To the ancient Mayans, Aztecs, Incas and other Pre-Columbian peoples, the jaguar reigned supreme. But times, it seems, have changed. According to a report appearing in the February issue of Conservation Biology, the cat now faces considerable threats across much of its historic dominion, owing to poaching, habitat loss and competition with humans for prey.

The jaguar once ranged from northern Argentina to the southwestern U.S. but since 1900 it has lost more than half of its range. The countries the feline still occupies do not have a coordinated plan for saving it. "Biological conservation plans often respect political boundaries more than ecological ones," Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society and colleagues note. Moreover, they observe, "most countries do not have endangered species legislation of any kind, and if they do, laws are unlikely to be consistent across the 18 nations where the jaguar is currently found."

Currently, the cats are faring best in and around the Amazon Basin, the middle of their range. Long-term survival of this wide-ranging species, however, will require that the jaguars receive protection in a variety of habitats. "Presumably, the ecology of jaguars in tropical, moist lowland forest is significantly different from that in xeric deserts because of differences in, for example, prey base," the authors comment. They thus identified and prioritized 51 jaguar conservation areas in 16 countries, taking into account their size and connectivity, as well as the extent to which jaguar and their prey are hunted. "If we are to retain broadly-distributed species into the next century," the team asserts, "we need to plan explicitly for their survival across their entire geographic range."