Costa Rica’s majestic Jaguar needs our help
Though you may not often, if ever, see one in the wild, Costa Rica’s jungles are home to one of the most magnificent of the big cats: the Jaguar (Panthera onca). Though dwindling numbers have been cause for concern, efforts to protect this third largest cat species are alive and well in Costa Rica.
The jaguar, the only member of the Panthera species to be found in the Americas, closely resembles a leopard, but with a stronger, sturdier build. While it may share marking similarities with the leopard, the jaguar actually shares more behavioral characteristics with the tiger, as both felines enjoy swimming, a rarity among felines.
Compact cats that are well-muscled, jaguars can weigh from 124 to 211 pounds, and are adept climbers, in addition to swimming. While the spotted version is most typically seen, an almost all-black form can occur thanks to melanism (which is the opposite of albinism). The largest carnivorous mammals in Central and South America, jaguars have the strongest bite of all the cats, and have even been known to pierce turtle shells.
Though turtles have been seen occasionally on the jaguar’s menu, they prefer other rainforest mammals, and typically eat peccary, monkey, deer, and birds. Jaguars are the jungle’s apex predator, and their position at the top of the food chain in a rainforest full of animals means that their diet can vary widely. Unfortunately, they’ve also found local livestock to be an easy, tasty meal, which contributes directly to their now dwindling numbers as local farmers attempt to protect their flocks.
While the jaguar lives from northern Mexico to Argentina, in Costa Rica it is almost only found in the forests of protected reserves. Jaguars were seen more widely through the country, from mangroves to wet and dry shrub lands and forests, but because of hunting and habitat destruction, it is very rare to find them anywhere now but in protected areas. Even there, the jaguar exists with difficulty, as males need several hundred kilometers each as a home range, making dense populations impossible.
Because of hunting and habitat destruction, jaguar numbers have dwindled over the last 50 years, from a population in the Americas from over 400,000 to an estimated 14,000 currently. Efforts are underway to help change that, however, and include protection efforts in Tortuguero National Park, as well as an initiative to make hunting the big cat illegal. In an unprecedented decision in 2013, the country stopped all recreational hunting of wildlife, a ban that will hopefully help preservation efforts.