Elusive Jaguars Remain a Mystery, Even to Experts

John Roach
for National Geographic News
November 25, 2003
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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.

Jaguar Studies

The biggest reason for the sparse knowledge about jaguars is their secretive nature. Since they can't afford to let their prey escape, jaguars are masters of stealth maneuvers. Researchers rarely sight them in the wild, let alone observe them for hours on end.

As a result, nobody has a firm grip on the total jaguar population. Historically, the animals roamed from the middle of South America, through Central America, Mexico, and the southwestern United States. Today, they seldom appear north of Mexico.

An important early step for Rabinowitz and his colleagues is to determine how many jaguars roam in what are considered key habitats, such as the Pantanal in Brazil, and then set up long-term monitoring programs to gauge population stability.

In the last year, researchers have used so-called "camera traps" to tally jaguars living in certain areas. The cameras are heat sensitive and designed to snap a picture when a mass of warmth wanders in front of the lens.

Since the spotted coat of each jaguar is distinctive, researchers can use the photographs to estimate population size and density. Such estimates compiled over a few decades will tell researchers whether populations are growing or declining, and thus whether their conservation strategies are effective.

Radio collars that take advantage of global positioning system (GPS) technology are another new tool in the study of jaguars. For the first time, researchers can track the tagged cats 24 hours a day, gaining insight to their range size and movements.

"Only in the past year have we been able to come up with accurate estimates for jaguar densities and the size of the areas they need to survive," said Taber.

Some of the results are different than earlier data. For example, range sizes in some parts of their range are at least double what was previously found elsewhere and there is some evidence in areas of low densities that the cats are not particularly territorial, said Taber.

The researchers hope to use this data to create a corridor of jaguar habitat from northern Argentina to Mexico through a patchwork of protected areas connected by cattle ranches, farmland, and citrus groves that are jaguar tolerant. This would allow the occasional cat—about one per generation is all that is needed—to spread its genes.

"This is not a small goal, it is the hardest thing I've ever tried," said Rabinowitz, who in 1984 established in Belize the world's only jaguar reserve.

Why Save Jaguars?

The task at hand for Rabinowitz and his colleagues is to convince people that jaguars ought to be conserved. Their reasons for doing so run the gamut from an ethical obligation to protect all species to the practical: preventing the spread of deadly disease.

Jaguars sit atop the food chain. From what scientists can tell, their preferred diet is deer and wild pigs called peccaries. If the deer and peccaries aren't controlled, they will overtake the environment and throw nature off balance.

"All types of disease have been traced to changes in the world's ecological balance," said Rabinowitz. "That's true of AIDS, West Nile Virus, and, most recently, SARS."

Additionally, said Taber, jaguars are important symbols across cultures and around the world. They are associated with wealth in the form of a luxury car and throughout Latin America they figure large in mythology and art.

"They are culturally important animals," said Taber. "So losing this animal that is so symbolic of wildlife [and] wild lands would be an enormous pity."

To prevent the loss from happening, the researchers are trying to cultivate respect for the animals, show how humans and jaguars can coexist, and implementing, among other activities, compensation programs for ranchers who inevitably lose livestock to hungry, marginalized jaguars.

"Jaguars and humans can live together," said Rabinowitz. "There will be problems, but there also are schemes to mitigate these problems."

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