A jaguar cub peers into a camera trap while another jaguar looks on in a Colombian oil palm plantation in April.
Taken in the Magdalena River Valley (map), the surprising picture is among the first photographic evidence that the big cats will venture onto oil palm farms, a growing type of agriculture in South America and Asia.
Such farms are the "main cause of habitat transformation, fragmentation, and loss" for jaguars, said Esteban Payan, director of the Northern South America Jaguar Program for Panthera, a big-cat conservation group that formed a partnership with the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative earlier this year. (National Geographic News is a division of the Society.)
Jaguars currently live in isolated populations scattered across North and South America, which is part of the reason the species is listed as "near threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. (See a map of jaguar populations.)
A proposed wildlife corridor stretching from Argentina to Mexico could link jaguar habitats, but it would have to pass through farms and other human-dominated landscapes. Conservationists wanted to know if jaguars would use the agricultural parts of the corridor—hence the Colombian camera traps. (Read "Path of the Jaguar" in National Geographic magazine.)
"I thought I'd be lucky if I caught a glimpse of a fleeting jaguar in the plantation," Payan said. Instead the pictures revealed several of the big cats, including a few cubs.
"In seven years of camera trapping, I have never photographed jaguar cubs," he added. "When I opened the file ... it blew me away."