The Reluctant Fighter: A Jaguar’s True Personality Revealed

Whatever adaptive abilities evolution and natural selective pressures had bestowed upon the jaguar, its ability to survive in an increasingly degraded, overpopulated world of humans with abundant weapons eventually came to hinge on how feared, valued, and tolerated it was by humans occupying what had been the jaguar's world. Perhaps this is why the most important and most distinctive element of jaguarness, the characteristic that has allowed the jaguar, one of the planet's most powerful living beasts, to coexist with humans in a way that other large mammals or apex predators could not, is that of nonaggression.

I call the jaguar "the reluctant warrior" because of the choices it makes, how it uses its jaguarness. Humans who have lived or worked with jaguars all acknowledge the power, fierceness, and savagery of the animal and, at the same time, its non-aggressive nature towards humans. Since the early nineteenth century, tens of thousands of people have been killed by tigers, lions, and leopards. In some cases, individuals from each of these species have become serial man-eaters. From 1900 until recent times, at least 25 kills of humans by puma were confirmed in the United States and Canada. But in the wild, there are very few recorded instances of jaguars killing people and no instances of jaguars becoming a hunter of men, a true man-eater. One attempt to explain this phenomenon points to the fact that jaguars did not evolve alongside hominids, with the first real evidence of jaguar–human interactions found only in the New World. I begin this story in a chapter from my book "An Indomitable Beast."

Expansive landscape mosaic of the northern Pantanal of Brazil. (Photo by Steve Winter, Panthera.)

Rafael Hoogesteijn, a respected veterinarian and jaguar biologist whose 1992 book "The Jaguar" is still one of the classic natural-history books on the species, now works with Panthera in the Brazilian Pantanal. As of this writing, he has had 79 jaguar encounters with up to four jaguars seen together at once. Twenty-two of the encounters occurred while he was walking alone and unarmed or when he approached a jaguar from a car, bicycle, motorcycle, or horse (other encounters involved boats, helicopters, and captures). During these encounters, each of which lasted up to 20 minutes, he followed jaguars traveling and watched them mating. Only once did Rafael feel threatened.

While following approximately 30 meters (99 feet) behind a male jaguar that was following a female in heat, the animal suddenly turned, roared, and charged straight at him, teeth barred, ears back, and nape hairs erect. Rafael stood his ground and the jaguar stopped 10 to 15 meters (33 to 38 feet) away, then turned and disappeared into the nearby river. Perhaps this was a bluff, or what Rafael called "a mock attack." Perhaps, had Rafael turned and run, the outcome might have been different. Clearly the jaguar must have felt threatened and reacted explosively, but then it reassessed the situation and made the decision to stand down. Killing or hurting Rafael would have accomplished nothing for the animal, except perhaps injury to itself.

I had a similar experience to that of Rafael while watching a big male jaguar recover from sedative after I had captured and radio collared it during my work in Belize. I had laid the jaguar back in an open trap to recover, waiting nearby to ensure that no other jaguar came and injured the immobilized animal. Worried that the jaguar was taking too long to wake up, I walked to the side of the trap and poked him in his hindquarters with a stick. Suddenly, a clear-eyed jaguar looked directly into my face, leapt up, and was out of the trap in seconds. As I sprinted for the safety of my truck a short distance away, the jaguar chased after me. Realizing I could not outrun the jaguar, I turned and screamed "NO!" with all the energy I could muster and with no reason to think that this would stop the charging predator. Yet, the jaguar did stop, the anger of the moment dissipated, and he turned calmly towards the jungle. Clearly, this drugged and newly collared jaguar had cause for dismay, even retribution. Still, he walked away.

A jaguar crawling under a cattle fence during the night in order to move through a cattle ranch in the corridor. (Photo by Steve Winter, Panthera.)

When animals are faced with conflict, they react with a discharge of the sympathetic nervous system priming the animal for either fighting or fleeing - the classic "fight or flight response." Sometimes the response initiates a period of heightened awareness, during which the animal rapidly processes behavioral signals from the adversary before choosing to react. In this complex behavioral arena of conflict or stress situations, jaguars, more often than not, ultimately choose non-engagement.

Some have misinterpreted the wariness, secretiveness, and nonaggression of jaguars as cowardice. During his explorations of Honduras in the 1800s, William Vincent Wells stated that "the jaguar is naturally a coward, and is seldom seen except in unfrequented places." Hunters who have run jaguars with dogs have been surprised by what they suppose to be the "fear" exhibited by a predator that could easily overpower or kill the much smaller dogs chasing it. But the jaguar's flight from danger through dense forest with lots of possible hiding places and escape routes is likely a better evolutionary strategy than a direct encounter with anything capable of inflicting injury. Injury is best avoided in the disease and parasite filled tropical jungles. And anyone who has witnessed the power and ferocity of a jaguar that is cornered or on the attack would never describe this species as "cowardly." I will never forget the feelings I had looking into the face of the first jaguar we had chased for hours through the jungle until it was treed with our dogs. One line from my field notes said it all: "Those eyes were watching me with no trace of fear or anger, but with thoughts I'd never know, and listening to voices I'd never hear."

Only the foolish do not respect a jaguar's space when they encounter the animal. Although jaguars usually spend their time watching, waiting, and maintaining a state of readiness, when the jaguar takes action, its movements are quick, brutal, and highly aggressive. One needs only to examine the remains of jaguar kills - holes in the skull and crushed vertebrae - to see the big cat's potential ferocity. Jaguars are warriors. And like all great warriors, their success and longevity comes not from the number of fights fought, but the number of fights avoided. When a fight does occur, it is to accomplish a necessary end result. Ideally, the fight is finished quickly and decisively with an expedient return to calm equanimity.

The indomitable beast leaping for a piece of food hanging from a tree in Brazil. (Photo by Steve Winter, Panthera.)

Text and images excerpted from "An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar," now available from Island Press.

Headline photo caption: Jaguar traveling in daytime during the dry season at the edge of a cattle ranch along part of the jaguar corridor in the Pantanal, Brazil. (Photo by Paul Goldstein.)