for National Geographic News
National Geographic's new television special In Search of the Jaguar airs in the U.S. Wednesday, 8 p.m., on PBS.
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"Yaguara," the South American Indian word for jaguar, literally means the animal that kills in a single bound.
The elusive, spotted-coat cats secretly stalk their prey until just the right moment. Then they pounce with a graceful thud: In one leap the cats must snap their prey's spine or else go hungry.
"Jaguars, unlike all other large cats, aren't very fast, they can't chase down prey over long distances," said Alan Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.
Rabinowitz is among the world's foremost jaguar experts. He says that neither he, nor anyone else, knows very much about the cats. Their elusive nature keeps them out of the scope of even the most persistent biologists.
Where do the cats go after they kill their prey? Do they share the spoils? How and when do they mate? Do they teach their young to hunt? How big is their home territory? Do they protect it fiercely?
"It's sad how little we know about jaguars," said Rabinowitz. "Amongst all the big cats, we know the least about them."
What is known is that the usual suspects of habitat loss and human depredation of the cats and their prey have truncated the felines' historic range and threaten to send them down the road to extinction.
With the support of the makers of Jaguar cars, Rabinowitz and his colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society are working with researchers throughout Latin America to better understand the basic biology of jaguars so that they can ensure the species' long-term survival.
"If we are to conserve them, we need to have a better understanding of the ecology of the animals to design conservation areas accordingly," said Andrew Taber, director of the society's Latin America program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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