The jaguar is the largest cat indigenous to North, Central and South America. The black jaguar (also known as "panther") results from a dominant gene mutation that produces excess melanin and a mainly black coat. Black jaguars, about 6 percent of the entire jaguar population, are found in the densest part of the vegetation, where there is the least sunlight. Elusive by nature, as civilization encroaches on their diminishing habitat, the big cats cross paths with humans more often. They must venture out of their deep cover, making them more vulnerable to hunters and farmers trying to protect their livestock.
The jaguar was first deemed endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1994. The United States was the last of the Americas to make this determination. The situation was reassessed in 2006 and remains the same. The plight of the black jaguar is even more severe because, though dominant, they are still more rare. The Federal Endangered Species Act prohibits the killing of black jaguars as well as the importation and/or sale of their fur. Violations for capturing, injuring, killing and transporting jaguars or their fur start around $1,500 and can reach close to $100,000, with repeated instances resulting in possible imprisonment.
Black jaguars, the rarest of the panthera onca, live mostly in lowlands, tropical areas, near warm water and in heavily wooded savannas or forests. Near deserts, they live in the most heavily vegetated areas or in the closest mountains. Usually they roam over large areas, especially males looking to mate. As a result of deforestation and the blockage of normal jaguar corridors for mating and feeding, their range, and therefore ability to multiply has been severely limited. In August 2013, the jaguar's habitat was recommended by Fish and Wildlife to be deemed critical. This would make loss of habitat a main contributing factor to the endangered status, along with hunting and predation control.
Black jaguars are general predators and choose to eat what they can reach easily without being overly exposed. The black jaguar has a big advantage over its spotted relatives because they are nocturnal and their dark color will never give them away to potential prey or hunters. The big black cats will eat mammals, birds, large reptiles and fish. As civilization decreases the black jaguar's deep forested habitat and therefore its prey options, the big cat's way of eating becomes more of a problem. As farmers clear trees and use the land for income, their livestock ends up among the black jaguar's prey. Farmers attempts to control the predation upon their own animals is one of the biggest threats to the remaining jaguar population. Illegal hunting is cited as another, but in reality, is often related, as farmers pay hunters to clear big cats in the vicinity of their land that could threaten their livelihood.
There are varying efforts in the different states and countries still home to black jaguars. Since there is no known breeding population in the United States, maintaining the existing big cats is the goal. In each state, once all of the numbers and facts about the existing jaguar population are compiled, spreading awareness and promoting protection is the main goal. This includes letting people know about both the benefits of having the cats in the area as well as the repercussions to anyone who chooses to ignore their federal protection. With the rarity of the black jaguar and the demand for their pelts, the area that has to be policed the most is the fur trade, which garners much more income locally and internationally than most fines would greatly impact. Each country and US state home to jaguars, including Arizona, California, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas, has its own set of efforts designed to save this big cat from extinction and to promote its conservation. In the US, the black jaguar is even more rare due to the lack of forest in its native states, but sightings are documented, most recently from California, Texas and Arizona.
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Species Profile: Jaguar (Panthera onca)
- San Diego Zoo: Jaguar
- The Federal Register: Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Designation of Critical Habitat ofr the Jaguar
- Defenders of Wildlife: Fact Sheet: Jaguar
- Arizona Game and Fish Department: Jaguar Conservation
- Aquatic Community: Black Jaguar Animal
- Edinburgh Zoo: Jaguar (Panthera Onca)
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images