The subject of many myths and hunters’ tales, the jaguar is the largest wild cat native to the Americas. It is now extremely rare outside captivity as the result of being hunted for its attractive skin.

Jaguars live in a variety of habitats, from dense jungle and scrub land to reed thickets and shoreline forests. They will even live in open country provided the grass and rocks offer sufficient cover for hunting and a reliable supply of water is available.

Where do jaguars live?

Jaguars were once found everywhere from Arizona to Argentina, but ruthless hunting has wiped them out from most of their range, and reduced them greatly elsewhere.

In many countries, rapid expansion of forest clearing to provide pastures for beef cattle and to build new settlements has finished what the hunters began. Jaguars are said to still be common in the upper basin of the Orinoco, Venezuela, but almost everywhere else they are in danger of extinction. In fact there are believed to be less that 200 jaguars left in the whole of Argentina! At this rate, the only flourishing population of jaguars left will be those held by world’s zoos.

Jaguars have a reputation for being man-eaters, and there are many hunters’ tales of men being followed for mile after mile through the forest by a solitary jaguar, which eventually fades away as silently as it appeared. This suggests that the animal was escorting the men off from its territory. If the jaguar had been hunting them, it would have had plenty of opportunities to attack and kill its intended prey.

Adult jaguars are solitary animals, except during the breeding season when a male and female stay together for a short while in order to mate. The young jaguars stay with their mother for the first few years of life before leaving the family to find hunting territories of their own.

The size of the jaguar’s territory depends on the availability of food. Where food is plentiful – as you would expect in an area of undisturbed forest – a jaguar should be able to feed itself from a circular area of about 5 km in diameter. Where food is scarcer – perhaps because the forest has been cleared – a jaguar may need a territory of 500 sq km, 30 times larger!

Jaguar breeding

Very little is known about the family life of wild jaguars. For many years they have been hunted for their fur. In fact, during the 1960’s over 1000 were shot every year in the Brazilian Amazon jungle. Hunters became experts at finding and killing them but paid little attention to their way of life. Now, biologists trying to study jaguars in the wild are handicapped because they have become so rare. Most of their information comes from zoos, where jaguars have been bred successfully.

It appears that male and female and female jaguars meet in the wild only to mate. The male leaves as soon as mating is over, and the female brings up the young on her own. She produces between one and four cubs, which are blind at birth and weigh only 700-900 grams each. All-black jaguars are not uncommon. These cubs would have had a spotted father and a black mother.

Two weeks later, the cubs will open their eyes. During the following weeks they begin to explore the world outside of their mothers den until – at about six months old – they begin to accompany her on hunting trips. The cubs will live and hunt with their mother for the first two years of their life, before leaving to find a territory of their own in which to hunt. A jaguar is sexually mature at three years old, but males do not breed until a year later.

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