The jaguar, a muscular and compact species, weighs anywhere between 79 and 350 pounds (36 and 160 kilograms); with a length between 3.9 and 6.4 feet (1.2 and 1.95 meters), it is the undisputed largest of the big cats in the Americas.
This makes the jaguar the third largest cat in the world (behind the lion and the tiger), and the largest cat in the western hemisphere.
Believed to have originally evolved in Asia before crossing over into North America via the Bering land-bridge, the stealthy cat of the Americas has a current range that includes Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica (particularly on the Osa Peninsula), Ecuador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, the Southern United States and Venezuela.
However, its population in the United States has greatly decreased in recent years as a result of hunting and habitat loss.
The jaguar prefers to live in dense rainforests, but can survive an any number of different habitats, although it usually will stay in those that include bodies of water (the jaguar is actually a very gifted swimmer).
As you might know, most jaguars are covered in beautiful spots. However, there are a small percent (6%) that are all black (but sometimes they may still have visible spots) and are known as “black panthers”. The name black panther can also be used to describe other big black cats (of the Panthera genus) like leopards and cougars.
The jaguar is an apex predator, and uses a stalking method to hunt whatever creature it wants. When they jaguar catches its prey, it uses the unique method of delivering a bite directly to the head of the other animal, damaging the brain and causing instant death.
This method is so effective because of the jaguar tremendously powerful bite, which can penetrate bone and shell in its first attempt.
They can sometimes kill prey that weigh much more that the cats themselves do, sometimes up to almost 700 lbs (318 kg). They are mostly active at dawn and dusk, so they can move in the cool twilight to hunt.
Jaguars are currently listed by conservation authorities as ‘near threatened’, and are therefore the subject of various conservation efforts.
Much of their previous range has been reduced, like in the countries of El Salvador and Uruguay where they are now totally extinct.
For the ancient Maya, the jaguar had the ability to cross between worlds, and daytime and nighttime represented two different worlds for them.
The living and the earth are associated with the day, and the spirit world and the ancestors are associated with the night. As the jaguar is quite at home in the nighttime, it was believed to be part of the underworld; thus, “Maya gods with jaguar attributes or garments are underworld gods”
In honor of the majestic jaguar — the maya celebrate the “Ix” or Jaguar day in the Mayan Tzolkin Calendar — These Tzolkin days are very special and they truly elicit deep ancestral reactions in people.
There is no doubt that many of us humans feel connected or strongly identified with this feline. (Please share with us your thoughts about how you connect with the feline side of you).
Would you know any local names for this animal? In the Orinoco plains of Colombia and Venezuela it is sometimes known as the “wooly hands” or “mano e’ lana” because it usually does not make noticeable sounds when walking on the jungle’s floor.
Female jaguar (staring into camera) with subadult male offspring moving through an old oil palm plantation in the jaguar corridor of Colombia.
(Camera-trap photo by Esteban Payan, Panthera.)
My earliest memories are filled with pain, embarrassment, and coming to terms with the reality, reinforced by adults, that I was one of life’s broken creatures. Born with a debilitating stutter and placed in public school classes for “special” children, I found it easiest to live inside my own head and withdraw from the world of people as much as a child can. My place of greatest comfort in those early years was the closet in my room in my parent’s New York City home. In this small, dark world, I felt normal, I wasn’t scared to speak, and I could live out my fantasies. My companions, a little menagerie of chameleons, green turtles, garter snakes, and hamsters, were the only living beings around me that seemed to listen but not judge. They had feelings, but they too had no voice to express themselves. They were me.
My parents were World War II–generation Eastern European Jews. They were sympathetic to my disability, willing to try anything that might help me—speech therapists, psychologists, medication, and hypnosis. But when nothing worked, they resigned themselves to the fact that I was simply “different” and nothing would be gained by talking about it. They believed that life’s difficulties, of which they had experienced many themselves, were managed without discussion, without emotion, without self-pity. So I talked to my little pets and cried only when I was alone in the darkness of my closet.
My father, a high school physical education teacher in New York City and a former army paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne Division, was a dominant presence in my childhood. Drilling into me the idea that I would have to fight my way through life, physically and mentally, he taught me to how to box and wrestle. Meanwhile, he battled his own demons in a way that created a house filled with tension, one that rarely heard the sound of laughter. The greatest kindness my father showed me were the trips to the Bronx Zoo, when he would take me to the Lion House and leave me alone to wander among the big cats. He had no idea how or why those animals helped me. He just knew they did.
Visiting with the big cats at the Bronx Zoo taught me early in life that you could be big, strong, and clever, yet still locked inside a cage from which there was no escape. Despite this sobering realization as a young child, I also realized that if the cats and other animals at the zoo had a human voice, if they could cry, laugh, or plead their case, they would not be locked up so easily in small cages for display. They would never have that human voice—but I would, I was sure of it. And when I found that voice, I promised the cats at the zoo, every time I visited them, that I would be their voice. I would find a place for us.
Much of my childhood is a blur, with all the painful memories long buried somewhere in my brain. I had few friends and rarely socialized with others. As a sixth grader I once stabbed my hand with the point of a pencil in order to avoid having to speak in front of the class. There were fights and bloody noses, stints in detention, and visits to the principal. I was never the first to lay a hand on someone, even when teased or bullied, but I never backed down from confrontation. My grades were adequate but not stellar, except in science, which I considered to be the language of the real world, apart from the perceived reality of human beings. In 1970, desperately wanting to escape my home and experience more of the world, I applied to and was accepted into McDaniel College, a small liberal arts college in the hills of western Maryland.
I took all the science courses I could handle while I figured out a possible career path. During my second year of college I was taken on a camping trip into the Allegheny Mountains of Appalachia where, for the first time, I felt safe, alone, and at peace in the outside world. After that, at every opportunity I would head off from my college dormitory into the woods to camp or hike, sometimes with the few friends I had made, often alone. In my junior year, I enrolled in a new course that was offered at the college—animal ecology. Two weeks into the course, I realized I had found my profession, the way to use science to save animals. Only one thing was still missing—my voice.
