Throughout history, humans have always held a fascination (and in many cultures a reverential awe) for the powerful spotted big cat, Panthera onca – more commonly known as the Jaguar. While a sighting of any of the family of big cats is a much sought after wildlife experience, Jaguar watching tours to the Brazilian Pantanal region have opened up the opportunity for nature lovers to encounter the most elusive and secretive of them all. |
While reputable Jaguar watching tours are led by an experienced naturalist and local guides with a thorough knowledge of the animal and its habitat, it can be helpful for participants to understand a little more about some of the animal's behaviours before they set off.
Solitary and territorial, they spend much of their time alone, usually meeting up only to mate. They roam within an established territory, which for females can be an area of around 25-40 km2 and for males up to twice that. The male defends his territory aggressively against other males, although often overlaps territories with several females. Conflict over a female between two males is rare, although it does occur.
While the animals mark their territory with urine, faeces, and scrape marks on trees, they can also vocalise quite loudly as a warning – the males more so. Their roar has been described as somewhat like a loud repetitive cough, along with grunts and mews.
Research suggests that the big cat mates all year round, with females alerting males to their fertility by leaving urinary scents and increasing vocal activity. At fertile periods, both males and females will venture further than usual in order to attract a mate. Once pregnant (with gestation around 100 days) the female will have nothing to do with the male and couples do not stay together. In fact, after she gives birth (usually to two cubs but it can be up to four), the female aggressively defends against any males who come close, as there is a risk of them attacking and killing the cubs.
Although weaned after around three months, cubs remain with their mothers for up to two years being taught to hunt and kill before setting off on their own to establish a territory, which is usually only achieved after multiple conflicts with other males.
The Hunt & Kill
Jaguars are carnivores and what is known as a 'stalk and ambush' hunter. They are opportunistic, with the ability to hunt throughout both the day and night (with favoured periods around dawn or dusk, so 'crepuscular'), stealthily tracking and following prey before moving in for a lighting-quick kill. As an apex predator with acute aural and olfactory senses, they have a wide range of animals from which to choose, from the smallest mice, frogs and birds, to deer, tapir, capybara, peccaries, and even anacondas. They are also known to attack and kill domestic livestock.
Silent and stealthy, their ambush techniques on land and in the water are second to none in the animal kingdom. They often employ a unique method of killing their prey, their powerful canine teeth enabling them to pierce their victim's skull directly through the temporal bones with a single strike. They also use a deep throat bite and suffocation to kill. The strength in their jaws enables them to drag their kill back into the privacy of the undergrowth, or even up trees to feed.
In many areas where Jaguar watching tours take place, conservation efforts are focused on habituating the animals – meaning they are accustomed to encountering the vehicles used. This enables the opportunity for multiple sightings on forest paths, open terrain, and especially around water, where they can be seen resting on riverbanks or stalking aquatic prey.
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
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