The San Diego Zoo received our first jaguar, a male, in 1925. Another male, named Dick, arrived in 1932, and a female joined him in 1939. This pair produced 16 cubs during their time together!
Today, the Zoo is home to four jaguars. Orson is a black jaguar and one of the most admired cats at the Zoo. He holds court along the Zoo’s Big Cat Trail. People often ask if his black coat color means that he's more aggressive, but keepers say Orson is pretty easy going for a jaguar. Of course, this doesn't mean that they work with him inside his enclosure. Instead, there is always some kind of a barrier between Orson and his keepers. He, like most of the Zoo's animals, rotates in and out of his enclosure so the keepers can feed him and clean up after him.
A real treat for everyone is when the keepers do a meatball hunt. They divide Orson's meat into handfuls, and hide the meatballs all over the enclosure. This way, Orson gets to hunt for his food. Huge crowds draw around the jaguar enclosure, watching Orson as he launches into the air, leaping onto high rocks, branches, or even a log that dangles on a chain from the top of the enclosure. It's entertaining for the guests and part of what we call "enrichment." Since jaguars are native to rain forests, there is a waterfall, stream, and small pool in the jaguar enclosure. The pool is too tiny for Orson to dive into, but he does stick his face in the water to retrieve live goldfish the keepers place there. He's also great at the meatball hunts, so maybe you'll be lucky on your next visit and join his admiring spectators! Read a blog post about Orson turning 21 years old.
Jaguars and their extinct relatives, saber-toothed cats, are an important part of our region’s history. The San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey habitat, which highlights animals found in our region during the Pleistocene era and relates them to their modern-day counterparts, is home to our other jaguars: Nindiri and her mate, Guapo, and their two cubs.
Nindiri came to the San Diego Zoo in 2008 from the Brevard Zoo in Florida, where she was named in a contest. “Nindiri” is a peak off a larger volcano named Masaya, which is her mother’s name. The volcano is described as semi-active, yet Nindiri is anything but that! She is lovingly referred to as a little firecracker. While very small for a jaguar, weighing in at only around 80 pounds (36 kilograms), Nindiri has a feisty personality and can be rather intense. Her keeper likes to say that Nindiri makes up for her small stature with attitude.
In March 2011, male jaguar Guapo, whose name means “handsome” or “good-looking,” moved into our cat complex in Elephant Odyssey. And on April 26, 2012, we welcomed the birth of two cubs, a male named Tikal and a female named Maderas. Tikal and Maderas have since moved to other zoos as part of the jaguar breeding program. We wish them all the best!
Jaguars are among the top predators in their habitat, so the adult cats don't have much to fear other than humans. The coats of jaguars have always been important to people who share their habitat. Unfortunately, the demand for jaguar skins spread to the outside world. Commercial fur hunting, especially in the 1960s, took a terrible toll on jaguars. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) now outlaws the sale of jaguar skins internationally. Unfortunately, jaguar coats are still illegally bought and sold in countries where jaguars live.
Another problem for jaguars is loss of habitat. With less and less wild prey available to them, jaguars have started feeding on livestock. Ranchers often respond by trapping and poisoning them. Other threats to jaguars involve deforestation due to logging, mining, and farming, which breaks up their habitat into fragments, leaving less food and fewer mates. Estimates say that there are about 10,000 jaguars left in the wild, but their numbers are decreasing rapidly.
To help the last of the American big cats, we first must find out more about where they live, how large their territories are, and how they spend their days and raise their young. Researchers use camera traps, which take a photo when a large animal crosses in front of the camera, and place radio collars on some jaguars to track their daily movements. San Diego Zoo Global partners with the Wildlands Network and Latin American conservationists to study, monitor, and protect jaguars. Combined with education outreach to the local community, we hope to decrease human-jaguar conflict. See Looking for Jaguars in the Night.
By joining the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Conservancy, you will be helping this endangered big cat survive. Your help is needed today more than ever as the jaguar’s rain forest habitat continues to disappear.