In the summer before my last year of college, my parents told me of an experimental clinic for severe stutterers in upstate New York that they had heard about. I applied immediately. After two months of intensive therapy and continual practice of manipulative mouth exercises, I gained control of my speech for the first time in my life. I was still a stutterer. Part of the therapy, in fact, was the acceptance of the fact that there was no magic pill to cure me and that I would always be a stutterer. But now, with the knowledge and the tools they had given me, I could be a fluent stutterer. I could speak an entire sentence, even an entire thought, without my mouth locking up. And I could fulfill the promise I had made to the cats so many years earlier.
After graduating summa cum laude in both biology and chemistry, I enrolled in a PhD graduate program in ecology and wildlife biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The years that followed, which I spent living and working in the Smoky Mountains, conducting research on bats, raccoons, and black bears, were the happiest, most fulfilling years of my life so far. I was still uncertain about the future, but for the first time in my life I was happy in the present. Then I unexpectedly found myself in contact with the man who would help set me on my life’s path and, in the process, become my lifelong mentor and friend, Dr. George Schaller.
George Schaller, at the time, headed the International Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (then the New York Zoological Society) based at the Bronx Zoo, and was at the University of Tennessee visiting my professor, Dr. Mike Pelton, one of the world’s leading experts on black bears. In 1980, while in the last phase of writing up my PhD dissertation, I was asked to take Schaller for a hike into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where he wanted to compare the black bear habitat of this region to what he was seeing while working on the Giant Panda in China’s Wolong National Nature Reserve. The result of that excursion into the mountains with George was that, after completing my PhD, I was on a plane to the little, newly independent country of Belize in Central America to survey jaguars. And my employer was none other than the Bronx Zoo.
Belize was my testing ground where, as a field scientist, I would measure my commitment to working and living in remote areas under uniquely challenging situations. Despite the challenges, it wasn’t really much of a test for me. Setting up my home in a wild jungle, with lots of animals and among people of a different culture and language who had no preconceived ideas about me, couldn’t have felt more right. When I returned to New York after the eight-week survey and presented the results, Schaller asked me to continue the work and to initiate a two-year study on jaguars. Such research in the jungles of Central America had never been done before. I couldn’t have been happier.
Whatever I had had to overcome for the jaguar survey was nothing compared to the setbacks and hardships I now faced capturing and placing radio collars on jaguars at the abandoned timber camp I had selected as my study site, an area called the Cockscomb Basin. I persevered, because failure was never an option. Eventually, I broke new ground with my jaguar research and accomplished what no one else had ever done in conservation—setting up the world’s first jaguar preserve. But it came with a price. My study was to cost the life of one of my workers, inflict lifelong injuries upon myself, and change the lives of many Mayan families forever. I was also still too young and inexperienced to understand the larger implications of what I was doing, or to put into perspective my new understanding of jaguars and the people with whom they lived. Some clarification came when I wrote my first book, Jaguar, reflecting on my feelings about these events in their entirety. Most of my understanding, however, would come much later.
After I left Belize, the new Jaguar Preserve received unexpected international recognition and praise. In 1988, two years after the preserve was formally designated, His Royal Highness Prince Philip, president of the World Wildlife Fund International, visited Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and presented an award to Ignacio Pop, one of my Mayan field assistants and now first warden of the preserve. Meanwhile I had transitioned from research scientist to staff scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Schaller was encouraging me to go further afield and work with other wild cat species that needed research and recognition. The work in Belize and the research on jaguars was now to be continued by others. Or so he and I believed.
Over the next two decades I worked in Thailand, Borneo, China, Taiwan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Myanmar, tracking, studying, and gathering new data on clouded leopards, leopard cats, Asiatic leopards, and tigers. Whenever and wherever I could, I sought out wild areas, collected data, and tried to convince governments to set up new or larger protected areas that gave wildlife a secure home. I contributed to the designation of a World Heritage Site in Thailand and set up a more than 31,000-square-kilometer (12,000-square-mile) complex of contiguous protected areas in northern Myanmar, including the world’s largest tiger reserve in Hukawng Valley. During these expeditions, while searching for some of the last northern strongholds of the Indochinese race of tigers, I discovered a new species to science, the most primitive living deer in the world, and I rediscovered the only race of Mongoloid pygmies, the Taron, in a tiny, remote mountain village in the eastern Himalayas. While writing scientific and technical papers, I documented all my thoughts, feelings, and adventures in more popular books: Chasing the Dragon’s Tail, Beyond the Last Village, and Life in the Valley of Death.
In the following years my efforts for a time were focused on one species alone, the tiger. The world’s largest and most iconic wild cat was rapidly sliding towards extinction. Though revered as a cultural symbol throughout Asia and the world, the tiger’s parts were so highly valued by the Chinese medicinal trade that a dead tiger was much more valuable than a live one. But by the time the world took serious notice of plummeting tiger numbers, there were few left in the wild. We were losing the battle for the species.
What I had seen in my work with the tiger made me worry all the more about the jaguar. Fortunately the jaguar’s situation, while deteriorating in many areas through hunting and loss of habitat, was not yet close to that of its larger cousins, the tiger and the lion. But that could change quickly, as the supply of tiger bone was diminishing and the insatiable demand turning to the parts of other big cats—lions, jaguars, and leopards. My other concern was that the research and conservation of jaguars that I had thought would follow my work in Belize and that of other early jaguar researchers had not happened to any great extent. The jaguar preserve in Belize was plodding along, a few more people were working on jaguars in different parts of their range, but 15 years after setting up the preserve, we didn’t seem to know much more about the life of this cat or even its distribution than when I had first started working on the species. And no one seemed concerned.
