A professionally organised Jaguar watching tour through the wetland habitat of the Brazilian Pantanal is the only safe way to encounter the big cat in the wild. On both day and night drives, participants can enter the secretive world of Panthera onca and enjoy a privileged opportunity to observe it in its natural environment.
While more extensive research will reveal some fascinating data about the big cat's behaviour and characteristics, these basic facts offer an excellent insight.
10 Fast Facts About the Jaguar
1. Social climbers: This is one big cat that isn't scared of heights. They are very agile and, as stalk and ambush predators, will often prey on unsuspecting quarries from among the branches of a tree.
2. A powerful predator: As an apex predator, they have nothing to fear – except perhaps man. They hunt everything in their wetland habitat, from frogs, reptiles and fish, right up to large mammals, including livestock.
3. A solitary life: Apart from raising cubs and coming together to breed, this big cat lives a solitary life. Breeding can occur at any time of the year but males and females separate immediately afterwards. Cubs usually stay with the mother for around two years, after which they will strike out on their own and males will establish their own range.
4. At home in the water: Unlike other big cats, Jaguars enjoy water and are very competent swimmers. While they are found in forests and grasslands, their habitat also encompasses swamps and tropical wetlands. They are capable of bringing down large aquatic prey in the water.
5. Big and beautiful: Panthera onca is the third-largest big cat in the world, only beaten in size by the Tiger and the Lion. In its habitat of the Americas, however, it is the largest – with males able to reach a length of around 240cm and stand up to 75cm at the shoulders.
6. A close encounter: For anyone looking for the ultimate wildlife encounter, Jaguar watching in the Brazilian Pantanal – home to the world’s highest concentration of the big cat – is without a doubt the best way to get it. April to November (the dry season) is the most accessible time to enjoy multiple sightings in this incredibly diverse eco-system.
7. Distribution: In the past, the Jaguar could be found in far more wide-ranging habitats right up into the southern states of the USA. Today, however, it's only found in South and Central America, from Mexico down to the northern reaches of Argentina (although there have been some isolated sightings in Arizona).
8. Spot the spots: While it's easy to see the big cat's fur is ‘spotted', what's not so well known is that each animal's markings are unique – affording researchers and scientists a valuable tool for identification. These markings, known as rosettes (for their rose-like shape), are different from those of its cousin the Leopard, in that they also have a smaller spot within them.
9. The concern of conservation: While numbers of the big cat have been decimated through loss of habitat and poaching, conservationists have been successful in establishing a number of dedicated wildlife preserves. The first and best known of these is the 240km2 Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, in Belize, which was established in 1986 and is now home to a healthy population.
10. Safe passage: The fragmentation of habitat from north to south regions in the Americas is a major concern for conservationists. In 2004, the establishment of the framework of a wildlife corridor through which the big cat could safely pass marked the beginning of an ambitious project. The Jaguar Corridor Initiative, set up by the organisation Panthera, headed by world-famous zoologist Alan Rabinowitz, aims to ensure safe passage for the big cat to roam and breed, ensuring their continued survival in the wild.
Before embarking on a Jaguar watching tour, learning as much as possible about the big cat is the best way to get the most out of what is a memorable and life-changing wildlife experience. These 10 fast facts make for a good basis for further research.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching in the Brazilian Pantanal region. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led wildlife holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.