As a solitary, highly-efficient predator, the jaguar stands at the top of the Amazon food chain. While visitors to the rainforest may not always see this magnificent big cat, many travelers are fortunate enough to see a jaguar on the banks of the Tambopata River, or when journeying through more remote parts of Tambopata National Reserve.
Tambopata National Reserve is an ideal place to spot the jaguar (Panthera onca) because its forest and wetland systems are home to many of the species that this big cat preys upon, including capybaras, peccaries and tapirs.
Historically, jaguars roamed all the way from the southeastern United States to eastern Argentina. However, over the centuries they have been driven from much of their range by the growing presence of mankind, and they are currently listed as Near Threatened by international conservation groups. Their traditionally broad range has meant that they figure prominently in the mythology of many indigenous peoples, including the Mayas, Aztecs and the diverse ethnic groups of Peru’s Amazon region.
The name “jaguar” is a corruption of the Brazilian Tupi-Guarani people’s name for this big cat. In their language, “yaguara” means “beast”. The largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar is the third largest feline in the world, after the tiger and lion.
The jaguar is an essentially solitary animal. It hunts alone, wandering through the forest across its territory and ambushing prey opportunistically. The bite of the jaguar is unusually powerful even among large felines, and it is capable of perforating the hides of large reptiles and the shells of turtles. Unusually among big cats, it often attacks the head of its prey directly, relying upon its powerful jaws to penetrate the skull and bite into the brain.
Jaguars are adept swimmers and will readily take to the water in pursuit of their prey. They have been spotted crossing the Tambopata River, and will occasionally take down small caiman.
In the wild, jaguars tend to live for between 11 and 15 years, and can live up for to 25 years in captivity. Jaguars are almost always sighted alone. As solitary hunters, they only come together to breed. When seeking a mate, jaguars tend to roam over vast areas of forest, far beyond their normal hunting range. It is believed that jaguars will breed throughout the year, in wet season or dry. Receptive females mark their territory, in addition to becoming increasingly vocal, when seeking a mate. After breeding, the male and female separate, leaving the female to raise her cubs alone. In common with the tiger, female jaguars will not tolerate the presence of any male after the birth of their cubs, given the high risk of infant cannibalism prevalent among these two species.