In 1999, I obtained funds from the Wildlife Conservation Society to organize the first-ever meeting of the world’s jaguar experts so that we could bring together and assess the information already known about this species and devise a strategy for moving jaguar research and conservation forward. While the jaguar was much better off than the world’s other big cats—tigers, lions, leopards—conservation actions had to be taken now while the species still had a chance. I wanted consensus on a set of priorities that would set the stage for saving the most important jaguar populations throughout the species’ range. This, in itself, would be a daunting task. What I was not prepared for, however, were the new scientific data on jaguars that would emerge at this meeting, data that would rock the conservation world and move us far beyond any conservation model we had previously imagined for the species.
As will be explained in later chapters of this book, the science that led to the realization of the existence of what I call the Jaguar Corridor was a huge leap forward in understanding how to save this species, and possibly others. It also presented an almost insurmountable task of figuring out how to use very limited resources to carry out the conservation actions that were necessary. The resulting program, the Jaguar Corridor Initiative, would take more than a decade before we could see significant results of all our efforts, and much more time before the entire corridor could became a reality.
But part of the reason behind the writing of this book is that I still wanted more. After three decades of witnessing the continual declines in big cat populations worldwide, I wanted to understand what had brought the jaguar to the unique place it occupied in the carnivore conservation world. What biological, cultural, and political factors of the New World and the people who inhabited it allowed there to be a twenty-first-century range-wide jaguar corridor unlike anything else that existed with any other living big cat species? And as I gained a greater understanding of “jaguarness,” how the jaguar was indeed different from the other cats—in structure, in temperament, and in behavior—I also wanted to explain what seemed inexplicable, perhaps even unscientific. I wanted to understand the essence of the animal I had spent countless hours watching and talking to as a child, then following, studying, and fighting for as an adult. An essence that earlier people seemed to have seen and understood.
Why had I been so attracted to this animal more than all the others in the Lion House at the Bronx Zoo? And if there was something special about this cat, something that helped comfort and motivate a troubled, insecure child, could a better understanding of the true nature of jaguarness help us not only to save jaguars but to help humans in their own quest for survival? In the course of my search, I explored unexpected realms—from the deep paleo-history of the species, to the cutting edge of DNA science and population genetics, into the complex layers of human cultural, political, and social dynamics—all of which moved me towards a deeper understanding of the question of jaguarness.
In the end, I believe I found the answers to my questions.
Speaking from his home in New York, he talks about how a childhood speech impediment made him bond with jaguars, how a fur coat worn by Jackie Kennedy triggered a catastrophic decline in jaguar populations, and how looking to jaguars could help us deal with problems we face, like climate change.
The book begins with a moving story of a childhood encounter with a jaguar. Tell us about the young Alan Rabinowitz.
From the earliest time I can remember, I was unable to speak the way other people speak, fluently and easily. I was born with a debilitating stutter. I had very, very bad speech blocks and would spasm and shake, trying to get the words out. They called it "frozen mouth" at the time. So my entire childhood was filled with the feeling that I was not normal. But from a very young age, I realized I could take comfort from and even speak, semifluently, to animals. That was my comfort zone.
My father recognized this pretty early, and he would take me to the Bronx Zoo. My favorite place was the Lion House, as it was called back then—cage after cage of these big cats, roaring and vocalizing. I could feel their power and what I thought was their frustration at being locked inside these little cages.
But I would always be drawn to this one cage, with a solitary jaguar. All the other cats would charge at the bars or vocalize. But the jaguar would mostly stay quiet, watching everybody pass by, in a world of its own. That's the way I felt. So I would go to the bars, wait until nobody was around, and talk to the jaguar—tell it my hopes and dreams, whether it was a bad day at school or how stupid I felt people were because they didn't try to understand me.
And I would never leave that enclosure without promising the cats that if I ever found my voice, I would try to be their voice and help them. I had no idea what I would be in life or that I would ever work on jaguars. All I knew is that these cats made me feel whole. They were like me, trapped inside a cage not of their making. And if I could, I would one day help them out of that cage.
Twenty-six years later in Belize you had another, this time frightening, encounter with a jaguar. What happened?
After several years' research in the jungle in Belize, I had set up the world's first and only jaguar preserve. I went back into the area to look for jaguar tracks and in some ways say my goodbyes. As I was walking, I encountered a set of tracks I had never seen before—a big set of tracks from a large male. It was getting late, but I decided to follow these tracks a short ways into the jungle in case, by some stroke of luck, I could see this jaguar. It's not something I normally did, for obvious safety reasons. But I ended up following these tracks for several hours. I couldn't see the jaguar, though.
It was getting dark, I didn't have a flashlight, and I was a good distance from the camp, so I decided to turn around and go back. As I turned around, right in back of me was the jaguar. It could have killed me without me even knowing what had happened. But that was never its intention. It was just being curious. It wanted to know why I was following it, who I was, and what I was doing. I couldn't escape. The jaguar could easily outrun me. So without thinking, I decided to make myself small. I squatted down, hoping that if I made myself smaller, subdominant, maybe it would be OK.
And then the jaguar did a really funny thing. The jaguar sat down too and started giving a low grumble from its throat. It wasn't aggressive. It sounded almost as if it were talking to me again, like when I was a child at the zoo. But I was terrified. I stood up, took a step back, and fell. If the jaguar wants to kill me, I remember thinking, I'm about as vulnerable as I could be, lying on my back on the ground. But the jaguar just stood up and started walking back into the jungle. Then it stopped, looked back at me and gave another low, rumbling growl. The last thing I remember is looking into its eyes and hearing this thought in my head: "He's OK. I'm OK. We're both gonna be OK."
Alan Rabinowitz measures a jaguar's paw print.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE WINTER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
You call the jaguar the "sumo wrestler of the animal world." What do you mean by that?
[Laughs] The jaguar is the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest cat in the world, behind lions and tigers. But compared with a lion or a tiger, the jaguar looks like a fireplug. It's got a massive skull, similar to a tiger's and lion's skull; a big, stocky body, which is much larger and more physically powerful than a leopard or even a mountain lion; short, stocky limbs; and a low center of gravity. All the good characteristics of a top-notch sumo wrestler.
