Operation Jaguar - South America
To protect jaguars in the Americas, we are helping to fight the growing threat of illegal wildlife tradeSee project
Jaguars are one of the five big cats in the genus Panthera. While smaller than lions and tigers, they’re still impressive predators and have the strongest bite for their size of any big cat. In fact, they use this bite as a distinctive method to take down their prey, using their powerful jaws to crush the skulls of their food instead of aiming for the throat, like other big cats do.
Importantly, jaguars are apex predators, meaning that they are at the top of their food chain and play an essential role in the ecosystem. They keep populations of animals lower down the food chain (like deer and capybaras) in check, preventing an overpopulation that would otherwise have devastating impacts on vegetation.
The scientific name for jaguars is Panthera onca. The genus Panthera includes several big cats, such as lions and tigers.
Jaguars are considered near threatened by the IUCN. They face a range of threats, including poaching, habitat loss, and human conflict.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the appetite for exotic fur in the fashion industry left jaguar populations near the brink of extinction. The species was given the highest level of protection by CITES in 1975, banning international trade of live jaguars and their skins, claws, and fangs. While this gave the species a short break for recovery, the population plummeted again by the mid-1990s due to agricultural and urban developments.
As strong swimmers, jaguars prefer living close to bodies of water, such as rivers and lakes. They also usually occupy wooded areas or places with plenty of cover. This makes tropical forests and swamps their ideal habitat, though they’re also found in scrublands and even deserts.
Jaguars are the only big cats found on the American continent. They used to be abundant throughout the southwest United States and across Central and South America, but their range has shrunk to just half its previous size.
Today, jaguars are found only in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela, and the overseas territory of French Guiana.
The threats jaguars face come almost exclusively from human activity. They are not only subject to extensive poaching and retaliatory killing but also severe habitat loss due to deforestation.
Jaguars are poached primarily for their beautiful pelts, as well as for their paws, teeth, and claws, which are used in traditional medicine to help cure a variety of ailments (though with no scientific basis).
Despite trade in jaguars being illegal, data show a significant rise in international trafficking of jaguar parts since 2012, with trading continuously increasing.
The biggest threat to jaguar populations comes from the rapid loss of their habitat, primarily through deforestation. Logging within the Amazon rainforest has led to significant habitat loss and encroachment on jaguar territory by humans.
Although much of this deforestation is the result of deliberate human activity, fire is another leading cause, as the loss of rainforest leaves areas vulnerable to wildfires.
As humans move into jaguar territory, contact between the two species has increased, leading to increased conflict.
Jaguars rarely attack humans and will almost never do so without provocation. They will, however, attack and kill livestock that local farmers rely on for their livelihoods. This prompts local communities to hunt and kill jaguars in retaliation and to protect their herds.
Jaguars are large, muscular big cats with distinctively beautiful coats. Though they look spotty, their “spots” are actually called rosettes because they look like roses arranged around a central spot. Their other most distinctive feature is their head which, as a result of their powerful jaws, is especially large relative to their body size.
Jaguars hunt both on land and in the water, which gives them a varied diet. They hunt fish, turtles, and caimans in rivers and lakes, and go after medium-sized mammals, like deer and capybaras, on land.
Thanks to their extremely powerful jaws, they are able to eat larger and stronger animals than their size would suggest.
They weigh between 45 and 113 kilograms, with males being significantly larger than females.
Jaguars aren’t as quick as cheetahs, but they still have an impressive turn of speed. Over short distances, they can reach 80 kilometres per hour. They also have a powerful jump, which allows them to ambush prey.
In the wild, jaguars can achieve a lifespan of between 12 and 15 years.
Although they look similar at first glance, jaguars and leopards are different species. While jaguars can be found throughout Central and South America, leopards live predominantly in Africa and some parts of Asia. Jaguars are also significantly larger than leopards and have inner rosette spots, as opposed to leopards who have no inner rosette spots.
Panthers and jaguars are often mistaken for each other because the terms are used interchangeably. However, “panther” is actually a non-scientific term used to describe both the black jaguar and the black panther–both of which are different from the jaguar.
Jaguars are considered near threatened by the IUCN. This means that they have a relatively small population that is likely to become smaller in the future.
Jaguar populations are expected to decline because of continued threats from loss of habitat, poaching, and killings by local communities.
Jaguars are solitary, elusive animals, making them difficult to locate, track, and identify. As a result, estimates of how many jaguars are left in the world are unreliable. Even the IUCN doesn’t offer an estimate of the total number of jaguars left in the wild. Our current best estimate puts the number at 173,000, but this is a very approximate figure.
More important, though, there is a consensus that the jaguar population is in decline. Of the habitat that jaguars currently occupy, 12% is unlikely to have continued jaguar presence in the future.
When it comes to rescuing and rehabilitating jaguars, IFAW is there to answer the call. In 2020, IFAW provided X-rays and essential protective gear for the rehabilitation of Covi, a young jaguar injured from a car strike. After months under the specialised care of Payo Obispo Zoo and state officials from Quintana Roo, Covi made a full recovery and was released back into the wild. This release was the first of its kind in the area—a groundbreaking success worth celebrating. IFAW continues to work with other NGOs, community members, and all levels of government to advance conservation efforts for jaguars in Mexico.
To mitigate human-wildlife conflict and achieve coexistence between jaguars and communities, IFAW developed the Casitas Azules project (little blue houses). Through Casitas Azules, we work with communities in Quintana Roo, Mexico, to build dog houses that provide adequate shelter and prevent dogs from roaming at night and attracting jaguars. The team also implements jaguar deterrents like light installation and holds wellness clinics to control community animal populations and prevent disease transmission to jaguars.
We’ve also been integral to the international efforts to reduce and eliminate the international trade in jaguar parts. From 2019 to 2022, we joined forces with IUCN NL and Earth League International for Operation Jaguar, a collaborative project made possible by support from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. The initiative was aimed at collecting new data, improving law enforcement systems, and protecting jaguar habitat. IFAW’s team worked in Guyana, Suriname, Peru, and Bolivia to train wildlife rangers and law enforcement officials so they can better detect wildlife crime and ensure poachers are prosecuted.
We continue to work closely with Chinese authorities to strengthen legislation and improve enforcement efforts. IFAW also participates in the CITES Jaguar Working Group and the Convention of the Conservation of Migratory Species, where our support is key in increasing protections for jaguar habitat and migration corridors.
With support from our project teams and partners, IFAW has been able to move the needle in saving the lives of jaguars and their habitat—but there is still so much more we have to do.
protecting the jaguar, the largest big cat in the Americasread more
empowering enforcement agencies to combat jaguar trafficking in Peruread more
tackling jaguar poaching in Suriname by training law enforcementread more
Bolivia arrests five jaguar traffickers following Operation Jaguar investigationread more