When you think of wild cats, your mind probably wanders to the lions in Africa or the tigers in Asia. Did you know that Texas has native wild cats of its own? Two species – the bobcat and the mountain lion – are found across most of North America. Four other species – the jaguarundi, the ocelot, the margay, and the jaguar – usually reside in Central America, but in the past, they have wandered past the Mexico border and made a home on Texas soil. We discussed the ocelot in one of my first blog posts, and this week we’re going to meet the jaguar (Panthera onca).
The jaguar is the largest of the wild cats found in America. A mature male may weigh up to 150 pounds. It is the third-largest cat in the world, with lions and tigers taking the top two spots. Speaking of spots, the jaguar is known for its spotted coat. This pattern may seem to stand out, but actually, it helps the jaguar camouflage. The jaguar, or “el Tigre” as it is sometimes called, lives in thick forests that provide cover to keep the cat hidden while it stalks its prey. The spots mimic the dappled effect in the forest that the sun and shadows create.
This big cat is an excellent swimmer and usually chooses a habitat close to water. It is a carnivore whose diet includes more than 85 species of prey. It can take large prey (such as wild pigs and deer) as well as smaller prey (such as fish and snakes).
The jaguar’s range once included Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Within the past century, jaguar sightings in the United States have become not only rare but practically non-existent. A jaguar hasn’t been sighted in Texas since 1900. The jaguar is listed as endangered in the United States and near threatened on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.
The loss of jaguars in America and the declining populations worldwide are most likely due to habitat alteration. Deforestation is very common in Central America and South America, where the bulk of jaguar habitat is found. In the past 100 years, the jaguar has lost 39 percent of its original habitat in these areas. A female jaguar requires two to 12 square miles of territory just for herself, and a male may need up to twice that. That’s a lot of land for one animal, so areas that have enough room to support multiple jaguars are difficult to find.
Another reason for the decline is competition for resources. In Central and South America, people depend on many of the same food sources as the jaguar. This means jaguars and humans are hunting the same food, so there is less of it for everyone. Sometimes jaguars are shot so humans don’t have to compete with them. Ranchers also shoot jaguars to protect their livestock from being hunted by the big cat. There are problems on both ends: for humans and for jaguars. What we need to find is the right balance so we can coexist with one another.
Jaguars are apex predators and provide balance to the ecosystems where they live. If an apex predator disappears from an ecosystem, the entire food chain is drastically affected. The populations below the apex predator on the food chain grow quickly because they aren’t being preyed on. The demand for prey grows with these populations, so the populations lower on the food chain crash. This domino effect of population booms and busts makes its way all the way to the bottom of the food chain, creating an incredibly unstable ecosystem.
You can think of it as a seesaw: when there is too much weight on one end, that end plummets and the other end shoots up. Apex predators (like the jaguar) are like the fulcrum, the point of support in the middle of the seesaw that keeps everything safe and balanced. Without the fulcrum (without the apex predator), it’s an unbalanced ride.
Since 2001, the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project has been using camera traps in potential jaguar habitats in Arizona, hoping to find jaguars in some of the pictures. The first jaguar, photographed in 2001, was nicknamed “Macho A.” In 2004, “Macho B” emerged for his first photograph. As it turned out, this wasn’t Macho B’s first time in front of a camera. Biologists discovered that Macho B was the same jaguar photographed by two hunters in 1996. That means he’s been living in the region for more than eight years!
There was more jaguar news in November 2011. For the first time in three years, there was another jaguar sighting in Arizona. A local hunter captured images of the jaguar. Officials are hopeful that there are more of the big cats on this side of the border that is staying hidden.
There are still lots of questions that may never get answered, but for now, there is a small bit of good news: the jaguar is back in the United States! With that good news, we still have to remember the challenge: globally jaguar populations are declining, and they are still endangered in the United States.
The Fort Worth Zoo is involved in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the jaguar. The SSP includes 39 zoos working to spread awareness about the jaguar by maintaining a healthy jaguar population in captivity. Our most recent jaguar cubs were born in 2004.