I read somewhere that jaguars are the only big cat that can't be tamed, which is why they have never featured in circus acts. Is that right?
They can't be tamed in the manner that lions, tigers, and even leopards can be. They're much more unpredictable. I could see that as a kid. At the Bronx Zoo, all the other cats were doing almost what was expected of them: coming to the bars, charging at people, vocalizing. The jaguar just sat back.
If there's one defining characteristic that distinguishes it from the other big cats, it's that you never know what a jaguar is thinking. There have been people who have brought jaguars up as cubs and tried to tame them. But many of those people have had accidents. The jaguar is not a predictable, tame animal. That's why you don't see them in circus acts. You don't even often see them in zoos, because they're not a good exhibition animal. They're a lone, solitary, almost moody type of species.
The jaguar also kills in a unique way, doesn't it? Tell us about BFQ.
BFQ stands for bite force quotient. And pound for pound, the bite of a jaguar is the most powerful of the big cats, even more than that of a tiger and a lion. The way they kill is different, too. Tigers and lions, and the other large cats, go for the necks or soft underbellies.
Jaguars have only one way they kill: They go for the skull. I've actually seen where they've lifted the cranial cap off large animals, like a large tapir or a cow. It's the most incredible means of killing—terrifying and very, very fast. The jaguar is not typically an aggressive animal. But when it becomes aggressive, it's with explosive force. It's an ambush predator. A stalk-and-pounce animal. You won't escape a jaguar if it wants to kill you.
Among the Maya of Central America, and other pre-Columbian societies, the jaguar was woven into their mythology. Is that still true?
I call that the jaguar "cultural corridor," because what I realized is that there was folklore and mythology not only woven into individual cultures like the Olmec, the Maya, the Aztec, and the Inca. Even in diverse cultures that evolved far apart, say in Argentina and Mexico, they have common elements in their beliefs about jaguars. To them, this massive, powerful animal of the jungle was a semideity. It was godlike but not a god. It was supernatural, but it was still of this Earth and could be killed. It was also an avenue into other worlds, but an avenue that could be somehow controlled and taken over by humans, if they could figure out the right way to do it.
In some of the early Maya hieroglyphics, anthropologists discerned a particular symbol that they believe meant "jaguar essence." These early cultures believed, as I have firmly come to believe, that there's something distinct about a jaguar. It's not just its power. It's something to do with its behaviors—its inner self. That is what makes it an immovable species. It's why I call my book An Indomitable Beast.
It wasn't Jackie's fault, because it was legal at the time. It was 1962, and Jackie Kennedy came out wearing a leopard coat. It wasn't a jaguar, as many people think. It was a leopard coat designed by Oleg Cassini. For years afterward he regretted having made that coat for Jackie Kennedy because it created such a huge fashion buzz.
Wearing spotted coats became the thing to do. And because of that, hundreds of thousands of spotted cats of all sizes—not just jaguars but leopards, ocelots, and margays—were killed. This caused such a precipitous decline in the spotted cat species, especially the jaguar, that finally, in 1975, an international convention called CITES implemented a ban on the trade of spotted cat fur coats. Sadly by that time, many jaguar populations had been wiped out and many of the more vibrant ones were down to dangerously low numbers.
In your early career, you come across as something of a misanthrope. You loved jaguars, but you weren't too keen on people. Then you had what you call a "jaw-dropping, light-bulb-over-the-head moment." What happened?
I think I did to other people what they did to me as a child: I put them in the box of always being the problem. So if we were going to save jaguars, I had to somehow separate human beings from the jaguars in the way I wanted to be separated from human beings. But I learned that this wasn't true. If I really wanted to save jaguars, I had to do a complete turnaround. And that complete turnaround came when we discovered the existence of the jaguar corridor.
Genetic studies had showed that jaguars were not only living inside their jungle protected areas, they were also leaving those areas. Young males were successfully dispersing through the human landscape. This was key. If I wanted to protect jaguars and save them from possible extinction, I had to work outside the jungle, in the human landscape. And that meant that people could no longer be seen as the problem. They had to be seen as the solution. And that brought me back to the world of people.
[Laughs] It didn't make me any less of a misanthrope. I still don't like being around most people. [Laughs] I'm a misanthrope even in my own family. I love my family, I adore my kids, but they all know I need my alone time. Even if it sometimes means walking out on all of them and going off by myself for days or even weeks at a time.
The beauty of the jaguar corridor is that it's not my achievement at all! Because it was nothing we created. The jaguar corridor was always there. It's just that we hadn't seen it. Then new genetic tools became available in the late 1990s, using feces to get at DNA. And what they showed was that there was no variation in the jaguar throughout its range.
In other words, there had to be travel pathways that the jaguars were using. It was no longer a matter of looking at maps or speculating. The DNA fingerprinting showed that the jaguar corridor was a reality. I just had to go and find it. Now we know that there is a genetic corridor in 18 countries throughout Central America and most of South America. The only countries where jaguars have gone extinct are El Salvador, Uruguay, and Chile. We're just starting South America—but it will take at least another seven to ten years.
Will there ever be jaguars in the Lower 48 again?
Jaguars have been periodically coming up from Mexico, crossing the border into the U.S. since the early- to mid-1900s. But it's very difficult for dispersing jaguars to establish a breeding population in an area where they've been wiped out—even if there's abundant habitat and prey available. So, I do not believe the jaguar will establish itself naturally back in the U.S. It's been given some protected habitat and endangered species status, which is the right thing to have happened.
If we want to spend as much, if not more, money than we spent on the wolf in Yellowstone, it could be possible to reintroduce it. But I don't think it's a good idea. This part of jaguar range has long since changed and been degraded. And we desperately need those resources in other parts of jaguar range, where they're still fairly abundant and have a lot of habitat.
