Believe it or not, the “killer of killers,” the jaguar, lives within less than an hour’s drive from the resorts of Puerto Vallarta.
Drive south of town for half an hour, and the road brings us to the Vallarta Botanical Gardens. Leave the car and trudge uphill, through the tropical jungle, along the banks of the Los Horcones River. Within less than three kilometers (two miles) from there, local ejiditarios and their counterparts in Mexican wildlife agencies have been routinely capturing images with their camera traps of the king of the jungle, the Panthera onca.
The jaguar is this continent’s answer to the tiger of Asia and the lion of Africa. While it has been all but eliminated from the United States and is formally considered “Near Threatened” by the IUCN, this cat still lives in over eighteen countries in Central and South America and ranges over millions of square kilometers.
Jaguars once ranged from the United States’ arid Southwest to Argentina’s grassy pampas, but since the mid-1800s, they’ve lost more than half of their former territory and have been pushed deeper into less suitable jungle tracts.
A consistent thread in stories about wildlife, whether the stories are about whales, sea turtles, elephants, or bees, is that we, Homo sapiens, are killing the rest of the species.
The history of the jaguar is no different. As cities expand and land is developed, clashes between humans and jaguars increase. When their usual prey is gone, the big cats sometimes resort to attacking livestock—and are killed in return. A market for their teeth and bones, prized for trinkets and folk remedies, increases their vulnerability.
But there are two sides to every story. One good news, local, story is that the Vallarta Botanical Gardens is buying more forest to preserve, through the support of its members in Puerto Vallarta and around the world. A few recent generous donations have enabled the Gardens to increase its reserve from about eight hectares to nearly thirty hectares, and the organization intends to expand this preserve along the Río Los Horcones, where jaguars have been seen on camera, while parts of this area still remain undeveloped.
Other good news comes from the organization Panthera. This is the only non-government organization solely dedicated to the conservation of all the world’s 40 species of wild cats, from the small ones all the way through to the biggest: tigers, jaguars, leopards, lions, cheetahs, and snow leopards. It is active in over 50 countries with 100 projects.
One of Panthera’s signature projects is securing a jaguar corridor to ensure genetic and biological connectivity from northern Mexico near the US border, all the way through Central America into South America down to Northern Argentina.
Exploring this corridor, present since time immemorial, leads us back before Europeans arrived on the shores of Mexico and Central America. Then, indigenous peoples all worshipped this apex of predators, the jaguar. It was more than an animal; it was a god.
The Olmecs, who inhabited northeastern Mexico between 1500 – 400 BCE, were the first Mesoamerican civilization and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Their art featured pictures and sculptures of the big cats, and some of their gods are shown as half-human, half- jaguar. Today, these are known as were-jaguars, similar to were-wolves in European history.
After the Olmec, the Maya also connected, spiritually, to this magnificent feline’s ability to see in the dark and even to shape-shift between life and eternity. Mayan art and architecture are filled with their people’s creations on walls, balustrades, columns, and thrones.
The famous red jaguar throne, created 1500 years ago and found in El Castillo, the great pyramid of Chichén Itzá, is a superb example of the art of this era.
Aztec rulers, like the Maya before them, used the jaguar to accentuate their power. As the jaguar was the lord of the animals, an Aztec emperor was the ruler of men. The emperors wore jaguar skins and fangs into battle, and their thrones were covered with the animals’ dappled pelts.
In Aztec mythology, Tepēyōllōtl was the god of earthquakes, echoes, and jaguars. In the Mayan calendar, he is depicted as a jaguar leaping towards the sun.
Jaguars have thrived in Mexico for thousands and thousands of years; they are still central to the beliefs of many indigenous people in Mexico.
They are the top predators of the jungles that cloak the mountains behind this city. In a sense, they are our neighbors. We must fight to preserve them. If we don’t, part of our human spirit will be destroyed with them.