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Trailing Jaguars
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Jaguar Range

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By Douglas H. Chadwick Photographs by Steve Winter

These elusive cats rank among Latin America’s supreme predators. Conservationists seek to connect their isolated refuges.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Poking along the road one day, we intercepted a giant anteater and several crab-eating foxes. Giant river otters barked when they spied us from the Cuiabá River. Howler monkeys reacted to Fião’s calls with roars of their own. But a mother jaguar and cub crossing far ahead of the ranch truck provided only the briefest glimpse of our quarry. Darkness was flooding out the last of an orchid sky when Fião pointed far down the road and whispered “Onça”—jaguar, in Portuguese. Steve Winter checked his cameras, then the cat, and announced, “It’s Bob.”

We had met the same jaguar lounging on the road the evening before, and it reminded someone in our crew of a burly, big-headed, rather unmotivated relative named Roberto. Now Almeida, Winter, and I crouched at the road’s edge behind overhanging brush while onça Bob padded on, unaware or unconcerned that he was less than 100 yards (91 meters) from us, 80 yards (73 meters), 50 yards (46 meters). Pairs of tree-perching waterbirds known as southern screamers noisily marked the jaguar’s progress, a habit that has earned them the alternate title of Pantanal guards. We kept as motionless as sunbathing caimans, though it occurred to me that in parts of the Pantanal those slender crocodiles are jaguars’ principal prey. Don’t bother with me, Bob, I thought, glancing at the mosquitoes coating every inch of my skin, you won’t find any blood left.

At a distance of around 20 yards (18 meters) he paused to stare. All at once, this was no longer Bob or anything else except a massive, intelligent feline met deep in its homeland and taking our full measure. Winter began snapping pictures, flash attachment firing apace. The animal’s only reaction was to slowly turn and amble across the roadway. It eased off the shoulder and into flooded woods, and we could hear footfalls in the water as the cat continued around us and on into the night. Ten minutes later Almeida was playing a flashlight beam over the brush out of curiosity and caught the twin sparks of jaguar eyes, still measuring. Then there were only fireflies casting their phosphor light among the tangles.

I had been entranced by the sway of the beast’s heavy belly as it approached. This cat was dining well; maybe that was why it seemed so patient with us. Whereas other big cats eat primarily hoofed prey, jaguars also take fish, iguanas, anacondas, turtles, unwary birds, and small mammals from monkeys to rodents. It would almost be easier to list what onça doesn’t eat. Introducing livestock to its range is guaranteed to broaden its diet even further. That evening at the house, while bats harried insects near the ceiling, Joaquim Proença, the ranch manager, told me that jaguars have killed as much as 8 percent of the ranch’s cows in one year at São João. Fião said he and his brother lost almost 10 percent of the cattle on their small ranch to the cats. Like São João’s owners they tolerated the kills as the price of Pantanal ranching, but most stockmen respond with dogs and guns. “We are paid to take good care of the herds,” a cowboy elsewhere told me. “We spend a lot of time fixing calves with maggots or disease. Then one night the calf or its mother is gone. It is a hard thing to accept. Jaguars are very beautiful. If it wasn’t for the cattle killing, I wouldn’t hunt them.” As things stood, he had killed about 70.

Researcher Sandra Cavalcanti from Utah State University studies jaguar activity in relation to ranching practices. At Fazenda Sete, one of three related family estates that jointly encompass 308,000 acres (1250 sq. kilometers) in the southern Pantanal, hyacinth macaws commented loudly from an ipê tree while she tied her horse in its shade. Sniffing the air, she led me through the undergrowth to the flyblown remains of a cow. The animal had been reported as a jaguar kill by the cowboy who found it and noticed fresh cat tracks at the thicket’s edge. His horse was unnerved by the shadows and scents, so he did not linger. Cavalcanti, who generally rides the countryside alone armed with a water bottle and a notebook, did. The cow had died giving birth. Like the cowboy, the passing jaguar had never even gone over for a close inspection.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Sights and Sounds
Experience the world of the jaguar with photographer Steve Winter.

VIDEO Steve Winter describes the tracking of creatures both shy and dangerous.

AUDIO-only (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer   WinMedia

Hear three distinctive samplings of jaguar calls.

Watch researchers track and radio-collar jaguars in the wild in an expedition sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Can ranchers and jaguars come to a truce?
Vote now.

Both sides lose as jaguars kill cattle and ranchers, in turn, kill jaguars. How can ranchers and jaguars co-exist?
Share your ideas.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN), founded in 1948, is a group of scientists, government agencies, and other authorities who work to preserve our planet’s biodiversity. For almost 40 years it has been evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species around the world. Its experts provide information on taxa that are considered extinct as well as information on the relative risk of extinction for numerous other taxa. They are categorized as to whether they are critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, or at a lower risk. The 2000 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species documents the status of over 9,000 animals and nearly 7,000 plants. If you would like to find out in what category a species falls, visit the searchable database at

—Abigail A. Tipton

Care2’s Race for the Big Cats
Visit this site to support the preservation of tiger, jaguar, and snow leopard habitats., in coordination with the Wildlife Conservation Society, has made a committment to preserve 1.5 acres of habitat for the large cat of your choice when you visit this site and select one. Click away!

Save the Jaguar
Sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society, this is an extensive site detailing the life history, conservation efforts, and population status of the jaguar.

Jaguar Bibliography
This site provides a very helpful listing of over 850 scientific reports, popular articles, and unpublished papers on the biology, life history, and management of the jaguar.

The Cat Specialist Group
This is the home page for the Cat Specialist Group, an international panel of 170 experts who have pledged to do all in their power to achieve the conservation of all cat species and provide advice on their status, threats, conservation requirements, and biology.


Bergman, Charles. “The Cat that Walks by Itself,” Smithsonian (October 1, 2000), 55-62.

Gomes de Oliveira, Tadeu. Neotropical Cats: Ecology and Conservation. EDUFMA, 1994.

Guggisberg, C.A.W. Wild Cats of the World. Taplinger Publishing Company, 1975.

Hoogesteijn, Rafael, and Edgardo Mondolfi. The Jaguar. Armitana Editores, 1992.

Illueca, Jorge. “The Paseo Pantera Agenda for Regional Conservation,” Central America: A Natural and Cultural History, ed. Anthony G. Coates. Yale University Press, 1997.

Rabinowitz, Alan. Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve. Arbor House, 1986.

Roosevelt, Kermit. “Hunting Jaguar,” North American Big Game, Boone & Crocket Club. Scribners, 1939.


Caputo, Philip. “Among the Man-Eaters,” National Geographic Adventure (May/June 2000), 74-94, 146-149.

Sunquist, Fiona. “Power Cat,” National Geographic World (April 1998), 19-21, 26.

Setzer, Henry W. National Geographic Book of Mammals, National Geographic Books, 1998.

Newman, Cathy. “Cats: Nature’s Masterwork,” National Geographic (June 1997), 54-76.

Siemel, Sasha. “The Jungle Was My Home,” National Geographic (November 1952), 695-712.

Cahalane, Victor H. “King of Cats and His Court,” National Geographic (February 1943), 217-259.


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