By George L. Mountainlion
Special to the Arizona Daily Star
I believe I have made it clear to my readers that at the Desert Museum I am the Big Cat! However, I have learned that previously there have been other large cats of a different species on display here! They were jaguars, and I must admit that some of them might have outweighed me, although it is obvious that it is only I, a proud mountain lion, who is both literate and an author!
Jaguars are the largest species of cat native to the Western Hemisphere, males measuring 5 to 8 feet from nose to tail and weighing 140 to 300 pounds. Females are usually smaller. They are beautiful and powerful animals, heavily muscled, with a large head and strong jaws and teeth. Jaguars are capable of killing prey by biting through its skull.
Jaguars’ coats are a tawny yellow, with white underparts. The fur on the back and flanks is marked with dark, open-ring rosettes, similar to those on a leopard. However, jaguars’ rosettes have small dots or shapes within the ring, which the leopards lack. No two jaguars are marked exactly the same, and coloration patterns can be used to identify individual animals. Occasionally in South America, melanistic (black) jaguars, often referred to as “black panthers,” occur.
Jaguars range from southern Argentina, up through parts of Central America and Mexico, and formerly into the Southwestern United States, reaching as far north as the Grand Canyon. Over their range, the cats’ habitats vary from lowland wet areas (they are accomplished swimmers) and tropical rain forests to warmer, drier types, including oak and pine woodlands. Jaguars are capable of traveling long distances (their range covers up to 500 miles). They feed on more than 85 different species, depending on animals available in their habitat, including deer, javelina and livestock.
Litters of usually two young stay with the mother for up to two years. Jaguars snarl, growl and “roar” as a means of communication. The roar is a series of three to 50 (or more) short, hoarse coughs or grunts, increasing in rapidity.
Jaguars are of conservation concern throughout their range. Indiscriminate hunting and loss of habitat have severely impacted the species. It is estimated that jaguars currently occupy only 46 percent of their former area.
Jaguars are listed as endangered and are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Jaguars were common residents in the Southwest until the beginning of the 20th century, when loss of habitat, hunting and predator-control programs eliminated the resident populations. The last documented female jaguar in Arizona was killed in 1963.
Recently, the presence of a limited number of jaguars in Southern Arizona has been confirmed. Extensive, exciting programs are under way with the goal of protecting the jaguars’ current northernmost breeding grounds in northern Mexico and returning jaguars to their former range in Arizona and New Mexico.
Jaguars may return to the Desert Museum, also! We hope to have a new jaguar exhibit with a jaguar in residence in the not-too-distant future. That gives this Big Cat something to think about!
Recent confirmations of jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico include:
* One encountered and photographed in the Peloncillo Mountains of Southern Arizona in 1996.
* One encountered and photographed in the Baboquiviri Mountains in 1996.
* Through the use of trail cameras, the presence of two adult male jaguars, and possibly a third unidentified individual, has been documented in Southern Arizona since 1996.
* In May 2006 a jaguar was photographed in southern New Mexico. The jaguars recently reported in Arizona and New Mexico are thought to have dispersed from the species’ northernmost breeding grounds in a rugged, remote area in Sonora, Mexico, approximately 140 miles south of Douglas. This is home to an estimated 100 jaguars. Scientists believe that the presence of borderland jaguars depends heavily on the Mexican jaguar population.
The Northern Jaguar Project, based in Tucson, is dedicated to the conservation of jaguar habitat in Sonora and the creation of a safe-haven corridor for the cats. The project has partnered with the Mexican organization Naturalia that purchased a 10,000-acre ranch in northern Sonora, with options for purchasing adjoining land. This land forms the core of a new jaguar reserve south of Douglas.
The Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project is active in the tracking and photographing, through use of trail cameras, of jaguars along the border. The Jaguar Conservation Team is composed of representatives from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, and other agencies, organizations and individuals. This organization is extremely active in efforts to conserve the jaguar in the United States and to encourage parallel efforts in Mexico.
Of current concern is the disruption in the jaguar’s movements through its range caused by ongoing events. Illegal foot traffic; habitat destruction through mining, dams and construction; and security measures such as motor patrols, new roads, nighttime lights, and the possible construction of barriers along the border can prove to be major obstacles to the cats’ entry into the United States.
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