The locals talk about it being the ultimate predator…fast, agile, strong, silent and secretive. This cat’s strength is so revered that it has featured prominently over the decades in the storytelling of all the cultures to share its domain. In Mayan culture it is believed to be the god of the underworld. The people of the Amazon believe that the sun created this cat to represent him on earth. The cat of course is the Jaguar! Temples and monuments still stand today throughout the Americas in testimony to this animal. It is the apex predator of South and Central America.
The name Jaguar comes from the ancient Indian term ‘yaguara’ meaning “a beast that kills with one pounce” – an appropriate way to describe the third largest cat in the world. The scientific name for the Jaguar is Panthera onca, which can be translated into ‘hunter’ and ‘hook’ – a direct reference to their powerful claws. It is, pound for pound the most powerful cat alive and ranks second, after the Spotted Hyena, in terms of jaw strength in mammals.
The 1960’s were very unkind to the Jaguar. An explosion in the demand for the pelt of this spectacular animal saw a reported 15 000 individuals being shot in the Amazon basin alone. The fur traders decimated the population and any surviving individual was sent running for the darkness. A shy animal forced to become even more secretive in order to survive. The Amazon still supports a good, although unknown population of these big cats. The inaccessibility of the terrain and the forest makes it very difficult to conduct studies and view this wondrous creature.
The only other region to support descent numbers of Jaguars is the Pantanal: the largest wetland in the world. This seasonally water –logged land has been utilized over the last 200 years for cattle ranching. Brahman cows graze on the lush grasslands whilst cowboys move them around depending on the water levels. Here, at the right time, the land dries out making the Jaguar population more accessible in terms of viewing and studying.
Unlike most cats, Jaguars do not mind water; in fact they are very good swimmers (a trait shared with the Tiger). They would need to be as water is such a crucial component of the landscape in both of their remaining strongholds. One could easily be forgiven for confusing them with the Leopard. Indeed from a glance they do look very similar. At a later stage we will take a look at these two cats and how they compare. Large ‘rosettes’ cover the orange/tan coat. Some Jaguars exhibit high levels of black pigmentation (melanin) and appear to be black and spotless. They are the same species and according to scientists this gene expression occurs in about 6% of Jaguars – the Black Panther!
Jaguars are predominantly solitary utilizing large territories and actively patrolling their boundaries. Compared to many of the other cats of the world we know very little about this species. It is truly exciting to be involved in a project that is concentrating on groundbreaking work.
Deforestation, loss of habitat and subsequent prey reduction remains the most significant ongoing threat to the Jaguars survival. If this cat is to survive then drastic measures need to be taken. Here, at Caiman Ecological Refuge, the Oncafari Project is set on making a difference to Jaguar conservation. We are hoping to habituate a wild population of Jaguars, here in the Pantanal, so that they can be viewed by open vehicle; a concept that that been successfully mastered in Africa with Leopards, Lions, Cheetahs and other wild animals. This project will make massive inroads to promoting ecotourism in the area, developing an industry in Brazil and most importantly assist in breaking down the negative and hugely damaging stigma that exists amongst cattle ranchers that Jaguars can not live on the same land as cattle. We want to show landowners in the area that it can pay to keep the Jaguar alive. A true example of a win – win: applied science, making a tangible difference in the conservation of ‘the beast that kills with one pounce’.
Follow this blog as we share the ‘Journey of the Jaguars’.
Written and filmed by Adam Bannister