The footprint of the jaguar

Its scientific name is Panthera onca. Its common name, jaguar, which in Tupi-Guarani language means "the one who hunts in one jump". The Spanish at the time of the conquest called it tiger by association with the Asian feline they knew; this name has persisted to date in many places in Mexico.

Jaguar (Panthera onca)
Jaguar (Panthera onca)

It is the largest predator in the Americas. Among the cats, only the lion (Panthera leo) and the tiger (Panthera tigris) surpass it in size. It is estimated that at the time of the arrival of Europeans to America there were more than one hundred thousand jaguars living from the semi-desert areas of North America to the tropical forests of South America.

The jaguar was an omnipresent character in the cosmogony of the Mesoamerican peoples. It was represented in codices, wall paintings, sculptures, vessels, masks, architectural structures, masks, rituals. We often see anthropomorphic jaguars - sitting or sounding a snail - and we also see men with feline features, like many of the Olmec sculptures. There are jaguar warriors, jaguar children, shamans transformed into jaguars, dances that represent the confrontation with this physical and at the same time supernatural being.

Anthropomorphic Jaguar God of the Underworld. National Institute of Anthropology and History.  Palenque Site Museum, Alberto Ruz L'Huillier
Anthropomorphic Jaguar God of the Underworld. National Institute of Anthropology and History. Palenque Site Museum, Alberto Ruz L'Huillier
Jaguar God of St. Martin. National Institute of Anthropology and History.  National Photo Library System
Jaguar God of St. Martin. National Institute of Anthropology and History. National Photo Library System

In the book The Jaguar People: The Olmec Archaeology, it is stated that

The jaguar was the basis of the religion and magical beliefs of the Olmecs; it was the totemic or nagual guardian; the symbol of the earth, of night and darkness; ancestor of the rain gods; and inspiration for other peoples who later developed the cult of the tiger gods such as Xipe, Tezcatlipoca, Tlaloc, Tepeyolotli. The worship of the jaguar spread everywhere in the course of time; and contributed to the formation of secret societies that had this animal as a nahual.

Chiepetlan canvas with two cats, reprography. National Institute of Anthropology and History.  National Photo Library System
Chiepetlan canvas with two cats, reprography. National Institute of Anthropology and History. National Photo Library System
Character with a feline, reprography. National Institute of Anthropology and History.  National Photo Library System
Character with a feline, reprography. National Institute of Anthropology and History. National Photo Library System

The jaguar, once a fundamental part of our culture, is now in danger of extinction. It is an endangered species that has lost approximately 50 percent of its historical habitat throughout the continent.

It is virtually extinct in the United States, El Salvador, and Uruguay. Its populations are spread over 18 Latin American countries: Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, French Guyana, Guatemala, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, Paraguay, Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil.

Tiger dance, performers. National Institute of Anthropology and History.  National Photo Library System
Tiger dance, performers. National Institute of Anthropology and History. National Photo Library System

Dance of the Tiger - Musical Testimony of Mexico

This is a mime dance in which two dancers perform feline movements covered by a tiger skin and a mask woven from horsehair; they also hold a rattle and a cat's claw -a wooden handle with three turkey feathers-; with the latter, the performers simulate scratching the spectators.

Tiger dance, performers, Nacho López
Tiger dance, performers, Nacho López

The dance is accompanied by a teponaztle -a wooden horizontal drum of pre-Hispanic origin-, and a reed flute with a turkey feather mouth, which may have the same origin. It seems to be a very old dance with a magical content, perhaps that is why it has been banned several times by the Catholic clergy. In our days this magic content is diffuse or, perhaps, secret.

According to the most recent censuses, it is estimated that approximately 4,800 jaguars live in Mexico, distributed in a territory that extends from Sonora and Tamaulipas, across the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast to Oaxaca, Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Hunting has been banned since 1987, but it continues to be hunted and traded illegally. Those of us who live in the cities, far from their territory, contribute to the destruction of their habitat, and therefore to their extinction, due to our lifestyle and our consumption habits.

