ARTICLE

CONNECTING AND CONSERVING JAGUARS WITH PHOENIX ZOO

Image courtesy of Dave Seibert

Updated on July 12, 2024

By the Phoenix Zoo

With their solitary nature and spotted fur, jaguars can seamlessly blend into their environment, adding to the air of mystery surrounding them. They’re the largest cat found in the Americas and the third-largest big cat in the world (behind tigers and lions).

Jaguars are listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Although they face challenges in the wild, lots of people are working hard to protect jaguars and the habitats where they live.

Native to forests, grasslands and wetlands, jaguars range from Argentina and Brazil in South America all the way up to northern Mexico and Arizona in the United States. They can also be found in zoos and aquariums across the U.S., such as the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona. Jaguars at the Phoenix Zoo are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program. SAFE brings together the expertise of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to help vulnerable animals.

Read on to learn about jaguars and how the Phoenix Zoo and others are helping conserve this species.

 

A jaguar with its mouth open and tongue out as if its howling or hissing.

Image courtesy of WJ Wheaton

 

Don’t confuse me with a leopard

Jaguars and leopards have similar colors, and both have black rosette spots (roundish with uneven edges) on their coats, so the two are often confused. One difference is that jaguars have spots inside of the rosettes while leopards don’t. The rosettes of a jaguar are also usually larger, with more space between them than a leopard’s. Jaguars also have bigger heads, stockier bodies and shorter tails. Lastly, the two species live in different regions — jaguars in the Americas and leopards in Africa and Asia.

 

Jaguar facts

  • Jaguars are found in forests, grasslands and wetlands, ranging from Argentina and Brazil up to the southern reach of the southwestern United States.
  • Adult jaguars can weigh 100 to 250 pounds.
  • A full-grown jaguar’s head and body is typically up to 5-6 feet long. Jaguar tails can be up to 3 feet long.
  • Jaguars are solitary in the wild and can live 12-15 years. Cubs typically stay with their moms for two or more years.
  • A jaguar’s coat is covered in rose-like patterns called rosettes, allowing it to blend into the surrounding environment and approach prey without being noticed. A jaguar’s fur can be yellow/orange with black spots, or melanistic, meaning all black. If you look closely, you’ll see the rosettes are still visible on a melanistic jaguar’s dark coat.
  • They’re carnivores and eat a range of animals including mammals, amphibians, fish, reptiles and birds.
  • While jaguars can run quickly for short distances, they prefer to hide in dense habitat and wait for their food to pass by, then pounce on it.
  • Unlike most cats, jaguars are excellent swimmers and often prey on aquatic creatures, including turtles and small alligators.
  • As a keystone species, jaguars (and other predators) help keep the ecosystems where they live in balance.
  • Jaguars are great climbers.
  • Jaguars communicate with an assortment of snarls, growls, purrs, mews and grunts. Along with lions, tigers and leopards, they’re one of the few cats that can roar.

 

A jaguar in a tree, looking down to the ground as if its hunting something. A jaguar is a big cat that's tan/orange with a black rosette spot pattern. It has small cat ears and whiskers on its snout.

Image courtesy of WJ Wheaton

 

Jaguars in Arizona?

Many people are surprised to learn that jaguars are native to Arizona. In fact, their range once spanned from Argentina to the southern United States, including portions of California, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana. Historically, they could be found as far north as the Grand Canyon.

In recent years, there have been occasional individuals traveling from Northern Mexico into Southern Arizona. The Phoenix Zoo supports research in this borderlands region designed to better understand how jaguars and other mammals move through the landscape. The Zoo also supports jaguar conservation efforts through research and community outreach projects in Costa Rica that aim to protect vital jaguar habitat and reduce threats to their survival.

 

Conserving jaguars

We can help save jaguars and other animals by protecting them in the wild and through conservation programs in zoos.

Jaguars need large areas of suitable habitat, including safe places to hide, enough prey animals for food and clean water to drink. Human activities, such as housing development and conversion of forests for global agricultural demands, reduce the amount of good habitat remaining for jaguars. Roads through suitable habitat can be dangerous for jaguars and other animals moving from place to place to find food, mates and shelter.

Illegal hunting, or poaching, is a major threat to jaguar populations as well. Some people hunt jaguars for sport, to sell in global markets, or to use their fur as decorations and status symbols, while others hunt jaguars because they worry about protecting their family members and their cattle from the big cats.

These and other factors shrink the space jaguars have to live in and increase the risk of conflict with people who live and work in places jaguars also call home.

The Phoenix Zoo has been working with other conservation partners to protect jaguars for many years. Since conservation challenges are often complex, creative ideas are needed when searching for solutions.

 

Wildlife-friendly practices

One way to mitigate human/jaguar conflict is through wildlife-friendly programs. In southeastern Costa Rica, conservation scientists work with coffee growers to encourage the farmers and other community members to commit to growing their crops in ways that support wildlife. In exchange, their coffee can be certified wildlife-friendly and can command higher prices than conventionally grown coffee.

Wildlife-friendly practices also include planting fruit and shade trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife, and not using pesticides that have a harmful effect on animals living on farms and downstream. Fundación ProCAT, working with Phoenix Zoo and Arizona State University biologists, is helping make jaguar-friendly coffee a success in the Talamanca Mountains region.