Jaguar conservation has gone global, too. The jaguar is doing well in Belize, where ecotourism has shown locals that this endangered species can be valuable. In other parts of Central and South America where the jaguar is in trouble, the endangered cat has gotten help from conservationists. One possible solution to save jaguars in the Jaguar Corridor Initiative. The goal of this program is to connect 90 separate jaguar populations by providing ecological corridors for them to travel between habitats. These corridors can be anything from dense rainforest to a small strip of land that provides cover. They just need to be one thing: safe.
If jaguars are able to travel safely from place to place, they can find food, stay healthy and produce offspring. The Jaguar Corridor Initiative is still in the process of getting 18 countries to cooperate, but it is a step in the right direction! If successful, 182 jaguar corridors will give the jaguar more than one million square miles to prowl. Ecological corridors are a great example of coexistence: humans still get to enjoy nature and don’t have to leave it completely untouched, but are respectful of wildlife species and let them use and enjoy nature, too.
What can you do to help the jaguar?
- Support organizations that are working to save jaguars, such as the Jaguar Conservation Team in New Mexico and Arizona.
- Create an uproar and spread the news about this endangered big cat to friends, family, and the community.
- Use recycled paper products and buy lumber from sustainable forests so there’s less of a demand for trees in the jaguar habitat to be cut down and manufactured into products.
- Plant a tree in honor of jaguars and their forest habitat.
- Get together with your friends or classmates to adopt a section of rainforest where jaguars live. This will protect the land from being developed so the jaguars can stay safe.
- Adopt a jaguar at the Fort Worth Zoo. You can choose to adopt a variety of Fort Worth Zoo animals and help contribute to their care and feeding for one full year. Visit our website for more information.
What have you been doing on your recent conservation adventures, both in and outside the classroom? Don’t forget to tell me at Sam’s Inbox (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I love hearing from you! Until next time … happy exploring!
Apex predator: (noun) an animal with no known predators of its own that is at the top of the food chain
Awareness: (noun) the state of being conscious of something or having knowledge about something
Bulk: (noun) the majority or greatest portion
Camouflage: (verb) to disguise by changing one’s appearance to blend in with the surroundings
Captivity: (noun) the condition of being held in a protected area under human care
Captive: (adjective) kept in a protected area under human care
Carnivore: (noun) an animal that feeds on other animals
Century: (noun) a period of 100 years
Coexist: (verb) to live together without disrupting one another
Coexistence: (noun) the process of living together without disrupting one another
Cooperate: (verb) to work or act together willingly and agreeably toward a common purpose or goal
Dappled: (adjective) spotted
Deforestation: (noun) the act of clearing forests or trees from an area
Dense: (adjective) closely packed together
Depend (on): (verb) to rely upon, count on, or trust in
Drastically: (adverb) extremely severe or extensive
Ecological corridor: (noun) a thin strip of nature used by wild animals to pass between habitats
Ecosystem: (noun) a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment
Ecotourism: (noun) tourism designed to help protect wildlife or minimalize habitat alteration
Emerge: (verb) to come into view after being hidden from sight
Endangered species: (noun) a species at risk of extinction
Fulcrum: (noun) a point of support or balance
Global: (adjective) worldwide, involving the whole world
Habitat: (noun) the natural environment of an organism
Habitat alteration: (noun) change that takes place in a habitat caused by natural or human processes
Hypothesize: (verb) to make an educated guess
Maintain: (verb) to keep in existence or continuance
Mature: (adjective) developed to a full-grown state
Mimic: (verb) to copy or imitate
Multiple: (adjective) more than one, several, many
Native: (adjective) being from the place or environment in which a person was born or a thing came into being
Non-existent: (adjective) absent, empty, missing
Offspring: (noun) children or young produced by parents
Plummet: (verb) to fall or plunge with great speed
Potential: (adjective) possible, promising
Prey: (noun) an animal hunted or captured by another animal for food
Prey (on): (verb) to hunt or capture another animal for food
Prowl: (verb) to move about stealthily or sneakily
Rare: (adjective) uncommon, unusual, not happening very often
Require: (verb) to need something
Scenery: (noun) the natural surroundings that cover a landscape and give it character
Stalk: (verb) to follow closely and sneakily
Suitable: (adjective) appropriate, acceptable
Threatened species: (noun) a species likely to become endangered if population trends continue
Unstable: (adjective) not balanced or firmly fixed
Wander: (verb) to stray or roam without a specific purpose or plan