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  • Scientific Name: Panthera onca
  • Status in the Wild: Threatened
  • Habitat: Cloud Forests, Grasslands, Rainforests, Woodlands
  • Diet: Carnivore

From the Native American word "yaguar," meaning "pouncing killer," jaguars are the only Panthera species found in the Americas. The jaguar is the largest of Central American carnivores, and one of the least often sighted due to declining populations. Habitat loss is the primary culprit, and an estimated 15,000 wild jaguars remain in Latin America according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

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Measuring five feet long and weighing up to 250 pounds, Costa Rica's largest carnivore can be active during the day and evening, though they are rarely seen during daylight hours. Some jaguars will adopt a more diurnal lifestyle while others may hunt only at dusk or dawn; the cats are highly adaptable, making adjustments as needed to suit their particular habitat. Jaguars are excellent swimmers and climbers but prefer to hunt on the ground in a complicated dance of stalking and ambushing. 

Primarily a solitary species, jaguars are unique among large cats in that they do not kill by biting through the throat, but rather by pouncing on prey to break the neck. They have an extremely powerful bite force, allowing them to penetrate the tough armor of turtle and crocodilians, a food source often ignored by other cats. Jaguars are considered opportunistic feeders, and will hunt whatever is available in their given habitat. In Costa Rica, common prey includes green iguanas, sloths, peccaries, sea turtles, tapirs, agoutis, deer, boa constrictors, and monkeys. Large prey is dragged to hiding spots, where it is concealed with debris. Jaguars have also been known to feed on the carrion of alligators, lizards, birds and fish.


Jaguars range from Mexico through parts of northern Argentina. Living between sea level and approximately 11,500 feet, they prefer lowland wet forest and tropical rainforest. In Costa Rica, jaguars are found in Corcovado National Park, La Selva Biological Reserve, La Amistad International Park, Santa Rosa National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Tortuguero, and along the Cerro de la Muerte.

Each jaguar requires a large and exclusive range. Female territories vary from 2,500-9,000 acres, while males need much more space – some estimate as high as 96,000 acres. Male territories overlap the ranges of several females, and males will reproduce with several females during mating season. Jaguars mark their territories with urine and feces, along with scratched trees and roughly scraped patches of earth. 


Males and females associate only when a female is in heat. The mating period typically lasts seven days, during which time cats will mate around 100 times per day; scientists believe this is because female ovulation is triggered by frequent mating.

The gestational period is 3.5 months, and jaguars may give birth to one to four cubs at a time. Young jaguars are able to walk within three weeks of birth, but continue to nurse for six months. By the age of two, juveniles are independent, and they reach sexual maturity between two and four years of age. The estimated lifespan of wild jaguars is 10-12 years; captive jaguars may live up to 22 years.

Status in the Wild: 

Worldwide, jaguars are considered a near threatened species, but their future is more precarious in Costa Rica. Habitat loss and illegal hunting have caused a decline in the national population, and due to small litters separated by periods of at least two years, it is difficult for jaguar populations to rebound. 

Local conservation efforts include the Jaguar Conservation Program in Tortuguero, Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative, the Jaguar Investigation Program, and the Wildlife Conservation Society's Jaguar Conservation Program. Research and surveys help determine the cat's biggest threats, as well as areas of declining population. The programs also strive to educate local communities, create safe habitats for jaguars, and preserve the animal's biological integrity. 

Jaguars in Pictures

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