Despite being an apex predator and the largest wild cat endemic to the Americas, Panthera onca, the Jaguar, has lost more than 50% of its historic range due to loss and fragmentation of habitat and human encroachment. Its conservation status now stands as ‘near threatened. ’ While without a doubt the safest and most successful way to encounter Panthera onca in the wild is on an organised Jaguar safari to the Brazilian Pantanal, it isn't the only place this beautiful creature can be found. Favoured Habitat Comfortable in a diverse variety of habitats, although most often associated with dense rainforests, they are also found in dry scrub, flooded lowlands, swampy grasslands, evergreen forests and mangrove areas. One feature common to their chosen habitat, however, is the presence of water, including rivers, creeks and seasonal waterholes. Populations have been recorded at elevations of up to 3,800 metres in Costa Rica and, interestingly, where they live also affects their physiology. For instance, those that live mainly in dense forested areas are smaller (and darker in colour) than those living in more open areas, while the largest are those living in the Brazilian Pantanal. Current Distribution Today Panthera onca can be found from northern Argentina, up through South and Central America in the Amazon Basin and into the very southern regions of Arizona. Despite extreme fragmentation, scientific and anecdotal evidence shows that there is still a degree of connectivity between its remaining disjointed habitat. Density of Population The density of the extant population varies greatly from country to country. In the lush habitat of the Brazilian Pantanal (the most popular place for a Jaguar safari), there are around 6-7 animals per 100km2. In Belize (which is home to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve) there are approximately 7-8 big cats per 100km2. In the Amazon Basin the density falls to around 4-5 per 100km2, and in Bolivia it is lowest at 2-3 per 100km2. Other countries the big cat is found are Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. While no breeding populations remain in the USA, sightings of lone adult males have been reported in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The Future for Panthera onca Conservationists have identified habitat loss as the primary threat to the big cat's survival and efforts are in place to establish agreements with 18 countries within its range to create up to 182 wildlife corridors. These corridors will ensure safe passage for the animal in order to establish new breeding populations and extend the gene pool. Innovative research and data gathering methods, like camera and video camera trapping, are helping to build a clearer picture of this notoriously elusive animal never before afforded to scientists and naturalists. Human conflict is a major concern in the fight to preserve the big cat, so maintaining a peaceful co-existence with local communities, ranchers and large commercial developments is also a top priority for conservationists. Ethical eco-tourism (including Jaguar safari itineraries) and the establishment of collaborative conservation initiatives are helping to raise the profile of the big cat and promote education at both a global and local level.
For anyone planning to head to the Brazilian Pantanal on a Jaguar safari with a view to observing the big cat in its natural habitat, understanding its role within the rainforest eco-system can make the experience all the more fulfilling.
The Apex Predator of the Jungle
As the apex predator of its South American habitat, Panthera onca plays a pivotal role in maintaining the delicate balance of the eco-system. By controlling the populations of smaller prey species, the big cat is doing the job it's supposed to and playing a part in regulating the eco-diversity of the region. In fact, every plant, every animal and every insect, bacteria and organism - no matter how small or seemingly insignificant - has its own role to play in the web of life.
The Role of the Predator
The role of the predator in the rainforest is manifold. In the Jaguar's case it is an opportunistic hunter, with a diet of more than 85 known species of fish, birds, reptiles and mammals and even some plants. By keeping down the numbers of certain species, food sources (be they vegetation or smaller prey species) are preserved, causing a knock-on effect down the food chain.
As well as keeping the populations of prey species in check, predators also eradicate sick or weak animals so they don't pass on their illness or inferior traits through their own species.
Upsetting the Balance
Understanding all these factors brings the magnificent Panthera onca's status as ‘near threatened’ into sharp focus, with conservationists warning that, quite aside from the tragedy of a dwindling population, the over-arching effects could be devastating on a global ecological scale.
How it's Already Happening
Far from being scare-mongering by conservationists, the effects of the declining populations of some of the world's apex predators are already becoming clear. The spread of noxious and highly infectious diseases throughout the world is a direct result of what's termed an ‘ecological release', which is a sharp increase in the population of carrier species due to fewer numbers of predatory species. Diseases like SARS and Ebola are certainly not new to the planet, but in recent years their spread and reach have increased dramatically around the world.
Working on a Solution
In the end, in order for any conservation programme to be sustainable, global education is needed. One way of raising the profile of the South American big cats is through the excellent Jaguar safari itineraries conducted by reputable wildlife travel companies. But experts say time is running out and more proactive initiatives need to be implemented.
One way of doing this is by the establishment of so-called corridors through which the big cats can pass through habitat (often including human landscape) in safety, reducing the effects of fragmentation. Apart from allowing safe passage for the big cat to hunt, maintaining free movement to mate between ranges ensures genetic diversity and viability – vastly increasing the chances of survival for the species.
While there are numerous other conservation programmes in place throughout the Brazilian Pantanal (where most of the Jaguar safari activity occurs) and the rest of South America, this enigmatic big cat's very existence remains in the balance, meaning so too does its entire eco-system. It's never been more important to fight for its survival.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led Jaguar safari itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.