The tiger walks and roars in the mountains, and among the rocks and cliffs, and also in the water, and they say he is prince and lord of the other beasts. He's short and stout and has a long tail. His head is large and his eyes are as bright as coal.

Bro Bernardino de Sahagún, History of the Things of New Spain

This is how the jaguar was described in the 16th century by the chronicler Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. This great cat - belonging to the family of tigers and lions - was unknown to Europeans. The arrival of the Spaniards to the American continent meant both the encounter with a diversity of peoples and the confluence with a variety of animals and plants unimaginable. Among them was the jaguar, a spotted cat that they called a tiger, and whose importance was notorious in Indo-American cultures. Its name comes from the Tupi-Guarani language "yaguara" which means one who hunts in one jump.

It is estimated that at the time of the arrival of the Europeans to America there were more than one hundred thousand jaguars. At that time, they inhabited from semi-desert areas in North America to the tropical forests of South America. Today, the jaguar is an endangered species that has lost approximately 50 percent of its historical habitat throughout the continent.

Tiger mask. National Museum of Popular Cultures
Tiger mask. National Museum of Popular Cultures

Will we be able to look into its eyes again, to evoke its presence again, which once invited us to recognize the strength, instinct, and ferocity that inhabit us? Will we be able to remember that the jaguar was a mirror, a representation of the gods, an ally, a venerated and feared enemy, a being with whom we felt a brotherhood? Would we be willing, then, to protect it, to defend its habitat, to work to restore the precarious balance that allows the coexistence of species?

Even if its majestic footprint is left in the past, its presence is still part of our natural and cultural heritage. There are many communities where it is still alive in legends, dances, and crafts.

Habitat

The jaguar is capable of inhabiting a variety of ecosystems - including mangroves, temperate pine forests, deserts, and even mountainous areas - but prefers lowland rainforests and subtropical forests located less than 1,000 meters above sea level. There it finds an enormous abundance of animals and plants, as well as water.

In Mexico, it inhabited the tropical and subtropical regions, from Sonora and Tamaulipas in the north of the country, down through the coastal plains of the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, to Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula. More than 40% of its distribution in the country has been lost, being limited to fragmented, isolated and difficult to access forest areas on the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts, the Sierra Madre Occidental, the Sierra Madre Oriental and the Mexican south-southeast.

Given the need to know the population situation in Mexico, the first National Census of the Jaguar and its prey (Cenjaguar) was undertaken in 2008 in 15 priority sites for the conservation of the feline. A thorough work that took three years and placed Mexico as a leader in the conservation strategies of the species. The research was supported by the WWF-Telmex Telcel Foundation Alliance and developed by the Institute of Ecology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico together with various government agencies, academic institutions, scientists and civil organizations.

According to this first census, there were an estimated 4,000 jaguars in the country, most of them in the Yucatan Peninsula. The second census, recently concluded, recorded that the population had grown to 4,800 cats.

State of conservation

The jaguar is in the category of "Near Threatened" in the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

In Mexico, it is catalogued as an endangered species and its hunting has been banned since 1987. The National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) considers it a feline whose conservation is a priority.

Threats

The jaguar lives under siege due to the destruction of its habitat, illegal hunting and the continuous jaguar-human conflict resulting from the increasing activities in its environment.

The loss of its habitat is considered to be the greatest threat it faces because it is a species that requires large extensions of territory to survive. The development of infrastructure, the expansion of agricultural and livestock activities, the construction of housing units and the loss of vegetation are factors that have degraded and fragmented its habitat.

The reduction of its territory, and therefore of its perimeter of action, causes jaguar populations to become isolated and more vulnerable to extinction, since, in addition to increasing conflicts with humans, the species has problems with genetic variability, a natural strategy for long-term survival.

Poaching is the other major threat facing the species. This is a product of conflict with human communities that fear for the safety of their livestock or possible attacks on people. It is known, for example, that in certain regions of Mexico jaguars compete for food with the local people because peccaries, deer, tepezcuintles, armadillos or coatis have also become part of the local diet. Since they cannot find food in the forest, it is common for jaguars to go after domestic livestock and, in retaliation, they are attacked.

