December 2012. End of the world? No. But it is a good moment to reflect upon the Maya people and culture living all around us. And there is no symbol more iconic for the Maya than the jaguar.

The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the largest feline in America and the third largest in the world, after its relatives the tiger and the lion; together with the leopard, these are the only living species from the genus Panthera. These four cousins are the largest of the 40 species of felines in the world, 12 of whom live in the the Americas. The jaguar can be found from northern Mexico to northern Argentina, reaching weights of 330 pounds.

The jaguar in Maya culture

The physical characteristics of felines such as the jaguar, with its extraordinary appearance, naturally represent cunning, strength, elegance, and flexibility. Its enigmatic eyes have always held a power over man, and the Maya believed they could distinguish the reflection of fire or the sun in them. Its body is designed to be a lethal and effective hunter, particularly in the moments of half-light, for it possesses excellent eyesight, magnificent hearing, and its whiskers function as radar to calculate the distance from its prey.

These characteristics made the jaguar into a symbol of power and greatness for the Maya, and was associated with natural forces, cosmic levels, vital energies, and death.

Threats to the jaguar today

Today the jaguar is a species in serious danger of extinction in Mexico, mainly due to the loss of its habitat and illegal hunting. Various organizations work in different activities and projects, as follows:

Pronatura Península de Yucatán AC: They work on the coexistence of felines with cattle ranchers at the Calakmul-Balam kú-Balam kin complex in the state of Campeche. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, SMAAS, the Universidad Autonónoma of the State of México, and Pronatura work together to prevent jaguar hunting, through training programs on cattle management and dissuasive measures.

Conservación del Jaguar Puuc: The 1,800 hectare private Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve, two hours south of Mérida, has initiated a project to protect the jaguar in the Puuc region. The director, James Callaghan, explains, “While we focus on jaguar protection, drawing attention to this charismatic animal also benefits environment, cultural heritage, and regional development in the Puuc.”

Panthera: Jaguars use and require protected areas, but they move beyond them in search of food, space, and in order to breed, to pass along their genes into the future. Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative aims to link core jaguar populations within the human landscape from northern Argentina to Mexico, preserving their genetic integrity so that jaguars can live in the wild forever.

End of the world?

For us, no. But it could be for the jaguars, if we don’t prevent it. Maybe that’s what the Maya were really trying to tell us. 

Photo: Steve Winter / Panthera

Facts about the jaguar: Pronatura Península de Yucatán, A.C.

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