Your journey in search of the jaguar has taken you from the Bronx Zoo to shamans in remote villages in Central America. Do you feel you will ever fully comprehend "jaguar-ness"?
No, and I never thought I would. What I wanted was to get as close to it as a human being, with our limited brain capacity, can. But I think jaguar-ness is like how some people define the Tao. If you try to explain it or put it into words, you're not getting it, because it can't be defined by words. Indigenous people understood it better than we do because they never saw a clear line between people and jaguars, people and nature. It was a less anthropocentric view of the world.
But I know that jaguar-ness exists. And I think that if human beings try to understand it, we're better for it, and stronger. The jaguar has been on Earth many millions of years more than we have and has survived multiple extinctions. And I think we can learn from it what to do in instances like climate change. We can learn how to react and what behaviors to follow when there are catastrophic events, by looking at how the jaguar reacts to the same kind of events.
Jaguars, the largest cats in the Western Hemisphere, are smaller than lions and tigers but arguably tougher. Solitary and extremely secretive, they can find cover in mere slivers of forest, and the force of their bite, relative to their size, is much greater than that of Old World cats. Jaguars snap right through the skulls of mammals and the shells of nesting sea turtles. Capable of an unusually wide range of motion, they can ambush prey from awkward positions, even while swimming. They are not picky about the animals they eat, making do with whatever is around.
Little of this was known in the early 1980s, when Alan Rabinowitz, then a newly minted wildlife biologist, arrived in Belize to study jaguars for the conservation wing of the Bronx Zoo, where he had fallen in love with the cats as a kid. Wild jaguars were in dubious shape then. Jacqueline Kennedy’s appearances in a leopard-fur coat in the early 1960s had sparked a fad for spotted cat skins that lasted throughout the decade, when some 18,000 jaguar skins a year were exported from Central and South America. By the time international bans on pelts finally arrived in the 1970s, the jaguar was facing localized extinction or worse.
In “An Indomitable Beast,” Mr. Rabinowitz, the author of several books on his conservation work and travels, revisits the first big cats of his career. Questions of “jaguarness”—how jaguars think and the unique anatomical and behavioral features that affect their prospects for long-term survival—still intrigue him after three decades, and this book is a welcome retrospective of what he and others have learned about jaguars so far, and what’s being done for them now.
As a young man working in Belize, Mr. Rabinowitz found himself thrust into a tug of war between the government and cattle ranchers. Jaguar hunting had by then been banned, but ranchers were convinced that the cats killed far more cattle than they really did, and officials were considering lifting the ban on the ranchers’ behalf. Mr. Rabinowitz’s investigations revealed that jaguars preferred smaller prey to cattle, going for the latter only when the deer and peccaries they liked had been overhunted by humans or when cattle were allowed to stray into the forest. Unexpectedly, the jaguars that were repeat offenders tended to be those that had survived shotgun blasts, which made them sick, slow and desperate. The hunting ban was kept in place.
Mr. Rabinowitz went on studying what jaguars ate, where they traveled and how they left mysterious markings when they deposited feces, scratched trees or sprayed musk. This was “their language, akin to hieroglyphics, pieces of which I could start to decipher but never understand in its entirety,” he writes. Shrewdness is also part of jaguar nature. Even the kittens of jaguars, Mr. Rabinowitz learned, are slyer and warier than those of other big cats, always looking for cover and taking circuitous routes to where they want to go. Locals frequently maligned jaguars as cowardly for allowing hunting dogs to scare them up trees, but Mr. Rabinowitz gauged that jaguars avoided fights with dogs to prevent unnecessary wounds, which can mean infection and death in the tropics. Besides hunters, parasites and abscesses are the biggest threats to wild jaguars.
In 1984, Mr. Rabinowitz succeeded in persuading Belize to set aside much of the Cockscomb Basin as the world’s first jaguar sanctuary—a huge step toward conserving the species. But later revelations about jaguar biology made it clear that isolated reserves would not suffice. The prevailing wisdom for more than half a century had been that jaguars, which range from northern Mexico to Argentina, comprised several subspecies located in different areas. A genetic study in 1999 revealed all these cats to be one and the same species—which came as a surprise to many researchers, including Mr. Rabinowitz.
Jaguars still occupy a large portion of the corridor that their ancestors first began to colonize half a million years ago, when they crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia. The jaguar’s Eurasian ancestors died off while the cat thrived in the Americas, evading one mass extinction after another, growing smaller and more resilient as the climate warmed. Young jaguar males struck out far in search of mates and territory, a habit that allowed for robust gene mixing, which in turn provided the genetic variation that allowed the species to evolve in response to disease and environmental change.
Mr. Rabinowitz, who had also worked in Asia with the far more imperiled tigers, figured that the jaguar, of all the world’s big cats, had the best chance of long-term survival, if only the continuity of its range—and its genes—could be secured. In most places around the world conservation “was always playing catch-up, lurching from crisis to crisis,” he writes, but with the jaguar there was actually a chance to do something while there was time.
In the early 2000s, Mr. Rabinowitz and his colleagues mapped out a contiguous “jaguar corridor,” a connective strip of land spanning the nations where they had determined that jaguars live, and then worked for five years to verify that jaguars used it. The corridor is not all forest and national parks; jaguars were found to be adept at finding refuge around ranches and plantations, even on the outskirts of cities. The corridor is now recognized by 13 Central and South American countries, though not all of these are much inclined to keep promises where natural resources are concerned.
Mr. Rabinowitz left his longtime employer, New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society, in 2008 to help found an NGO dedicated to big-cat preservation and biology. Like most wildlife biologists, he is a realist, focused less on what ought to be done in a perfect world than on what can be done with the resources at hand. But while he notes that at least a few jaguars have been able to swim across the Panama Canal, using the large Barro Colorado island as a rest stop, he does not say what he thinks might happen to the jaguar’s genetic diversity if Nicaragua—one of the ostensible proponents of the jaguar corridor—goes ahead with the massive Chinese-backed canal it is threatening to build starting in December. Should this reckless project go forward, the cats will need the audacious advocacy of someone like Mr. Rabinowitz, and fast.