 

A graphic of a jaguar with large words above it that says "Certified Jaguar Friendly" next to a bag of coffee beans. Coffee beans look red and yellow, almost like large cranberries.

Coffee photo courtesy of Ruth Allard

 

Connecting the spots — building the path of a jaguar

Jaguars need large spaces to roam, but they can move through small gaps to go between bigger habitat patches. In Costa Rica, there are two main populations of jaguars in protected areas — one in the Talamanca Mountains in the southeast, bordering Panama, and the other on the Osa Peninsula, on the Pacific coast. Unfortunately, much of the landscape between the two is developed, making it difficult for jaguars and other animals to move safely between them.

In conservation, collaboration is key. For over 10 years, Phoenix Zoo scientists have been working closely with partners from Arizona State University and Fundación ProCAT, a conservation organization based in Costa Rica that is dedicated to protecting wildlife and essential habitat. The team uses technology to better understand how jaguars and their prey are moving through the landscape, and to make recommendations about how best to ensure the two populations of jaguars in southern Costa Rica remain connected.

The conservation team is also focused on reducing illegal hunting of jaguars in the region. They’re developing a network of acoustic sensors that serve as “ears” in the forest, listening for signs of poaching activity and sending detection alerts to park security officers. Acoustic ecology tools are also used to listen for endangered animals such as three-wattled bellbirds. These birds are rare and elusive, so having technology trained to detect their unique calls can help researchers know when they’re moving through the forest and determine where efforts are most needed (and most helpful) to protect them.

Watch this video to learn more about how the Phoenix Zoo and others are working together on the Path of the Jaguar project and more.

Read more about the Phoenix Zoo’s work in field conservation research in southern Arizona and around the world.

 

A man sitting on a tree brand in a forest. He's harnessed to the tree for safety, and appears to be reading a field notes sheet. He's wearing a yellow helmet, red tshirt, yellow shorts and back rubber boots.

Image courtesy of Jan Schipper

 

AZA zoos and aquariums team up to support SAFE Jaguar

SAFE Jaguar is a network of 31 AZA-accredited facilities that work together with international partners to help protect jaguars in the wild.

For nearly 40 years, AZA-member institutions have been funding, conducting and supporting jaguar-related fieldwork in Central and South America. Using objectives outlined by the IUCN Species Survival Commission Cat Specialist Group, SAFE Jaguar is focused on protecting jaguars primarily in Central America and expanding capacity to protect jaguars throughout their range.

Stacey Johnson from the Roger Williams Park Zoo serves as SAFE Jaguar coordinator. He said, “SAFE Jaguar is a great way to consolidate both the work and storytelling around conservation for the Americas’ big cat. Like the species itself, jaguar conservation efforts cover an immense geographic range with a diverse set of conditions and needs. It’s an exciting challenge to help facilitate this work on behalf of an animal whose presence has such cultural and ecological impact.”

“We’re fortunate to have the increasingly rare opportunity to consider options and conduct work on behalf of an imperiled keystone species at the policy and management level rather than fighting a last-ditch battle to avoid imminent extinction. Professional zoos and aquariums and their constituents have already contributed to meaningful improvements in the jaguar’s long-term prospects to flourish and we will continue to do so,” Johnson said.

Learn more about SAFE Jaguar here. Plus, discover why zoos and aquariums are key to conservation.

 

Trail cam footage of a jaguar looking at the trail cam. It's in the forest and there are green luscious bushes and trees in the background.

Image courtesy of Jan Schipper | Phoenix Zoo/Arizona State University

 

Jaguars at the Phoenix Zoo

The Phoenix Zoo is home to two jaguars: Caipora and Saban. Getting to know these remarkable animals and others at the zoo can create lasting connections, inspiring people to care for the natural world in their own communities and around the world.

Caipora was born at Palm Beach Zoo in Florida in 2005 and came to Phoenix in 2008. Caipora means “spirit of the forest” and is a figure from Tupi-Guarani folklore in Brazil, a country where jaguars are a native species. Much like her wild counterparts, Caipora likes to spend a large portion of her time up in the trees and tall platforms in her habitat. Her favorite enrichment item is the oblong stone (an elongated jungle ball), and her favorite scent is mink lure, which smells a bit like fish.

Saban was born at Brevard Zoo in Florida in 2013 and came to Phoenix in 2019. He was named after football coach Nick Saban. Saban is a very vocal cat who will always let you know what’s on his mind.  His favorite enrichment item is a large, corrugated tube and he absolutely loves perfumes.

Caipora and Saban are great ambassadors for their wild counterparts, helping zoo scientists share stories about jaguars in Arizona and throughout their range, including information about how the zoo is helping save jaguars and their habitat in Costa Rica.

Want to learn more about the amazing conservation work happening at the Phoenix Zoo? Check out the native species conservation pages. Plus, learn more about how the Phoenix Zoo is working with partners across the globe to protect wildlife and wild places.

 

For another big cat native to the U.S., watch the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild episode, “Pathway to Protection,” which features Florida panthers.

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