It is also hunted as a trophy because in recent years the black market for its skin and/or tusks has grown. In some countries, such as Bolivia, hundreds of jaguars have perished because of this cause and this trend is present in Peru, Belize, and Brazil.

The commercial sale of their skin had a great boom in the middle of the 20th century. In 1963 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) issued a resolution to ban their commercialization. However, it was not until 1975 that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed the species in its Appendix I, and with this, the hunting problem faced by this feline became evident and continues to be a threat to its survival.

Features

Common name: Jaguar

Scientific name: Panthera onca

The jaguar is the largest and most widely distributed feline in the tropical environments of the Americas. It is the only member of the genus Panthera in the Americas and in the world is only surpassed in size by two of its relatives: tigers and lions.

It is an extremely strong animal, with a robust body with short and muscular limbs, a wide head, and small, rounded ears. It measures between 1.5 and 2.4 meters, weighs between 45 and 120 kg and, usually, males are 10 to 20% larger than females. Their corpulence changes with respect to the area where they live. The animals that live in Mesoamerica are smaller than in South America. It is distinguished by the ease with which it moves in its environment.

The color of its skin ranges from yellow to reddish on the back and sides, white on the belly and inside of the legs, and its body is covered by rosettes of variable size, with small spots in the center. The pattern of speckles is unique to each individual, thanks to which it is possible to identify them. Black or melanic jaguars are common in South America, however, in Mexico there are no confirmed records.

Adults are solitary, except in the mating season and mainly active in the twilight. They are not easy to observe in the wild, due to their nocturnal habits. In order to study them, it has been necessary to place radio collars with a geopositioning that allows us to know their habits and movements.

Thanks to this technology, for example, it is known that in one year in the region of Calakmul - in the south of the Yucatan Peninsula - the male jaguars have areas of activity greater than 700 km2, an area equivalent to 65 thousand soccer fields. While females move in approximately 160 km2, an area similar to 15 thousand soccer fields. The movement patterns of females vary depending on the availability of food and the type of habitat; while in males, this is determined by competition for space and females.

Their mating season varies geographically and their gestation period is 100 days. Females generally have two offspring, although they may give birth to as many as four. The longevity of jaguars in free life is 10 to 12 years. The young are born mottled and remain with the mother until a year and a half or two, when they reach sexual maturity, and then move to a new site and become established.

The jaguar is a natural hunter; it waits quietly for its prey to appear, then falls on it and bites its head off. Its bite is considered one of the strongest among big cats. More than 22 species of mammals (70% of their diet), birds, reptiles and fish have been identified in their diet.

The importance of the jaguar in its habitat

The jaguar is a great provider of environmental services. These services are defined as a broad spectrum of conditions and processes by which natural ecosystems and the species that inhabit them help sustain and meet the needs of human society. These include air and water purification; drought and flood mitigation; soil generation and conservation; pollination of crops and natural vegetation; seed dispersal; recycling and movement of nutrients; control of insects that cause problems for agricultural fields; protection of coastlines from wave erosion; partial climate stabilization and buffering of extreme weather and its impacts.

Economists warn that if the value of these services was estimated worldwide, they could reach several trillion dollars per year. For centuries, humanity did not attach importance or value to these services as they were considered inexhaustible. Today, it is clear that ecosystems need to be conserved in the best possible condition to continue providing these services.

In the case of the jaguar, it is a species that helps maintain a healthy ecosystem. When it disappears from the forests and woodlands, its prey, which are generally large herbivores, are left as masters of the landscape and consume plant species without control. This alters the composition and structure of the forests and soils, affecting the riverbeds and, therefore, has a chain effect on other living beings.

In Mexico, the jaguar is threatened and with it, the forests and jungles are losing a natural protector. Taking care of it means ensuring the permanence of fundamental biological corridors for Mexico and the Americas which, in turn, provide us with environmental services ranging from the generation of oxygen, water, and medicines.

By Mexicanist Source: Mexicana, WWF