American continent. 

In those ecosystems, by acting as an apex predator and a keystone species, jaguars play a huge ecological role in the sustainability of those ecosystems.

Behaviour & Ecology: How jaguars behave?

Jaguars are mainly excellent nocturnal hunters. (Hunting time varies locally.) Their hunting strategy is far different from that of other pantherines. Though jaguars are fast runners, most of their hunting techniques base on stalking and ambushing large prey. When killing the prey, instead of biting its throat, jaguars follow a unique strategy where it crushes the skull of the prey (especially of smaller prey), by exerting a powerful bite. During hunting, they are quite sleek, and fast but keen at the same time. Moreover, they are capable of feeding on a wide range of food materials and prefer capybara, marsh deer, giant anteater, etc.

jaguars hunting down a crocodile in a water body
Figure 04: A jaguar hunting down a crocodile in a water body

In addition to that, jaguars are often observed living in solitude, despite that, during mating season males and females tend to travel and feed together. And also they display territorial behavior via the “land tenure” system, i.e., first in the area claims the area. To denote their territory, as any other pantherine cats, jaguars also use scent marking by spraying urine, cheek rub, etc. These animals are also considered good runners, swimmers, and climbers.

Jaguars also display unique vocalizations such as “grunt”, “snore”, low pitched roar, and chuff. 

Threats and concerns: What threatens jaguars?

Despite their ecological importance, the population of jaguars is shrinking enormously due to heavy anthropogenic involvement. By 2018, the global population of Panthera onca is estimated to be around 173 000. This jaguar population mainly resides in the Amazon basin (i.e., Brazil, Peru, and Columbia.) In the 2016 assessment, IUCN enlisted them as “Near Threatened” species, due to their declining population. Apart from that, both U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and U.S. Endangered Species Status have listed them as “endangered”.

Habitat loss and fragmentation coupled with excessive poaching pave the way for the increment in the rate of extinction of these magnificent creatures, limiting them only to the American continents. Deforestation due to the conversion of those habitats into agricultural lands or human settlements, loss of prey base as jaguars have to compete with humans for protein sources, and fragmentation of populations has led to their habitat loss and fragmentation of jaguar populations. Moreover, excessive illegal hunting of jaguars to present as a trophy, for ornamental purposes, as a black-market trade and as people consider them as potential threats to humans, has also contributed to this rapid decline of their population.

A jaguar being skinned
Figure 05: A jaguar being skinned

If this further continues, in the near future, jaguars will remain only as a museum exhibit for future generations.

International Jaguar Day and Conservation: What have been done so far?

Due to the high risk of extinction owing to the population decline of jaguars, accompanied by their ecological importance, International Jaguar Day falls on 29th November, to celebrate jaguars “as an umbrella species for biodiversity conservation and as an icon for sustainable development and the centuries-old cultural heritage of Central and South America.”. (International Jaguar Day, n.d.) Various organizations worldwide, conduct many awareness and conservation programs, corresponding to this day.

As a precautionary method, many countries like North America, Central, and South America prohibit hunting Jaguars. In nations like Brazil, Mexico, Peru, etc. jaguar hunting is restricted. Apart from that, several other legal actions were taken locally in the U.S. as well as globally, to protect and restore the jaguar population.

According to Appendix 1, listed in CITES since 1973, all international trade in jaguars or their parts is prohibited for CITES countries. Moreover, enlisting in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services as an endangered species gave rise to the Jaguar recovery plan in 2008, which restarted in 2010, to restore the damaged population of jaguars. Apart from that, in 2002, 46 jaguar conservation units were established in Central America. Also, both ex-situ and in-situ conservation of jaguars along with several other conservation awareness programs had been conducted worldwide to ensure the retainment of jaguars in the future- mother Earth as well. 

What can we, Sri Lankans do for jaguars?

Even though jaguars are not a natural part of Sri Lankan fauna, as responsible human beings, it is our responsibility to encourage such conservation programs, for the sustenance of Panthera onca by ways such as refusal of products made of jaguar skin, working against their overexploitation, etc. Moreover, as global citizens raising awareness among people of this “known, yet unknown” species, will ultimately result in increasing their population size.

Therefore, let’s “leap” forward to protect the big cat that kills with a single leap, for their own and respective ecosystems’ sustenance.

Written By:

P.K.D. Chathumini Yasara,
2nd Year Undergraduate,
Biological Science Stream,
Faculty of Science,
University of Colombo.

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