Humanity has a long-standing fascination with felines of every color, shape, and size. From Ancient Egypt’s depictions of divine felines to modern-day Japan’s cat-centric society, it is clear that this furry animal is a favorite worldwide. If you follow the evolution of domesticated breeds back far enough, you will find that they all have something in common: our beloved pet cats were once completely wild.
There are many different species of wild cats, but arguably none more exciting and elusive than the majestic jaguar. Also known as the panther, which is similar to its Latin name, Panthera onca, these big cats are stocky and built for strength and stealth. They are the largest feline in South America, sometimes measuring upwards of 5 and even 6 feet in length from head to tail. Their weight can be anywhere from 100 to 300 pounds depending on their gender, age, and health.
Most jaguars have fur with a tan base color which is decorated by black spots known as “rosettes” because of their similarity to the shape of a rose. Unlike their cousin the leopard, which isn’t found in the Americas but rather lives in regions of Africa and Asia, jaguars also have small black spots within their rosettes, a useful difference when trying to distinguish between the two species. This beautiful mixture of colors makes them particularly well-suited for blending into the forest floor where the sunlight is dappled from all the foliage above. On the other hand, some jaguars have an overall dark and seemingly spot-less coat that looks black from afar. Either way, every jaguar has distinctive spots that mark them as an individual comparable to human fingerprints.
Though they used to inhabit an expansive range from the current United States and Mexico border area all the way down to the Southern reaches of the American Continent, human presence and activity have profoundly impacted the landscapes and their habitat as a result. Their numbers have shrunk significantly, and they have been reduced to living in remote regions of Central and South America where there remains just enough territory for them to live their mostly solitary lives. These regions are also facing threats of human development, and the Amazon Basin is a precious stronghold for this keystone species. One such place is Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, which is also a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve because of the unbelievable biodiversity of plants and animals in this region.
Mainly nocturnal and secretive by nature, jaguars generally don’t want to be seen by any of the other forest occupants that could be potential prey. Unlike their cousins in different ecosystems, like leopards in the open Savanna, South American jaguars are largely able to remain hidden out of plain sight. Jaguars are excellent swimmers and, like tigers, this expands their hunting grounds to include both land and water creatures. Since their diet is based on opportunity, it is quite varied. They hunt fish, turtles, caiman, an occasional otter, deer, peccaries, tapirs, large rodents called watusas, even larger ones called capybaras, and any other animal they are able to catch.
Since the presence of jaguars indicates an area is rich in prey, and their role as a top carnivore is essential to the health and balance of other populations of animals in the forest, the image of this big cat is historically vital to indigenous groups. In fact, the iconography of this rainforest royalty has been found by archaeologists on pre-Columbian pottery over 3000 years old. It indicates that the jaguar has always been fundamental to local cultures. This tradition continues today as jaguars are believed to be ancestral spirits who are represented and reproduced in artisanal woodworking. They are also key characters in oral traditions of groups such as the Kichwa, the Waorani, the Cofán, and the Awá.
The Kichwa Añangu community calls the Napo river and Añangu stream area home. They welcome visitors to the Napo Wildlife Center and the Napo Cultural Center for life-changing vacations regularly and pride themselves on both boutique and authentic experiences. Living within the borders of Yasuni National Park, seeing a jaguar in real life is still rare but not unheard of here. There have been sightings of a lone male jaguar at the clay licks, and other lucky guests reported to have seen a mother and young cub on the banks of Añangu stream while passing by in their guided canoe ride! Though they usually live alone, the exception is mother jaguars raising their young. Litters of 1 to 4 cubs stay by their mother’s side for at least two years in order to grow and learn enough to become skilled hunters capable of feeding themselves and surviving the realities of maintaining their territory. Seeing a mother actively hunting with her baby is a sure sign that the conservation efforts made by this community over the past 20 years are heartwarmingly effective!
Visiting the Ecuadorian Amazon as a responsible ecotourist will be a fantastic experience. You will enjoy a pleasant holiday, take pictures and make memories to last for your lifetime, and rest easy knowing that your money is being invested in a green industry which protects precious jaguar habitat. Contact us today to book your adventure in the Amazon!