—Ms. Smith is the author of “Stolen World: A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery.”
The native inhabitants of Suriname referred to him as a God. He is the third largest cat in the world after the tiger and the lion. The Native American called him ‘yaguar’ which means ‘he who kills with one leap’: the jaguar. The jaguar (Panthera onca) can be found in 18 Latin American countries. Today they are mainly concentrated between Southern Arizona and New Mexico to Northern Argentina, but are extinct in EL Salvador and Uruguay.
‘Junior’ resides at the Belize Zoo.
Males measure around 1.8 m (6 feet) long and can weigh up to 113 kg (250 lb). Females are usually smaller and lighter (100kg). They can reach sexual maturity at about two years of age, males at around four. Female jaguars can have a litter of 1-4 cubs at the time which, they would defend fiercely (even against their own father). Most jaguars have an orange colour coat with distinctive black spots which are unique to each individual and can be used by humans to identify individuals.
‘Junior’ resides at the Belize Zoo.
But others born black are called ‘black panthers’. This melanism is conferred by a dominant allele that gives that excessive black pigment on the jaguar’s coat, a biological mechanism called ‘ ghost tripping’. The spots are actually still present but hidden by the dark skin pigmentation.
‘Lucky Boy’ resides at the Belize Zoo.
These powerful mammals are opportunistic hunters. Highly muscular with very powerful jaws, they are efficient ‘stalk and ambush’ predators. They can kill huge prey such as cows, but their preferences usually center around deer, coati, peccaries, armadillo, capybaras, birds, small mammals and even snakes. Occasionally their diet includes fish or large river turtles. Jaguars can break open turtle shells using their strong canines and unlike other big cats such as lions, tigers and leopards that attack their prey at the neck or throat, jaguars often kill preys by biting through their skulls, between the ears.
Junior at the Belize Zoo.
Jaguars are solitary animals; their territory is about of 20 square kilometres which they mark with their waste or by clawing trees. Unlike most cats, jaguars like water and are actually good swimmers. Like most jungle cats, jaguars mainly hunts at night or twilight hours so scientists have the difficult task to guess their numbers in the wild. The recent use of camera traps has, however, contributed in better data collection and in having an overall better understanding of their location and behaviour.
Today their survival as a species is still at risk. It is estimated that there are only 15,000 individuals left in the wild. Jaguars suffer from habitat destruction and fragmentation due to human population growth, farming activities, illegal hunting and a decline in wild prey numbers (due to overhunting). This fuels the vicious cycle of human-wildlife conflicts, often forcing jaguars to prey on livestock.
A Threatened Species
Jaguars were widespread in the New World until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when hunting for sport and fur started to decimate their numbers. ‘Between the 1960′s and 1970′s, as many as 18,000 jaguars were killed each year for their beautiful coat’ according to the big cat conservation organisation Panthera. In 1973, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), brought the fur trade to an official stand-still. This species was then listed on Appendix I of CITES as ‘near threatened’ by IUCN.
Panthera onca is a near-threatened species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature organisation (IUCN) red list. Like many apex predators, their reproduction cycle is slow so the killings of adult jaguars has a direct impact on the overall population.
‘Edgar Hill-in Pine Hill –Southern Belize.
Human-jaguar conflicts are on the rise in Belize, as human population and farming activities are expanding. The Mennonite farmers claimed that a jaguar had threatened the life of a man on his horse-wagon and that several jaguars were roaming in the garden in day light.
Mennonite farm in Pine Hill- Southern Belize.
Mennonite farm in Pine Hill- Southern Belize.
Jaguars and Humans: A Fragile Co-Existence in Belize
Jaguars are facing an imminent threat in Belize; they often pay for trespassing on human settlements (especially farms) with their lives. In some rare cases their lives are spared; Mennonite farmers capture them using traps.
Field research undertaken by Dr. Omar Figueroa — a Belizean researcher from the district of Cayo — reports that there are most likely no more than 800 jaguars remaining in Belize.
Jaguar ’Edgar Hill’
‘Edgar Hil’ was named after one of his rescuer ‘Edgar Correa’ from the Belizean Forest Department and ‘Hill’ as the Mennonite farm he was found in was in ‘Pine Hill’ in Southern Belize.
The Belize Zoo has been hosting more and more jaguars over the years such as ‘Junior’ (who was born at the Zoo), so many that its capacity is now limited.
Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.
Jaguars and other big cats, such as pumas, suffer from habitat loss and fragmentation all over The Americas. The welfare of the remaining free-roaming ones is under threat. The Belize Zoo strongly works to enforce the concept of the Central Wildlife Corridor which, in theory, would provide habitat for jaguars to roam north-south.
Jaguars in Captivity
Reports show that jaguars that had been previously translocated had travelled back to their initial territory, so once a jaguar is captured it can never be released to the wild again.
Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.
A Zoo with a Natural Environment
The Belize Zoo was founded in 1983 by an American biologist who was hired to look after native wild animals used in a wildlife documentary. She decided to rescue the animals, as they could no longer be released into the wild. The zoo is spread over 29 acres, and is home to more than 150 animals of about 45 species, all native to Belize. The natural environment of Belize is left entirely intact within the zoo, the dense, natural vegetation separated only by gravel trails through the forest. The zoo plays an immense educational role in Belize, allowing locals to meet the most charismatic and endangered animals in the world, hopefully raising awareness of the environmental damage that we cause and hopefully will bring people together to become better green ambassadors.
Jaguar ’Edgar Hill’
The presence of big cats in zoos can be seen as educational; and jaguars tend to live around ten years longer in captivity than in the wild. However, the space in the enclosures could however never match the jaguars’ normal territory of 20 square kilometres.
Many jaguars seen on farming lands in Belize are killed on site.
