The majestic Panthera onca, the Jaguar, once ruled supreme throughout South and Central America and up into the southern states of the USA. Today, however, 90% of the big cat's surviving population is restricted to the Amazon Basin. The highest density is found in the diverse habitat of the Brazilian Pantanal and this vast wetland area is the ideal place to observe the animal in its natural habitat, with the majority of organised Jaguar holidays taking place here.
Over the past century, Panthera onca's numbers have been decimated in the northern and southern reaches of its historical range. Its extremely secretive lifestyle prevents a definitive census of its population, but what is known is that the species is still in decline.
Why They're So Important
Every species in the plant and animal kingdom plays an important part in maintaining the delicate balance of its eco-system. But as an apex predator hunting a diverse range of prey species, the Jaguar's role within its habitat is absolutely crucial to controlling numbers and ensuring the cycle of the food chain. Conservationists continue to work hard to educate local communities (and the global population) on the importance of preserving the big cat – not just for its own survival, but also for the survival of many other species.
The Threats to Survival
As an apex predator, this iconic species has very little to fear except humans, which makes their near threatened status even more disturbing. While eco-tourism through Jaguar holidays serves to draw attention to the need for their urgent conservation, there are still those who would wish this beautiful animal harm.
Poaching: Up until the 1970s the most prevalent threat to the big cat was from hunting. Their stunning coats were considered a prize and demand in the fur trade was high. Thankfully, as a result of stringent international controls and sustained anti-fur campaigning, the practice has been largely stamped out. However, there is unfortunately still demand in some cultures for body parts, like teeth and paws, for use in traditional medicine.
Habitat Loss: In the Amazon region, key habitat is being lost to deforestation at an alarming rate – an area equivalent to three football pitches every 60 seconds – an apart from decreasing the amount of land, it also causes fragmentation of habitat. This has the effect of isolating populations and leads to interbreeding – producing genetic variances and mutations.
Loss of Prey and Human Conflict: Even if poachers do not actively hunt the big cat, the killing of smaller prey species on which it subsists in the Pantanal affects its food sources, and therefore its continued survival. In addition, loss and fragmentation of habitat due to human encroachment means the Jaguar sometimes kills cattle and other livestock, and this threat to the ranchers’ livelihood leads to ongoing conflict.
Help is at Hand
While Panthera onca is fighting a very real battle for survival, it's not on its own. Conservation organisations like the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and others are working to establish wildlife corridors for the animal's safe passage through fragmented habitat, as well as educate local farmers and ranchers on sustainable solutions to maintain a peaceful co-existence.
As well as the promotion of ethical eco-tourism through Jaguar holidays, implementing initiatives such as livestock enclosures, low-impact ranching methods, and monitoring of the animal's population are all assisting in the race against time to ensure the survival of one of the world's most beautiful and mysterious animals.
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 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.