Probably deriving its name from the Tupian Indian word, yaguara “beast” the jaguar, Panthera onca, is the only Panthera species found in the Americas.
The third largest cat in the world – male jaguars can weight up to 159 kilograms (350 lb), twice their leopard equivalents – jaguars inhabit forests and open savannahs over an increasingly decreasing range. Once frequent in the southern United States and as far south as southern Argentina, excessive hunting has restricted jaguars to a handful of strongholds in Central and South America.
These impressive hunters are mostly ambush predators, usually dispatching their prey by biting through the skull. Strong swimmers, jaguars often hunt river banks and are not deterred from pursuing their prey (such as capybaras and caiman) into the water. Other prey includes large mammals such as deer, tapirs, peccaries, dogs and foxes. Smaller prey items can include frogs, mice, birds, fish, sloths, monkeys, and turtles. The jaguar is often described as nocturnal, but is more specifically crepuscular (peak activity around dawn and dusk) and can quite often be seen relaxing during the day on river banks, sand beaches and occasionally in trees.
The jaguar is a near threatened species and its numbers are declining. Threats include habitat loss and fragmentation. While international trade in jaguars or their parts is prohibited, the cat is still regularly killed by humans, particularly in conflicts with ranchers and farmers in South America. Although reduced, its range remains large; given its historical distribution, the jaguar has featured prominently in the mythology of numerous indigenous American cultures, including that of the Maya and Aztec.
Where to watch jaguars?
Jaguars are usually incredibly difficult to see in the wild and visitors to even the most pristine rainforest reserves are almost universally disappointed. Much of this is due to the terrain and territorial range of the animal. Female jaguars have a typical range of 25 – 40 square kilometres with males almost twice this. This is a huge area to hide even a large cat, particularly when the terrain is dense forest and the animals are understandably weary of humans. You stand chances of observing rainforest jaguars are in the Manu Biosphere in Peru, Chan Chich Lodge in Belize and the Iwokrama Forest Field Station in Guyana but you would need to be incredibly fortunate in any of these locations.
Jaguar Watching in the Pantanal
The world’s jaguar hotspot is undoubtedly is the Pantanal region of Brazil. There are a number of good reasons for this: firstly there is an unusually high density of prey species here (especially capybaras and caiman) particularly during the dry months (June – October), this supports a higher density of jaguars with each having a much smaller range than their rainforest counterparts. Secondly, the terrain is much more open here with the jaguars crucially choosing to hunt and rest on relatively open riverbanks. Finally, the local human population in the Pantanal is relatively tolerant of jaguars; fisherman, in particular, have been known to throw titbits to jaguars they encounter.
Although you have a moderately good chance of seeing jaguars throughout the Pantanal, the key area is the Cuiaba river just north of the small village of Porto Jofrey. Here, jaguars seem particularly comfortable with people and it is often possible watch jaguars resting, mating and hunting with no real regard to the observing tourists. Although there are a couple of other lodges in the area, the SouthWild Jaguar Houseboat is the only place to ‘guarantee’ jaguar sightings, being located in the heart of the best jaguar area and using a series of scout boats to scour the riverbanks. Sightings of six or seven jaguars during a three day period are now common here and the record currently stands at an incredible13 jaguar sightings – a quite remarkable testament to the richness of the Pantanal and the effort put in by the lodge.