Conservation organisations such as Panthera work around the clock in Latin America to protect dense forests and set appropriate corridors between national parks for jaguars (such as the Jaguar Corridor Initiative -JCI ) . The purpose of the JCI is to connect jaguar populations throughout Las Americas to protect the genetic balance of the Panthera onca species. To date, research shows that there are no recorded sub-species of Panthera onca throughout the stretch of Latin American countries. This genetic continuity is unique to this big cat species.
Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.
Southern Belize is one of the last strongholds for jaguars in Central America. It is the most well forested region and represents an important natural corridor for other big cats as well.
By analysing almost 500 jaguar and puma scats, we found that jaguars commonly eat armadillos and white-lipped peccaries (waris); while pumas commonly eat pacas (gibnut) and red brocket deer (antelope). Read more about it here.
The jaguar, iconic symbol of the Belize tourism industry, is under threat from farmers shooting them to protect livestock; as agricultural land-clearing has reduced the jaguars’ hunting grounds and pushed them closer to farms raising cattle and sheep.
Yamira Novelo of the University of Belize’s Environmental Research Institute (UB-ERI) sounded this warning when she presented the findings of the Belize Rural Landscape Project at the 6th annual ESRI users conference hosted by ESRI and Total Business Solutions Ltd. at the Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel on Wednesday.
UB-ERI’s three-year survey of the jaguar population in the Belize River valley was funded by the international wildcat-protection agency, Pantera, and did a comparative analysis of the jaguar presence in an area that extended from Burrell Boom in the east to Rancho Dolores in the west, and from Lamanai in the north to Big Falls and a latitude parallel to Rockville in the south.
Jaguar conservationists have become concerned for the population of jaguars roaming the Meso-American Biological Corridor, which lost some 24,000 acres to the land-clearing for the Santander sugar industry development. An aerial satellite photograph of the remaining forest cover shows the jaguars’ habitiat has become quite fragmented by roads, farmland, waterways, etc. Deprived of their natural habitat where they prey on gibnuts, peccaries, armadillos and other small wildlife, the jaguars have shown themselves to be versatile hunters, turning their attention to the comparatively easy pickings on farms raising sheep, pigs or cattle.
ERI and Pantera has been working to educate farmers of ways to protect their livestock with barbed wire and electrified fences, and other measures like lights and loud noise generators which can scare away the cats. The agency and the government does offer some compensation to farmers who invest in this equipment to protect their livestock.
Farmers would prefer financial compensation for the animals the cats kill. A dead calf is a $1,000 loss, an adult cow is double that, and a prize bull is worth much more. The conservationists have asked farmers to report when they suffer a loss, but farmers often do not report a dead sheep and instead chose to hunt down and kill the predator, even though hunting jaguars is against the law.
Novelo said they often only learn of an attack second-hand in their on-site visits to pick up the camera footage, when a farmer might mention that a neighbor had a “tiger” attack on their land, and this might be two-three weeks after, when it is more difficult to tell whether it was jaguar or puma attack. The agency has one expert who can tell the difference; as a jaguar attacks to crush the head of their prey and start eating from the head down to the body. Pumas go for the neck to kill, but then begin to eat from the hind haunches.
Researchers found the turnover rate to be about 56 percent, by measuring those cats which went missing, when compared to the initial population as 100 percent. The researchers were able to identify 23 individuals; as jaguar markings on their legs are individual and as specific as a fingerprint. Using cameras triggered by motion sensors, they captured 68 images in 2014; the 23 cats identified included 12 new cats not previously recorded 2013. Only 17 individual cats were identified in 56 photographs captured in 2015, of which seven were new. Of those identified in 2014, 12 were male and five were female; the sex of six cats was not determined. In 2015, nine of the 17 cats sighted were males and seven females, with only one indeterminate. They found the females were more territorial and stayed in a smaller area than the males who tend to roam a wider area 2.2 times the area roamed by a female, as the males are always also looking for mates.
There was some overlap in data from the two years, with 31 individual cats identified. The researchers would have liked to be able to place radio-locator collars on all these cats to better monitor their movements as they roamed, entering or moving out of the area under study, but Novelo said the cost was prohibitive.
Jaguars are nocturnal hunters, not normally seen in daylight except in a zoo; these predators are at the top of the food chain in the wild; and their survival is critical to the rest of the eco-system.
New study finds American jaguars threatened by increasing isolation
Where once the big cat covered Mesoamerica, their populations have becoming further cut off from each other. In the last 100 years, jaguars have been pushed out of 77% of their range.
A new study from the American Museum of Natural History has found that jaguars in Central America are facing increasing threats as their habitats become more isolated and differing groups lose connections.
The study was the largest ever genetic survey of the Mesoamerican jaguar (Panthera onca) and looked at the DNA of big cats from several areas to analyse their genetic diversity. The analysis found that jaguars in Mexico had the lowest genetic variation, with those in Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Costa Rice not far behind.
Low genetic variation is not a good sign for the jaguar, as explained in the study: "Genetic diversity has important ecological consequences in natural populations, including the maintenance of evolutionary potential and individual fitness to respond to threats such as environmental change and disease."
"We believe that these jaguars were once continuously distributed over the whole landscape of Mesoamerica, but human activity has resulted in smaller populations that are isolated from other groups," said George Amato, director of the American Museum of Natural History's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics.
"We want to know whether this fragmentation is resulting in reduced gene flow or inbreeding or other things that might be detrimental to the animals. But most importantly, we want to figure out ways to reconnect these populations or, even if they're not completely isolated, to engage in activities that allow jaguars to move more freely across the landscape."
One of the paper's leader authors, Claudia Wultsch added: "Over the last 100 years, jaguars in Mesoamerica have been pushed out from more than 77 percent of their historic range."
CEO of conservation charity, Panthera, Alan Rabinowitz, said: "Unlike some other big cats and wildlife teetering on the brink of extinction, here we have a remarkably resilient species whose numbers are strong enough to bounce back if given the chance to thrive."
