The loss of habitat caused by deforestation continues to pose a major threat to the cats of Central and South America. Without room to roam and hunt, these magnificent animals — which vary drastically by both size and behavior — are at a risk of becoming endangered. However, if they are lucky, wildlife aficionados and fauna fans can spot these elusive beasts in the rainforests, shrublands and savannas of Belize, Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil and other countries. All that is needed is to travel responsibly, making sure that you are there to observe — and not disturb — the wildlife that inhabits these remote locations. Here are a few cat species you may encounter.
Worshiped by ancient South American cultures, the jaguar breathes power and dominance in its every step. After all, according to some sources, its name comes from an indigenous word that means “he who kills with one leap.”
This spectacular yet intimidating animal is the largest cat in the Americas, and the third-largest cat on the planet (after lions and tigers), weighing up to 250 pounds. It can ambush its prey by jumping from a tree or out of water and has the ability to pierce a crocodile with one bite.
The shape of the Peruvian city of Cusco, once the heart of the Inka empire, is believed by some to resemble a puma, an animal revered for its power. The puma, also known as the cougar, panther and mountain lion, is the second-largest cat in the Americas — but its massive size doesn’t stop it from developing speeds of up to 50 mph.
These cats adapt to their environments, living in forests, swamps, deserts and prairies. They are known for their call, which sounds like a whistle, and their high-pitched scream — a way to communicate with other cats. A puma can jump up 18 feet from the ground to a tree, and usually ambushes the prey by knocking it to the ground.
A close relative of the cougar, the jaguarundi is a much smaller cat — about twice the size of the average domestic cat. Like the cougar, it lives in rainforests, deserts and shrublands. It is quite a vocalist among the cats: biologists have determined at least 13 distinct sounds the jaguarundi make, ranging from a bird-like chirp to a “wah-wah” call, to communicate with the world around them.
Most of these cats lead solitary lives and are quite shy when it comes to observers. For that reason, calculating their exact population size has been difficult. Interestingly, they don’t just hunt mammals, but can leap up to almost seven feet into the air to prey on birds.
Similar in size to the jaguarundi, the ocelot is another small yet fascinating creature that can live in thorn scrubs, coastal marshes, mangrove forests and savannas. Its name comes from the Aztec word “tlalocelot,” which means “field tiger.” These animals were worshiped by the Moche people of Peru, whose civilization flourished between 100 and 700 AD, and depicted in many forms of art.
The fur trade is a threat to these animals, each of which have a coat with a unique pattern of dark spots on a distinctive coat that is orange, white and tan. And while hunting is banned in most countries, only 21 states in the US explicitly ban ownership of these exotic animals. Not to mention that because of their smaller size, jaguars and pumas also hunt the ocelot, posing an additional danger to its survival.
With the ability to twist its ankles 180 degrees, the margay is the only cat with a remarkable ability to climb down trees head first. It is perhaps the only cat that’s well-equipped for an arboreal life: it can even hang on branches — sometimes by using just one foot.
The margay lives in the rainforests of Central and South America, including Belize and Brazil, and humans are the major threat to their existence. Some 14,000 are killed every year for their fur — in addition to the fact that their habitat is continuously diminishing. The IUCN lists them as near-threatened.
The oncilla is one of the smallest wildcats of the Americas that lives in high-altitude forests in countries including Costa Rica, Ecuador, Brazil and Uruguay. Unlike other cat species, it is a remarkably good swimmer.
This little spotted cat, also known as a tigrillo, is listed as a vulnerable species by the IUCN partly because it was hunted for its beautiful fur in the 20th century, and partly because, like other wild cats, its habitat is decreasing in size. According to the IUCN, only 9,000-10,000 of them remain in the wild. Poaching is still a problem, as is the fact that hunting is still allowed in four countries where this adorable animal lives.