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The jaguar is the subject of many myths and hunter’s tales. The largest American wildcat, it is now rare in its natural habitat as the result of being hunted for its attractive fur. Jaguars live in a variety of habitats, from dense jungle and scrubland to reed thickets and shoreline forests. They will even live in open country, provided the grass and rocks offer enough cover for hunting, and a reliable supply of water is available.

Adult jaguars are solitary, seeking each other out only during breeding season, when male and female stay together for a short time to mate. A young jaguar stays with its mother for a few years before leaving to find hunting territories of its own. The size of a jaguar’s territory depends on food availability. In an area where food is plentiful, such as a forest, a jaguar can survive in a circular area of about three miles in diameter. Where food is scarce, it may need to roam over an area of 200 square miles.

Jaguars hunt mainly on the ground, however they will climb trees to lie in wait for prey. It hunts mainly at night and often surprises its unsuspecting prey. Its food consists mostly of forest animals varying in size from mice to deer. The jaguar is a proficient swimmer and also eats frogs, fish, turtles, and small alligators. It is especially skilled at catching fish, which it does by flipping the fish out onto the riverbank with its paw. Jaguars will also kill domestic animals, particularly where the forest has been cleared for farmland.

Males and females meet in the wild only to mate. The male leaves as soon as mating is over, and the female brings up the young on her own. She gives birth to one to four cubs, which are blind at birth and weigh only 25-32 ounces. The cubs begin exploring the world outside the den at about two weeks, when their eyes have opened. They begin hunting with their mother at the age of six months. They remain with her for the first two years before leaving to find a territory of their own in which to hunt. A jaguar is sexually mature at three years of age.

Jaguars were once found in an area ranging from Arizona to Argentina, but ruthless hunting has reduced their population. The clearing of forests to build new settlements and pastures for cattle has forced them out of much of their original habitat. There are fewer than 200 wild jaguars left in all of Argentina. Soon, the only remaining populations will live in zoos. Although jaguars have a reputation as man eaters, there are numerous stories about men being followed for miles through the forest by solitary jaguars. These stories give credence to the theory that the animals prefer to escort men off their territory rather than attack them.