Panthera is working on a 'Jaguar Corridor Initiative' which seeks to connect core populations all over south America and attempt to keep up the genetic integrity of the species.
Jaguar scat study suggests restricted movement in areas of conservation importance in Mesoamerica
A research group led by the American Museum of Natural History and global wild cat conservation organization Panthera has published the largest gene-based survey of its kind on wild jaguar populations in Mesoamerica. The analysis, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, is based on nearly 450 jaguar scat samples collected in Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. This work identifies areas of conservation concern for Mesoamerican jaguars and underscores the importance of large-scale genetic monitoring efforts when prioritizing conservation and management efforts for this near-threatened, and elusive, carnivore species.
"Mesoamerica has one of the highest deforestation rates worldwide, potentially limiting movement and genetic connectivity in forest-dependent jaguars across this fragmented landscape. Large-scale conservation genetics studies on wild jaguars spanning across several range countries assessing these threats are rare and suffer from low sample sizes for this region," said Claudia Wultsch, the lead author of the paper, a scientist in the Museum's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, and a conservation research fellow at Panthera. "Over the last 100 years, jaguars in Mesoamerica have been pushed out from more than 77 percent of their historic range."
To get a better idea of the genetic health and connectivity of jaguar populations in this area and the effectiveness of the existing wildlife corridors (i.e., stretches of habitat that facilitate movement between local populations), the researchers turned to DNA obtained from field-collected jaguar scat.
This non-invasive technique lets researchers gather large DNA sample sizes of difficult-to-study wildlife species, such as big cats, without physically capturing, handling, or disturbing the animals. Since these samples quickly degrade in the warm and humid conditions of the tropical countries, however, a great deal of laboratory work has to be done to successfully analyze the DNA.
"We believe that these jaguars were once continuously distributed over the whole landscape of Mesoamerica, but human activity has resulted in smaller populations that are isolated from other groups," said George Amato, director of the Museum's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics and the paper's senior author. "We want to know whether this fragmentation is resulting in reduced gene flow or inbreeding or other things that might be detrimental to the animals. But most importantly, we want to figure out ways to reconnect these populations or, even if they're not completely isolated, to engage in activities that allow jaguars to move more freely across the landscape. One of the only ways to do this is through genetic analysis."
The researchers analyzed DNA from 115 individual jaguars spread across five Mesoamerican countries. Overall, they found moderate levels of genetic variation in the jaguars, with the lowest diversity in Mexico, followed by Honduras. Low levels of genetic diversity could decrease reproductive fitness and resistance to disease, and generally lower animals' potential to adapt to a changing environment.
When assessing genetic connectivity in Mesoamerican jaguars, the scientists found low levels of gene flow between jaguars in the Selva Maya—the largest contiguous tropical forest north of the Amazon, spreading over northern Guatemala, central Belize, and southern Mexico—and those in Honduras. This suggests that there is limited jaguar movement between these two areas, which is somewhat surprising since they are so geographically close. Although more data are needed to fill gaps in the study, the authors say that the region connecting these sites faces rapid land-cover changes, which have severely increased over the last two decades, putting remaining stepping-stone habitats for jaguars at further risk. This region represents a conservation priority and the authors recommend continued management and maintenance of jaguar corridors and mitigation of jaguars' main threats (e.g., human-wildlife conflict).
"Large-scale conservation strategies such as Panthera's Jaguar Corridor Initiative, which are instrumental to protect broadly distributed species such as jaguars, maintain their connectivity, and by doing so to ensure their long-term survival, need to incorporate genetic monitoring of wild populations to fully understand how these species respond to environmental changes and increasing levels of human impacts," Wultsch said.
Belize Forest Department Responds to Human-Jaguar Encounters
In response to the recent reports of jaguar sightings and attacks on livestock in the Laguna and Yemeri Grove areas, Toledo District, a Forest Department response team has been dispatched to assist farmers and ranchers in livestock husbandry techniques to prevent loss of livestock. The team, consisting of wildlife conservation experts, are also monitoring hotspots and conducting public awareness in these communities in order to better mitigate and reduce human-jaguar conflicts.
Forest Department/Panthera representative, Ms. Shanelly Carrillo, explained that even-though jaguars are recognized as an important flagship species both for conservation and tourism, farmers often see them as a nuisance. She noted that with the continuous expansion of farming communities into once pristine forested areas, there is an increasing likelihood of jaguar encounters.
Apart from their shrinking habitats, the jaguars’ dwindling natural food sources due to overhunting have also forced them to seek other alternatives outside of the protected areas. Consequently, they pose a direct threat to livestock and other domesticated animals. In some instances, these human-jaguar conflicts lead to the retaliatory killing by residents.
In speaking on this issue, the Chief Forest Officer, Wilber Sabido, emphasized that the livelihood and safety of people are paramount but echoed concerns for wildlife conservation. He stated that resolving the issue hinges on creating opportunities for co-existence by: (1) affording farmers the knowledge and techniques to protect their livelihood and (2) enhancing the communities’ readiness to protect jaguar habitat and prevent overhunting of wild game.
Sabido elaborated that the team continues to advise farmers on several low-cost preventative measures that they can use to protect their livestock. Some basic measures involve having proper fences or night enclosures so that jaguars cannot access the livestock and using donkeys and domestic dogs to protect livestock from this apex predator.
On a larger scale, he called to action community residents to do their part in helping to regulate seasonal hunting and prevent the destruction of wildlife habitats, thereby reducing human-jaguar encounters. He concluded by saying: “When farmers heed the advice of the department and members of the community see themselves as key players in wildlife conservation, there will be no need for wildlife and humans to compete for space and resources.”
The Department continues to multiply efforts of surveillance and monitoring and welcomes the support and assistance of communities. All Belizeans have an important role to play in ensuring that our country continues to be a stronghold for this iconic species.
Please report any forest and wildlife related concerns to the Forest Department at 822-2079 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.