I AM THE JAGUAR
Since today humanity celebrates my existence, I am here to tell you more about me and hopefully get your attention since my survival is being threatened. My name comes from the Guarani word “yaguar”, which means “true beast”, because for the Guarani Indians of Brazil, I represented the fiercest and most fearsome animal they knew.
My lineage appeared approximately 1.6 million years ago in the Old Continent, from where I migrated to American lands approximately one million years ago. Here I formed my kingdom. The jaguars of the Old World eventually disappeared, while in the Americas we expanded and prospered as the supreme predator of these lands, to which biologists have assigned the scientific name Panthera onca.
At present we have settled mainly in the tropical zones that go from Mexico to Argentina, where we play the role of the supreme predator in the ecosystems of this great region. Dry and humid jungles, cloud forests, and swamps and wetlands are our typical homes, although some of our populations have adapted to very different areas. In Mexico there are populations of jaguars living in the Sonora semi-desert, as well as in the oak forests in the Sierra Madre Oriental and Sierra Madre Occidental mountains.
Throughout the evolution of my species, I have developed physical characteristics that allow me to hunt with precision and stealth. My tawny-orange coat, spotted with rosettes that almost always has a center spot, gives me a unique appearance among large American predators and is my individual mark, as no two jaguars have the same pattern of spots. I find this aspect very effective at blending into the vegetation without being detected by my prey, allowing me to get close enough to them before I jump on them to give chase. My powerful, muscular legs, armed with lethal claws, help me leap high and catch the deer, wild boar, alligators, hares, turtles, and other large animals that make up my diet. To kill them, I have developed the most powerful bite among cats, which is why my head is bigger and bulkier, because it is armed with strong muscles that give great power to my jaws. It is common for many of my prey to appear dead with the marks of my fangs piercing their skulls, because in this way I manage to kill them quickly. Not even the shell of turtles or the thick skin of crocodiles and alligators manage to protect them from my powerful bite.
Although human beings have not understood it correctly, my role as a hunter is essential for the health of the ecosystems I inhabit. Through hunting, I contribute by ensuring that my prey remain within the support limits that each ecosystem offers them without exceeding in population. But by influencing the behavior of these animals, I also help to maintain various natural processes for the growth and regeneration of ecosystems. For example: the constant movement of many of my prey, always alert and fearful of my presence, contributes to the fact that every time they move from one place to another, they disperse plant seeds, which helps the regeneration of vegetation. For this role, scientists have recognized me as a keystone species, without which ecosystems degrade and become impoverished.
Unfortunately, humans have changed their perception of me since western men came to these lands and changed the native culture. Ancient Americans considered me a deity, admiring my strength, cunning, stealth, and beauty. The warriors aspired to be as brave and effective as I am as a hunter and for this reason they represented me in many of their sculptures and artistic manifestations. For thousands of years, humans and jaguars lived together in relative peace, but everything changed when the Spanish arrived with cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, and horses. Jungles and forests were bulldozed and burned to transform them into farmland and pasture to feed these exotic animals, while many of my usual prey, mainly deer and wild boar, lost their home with this transformation and were hunted without measure by the new Americans. Since it was harder for me to find prey that I previously found easily in the jungles and forests, I had to resort to eating new animals in order to survive. It was easier for me to hunt calves and cows, which provided me with meat in abundance. This did not please the people who raised and exploited these animals for food, and thus began to persecute me mercilessly with traps, rifles and poisons. Many hunters also did it because my skin was very attractive to make all kinds of clothing. All this unleashed a constant and intense poaching in all corners of the lands where I had lived for thousands of years.
Humans and their consistent harassment and hunting caused me to disappear from many regions and caused my numbers to steadily decline, leading some scientists and nature conservationists to mark me as an “endangered species”. It is said that in Mexico, for example, during the last 50 years my population has been reduced by 80% and my distribution area by 60%. Today some of us remain in isolated populations in the most remote places, but in total we add up to less than 4,000 jaguars for the entire country.
At the rate at which jaguars disappear in Mexico and at which our habitat is destroyed, we will become extinct before the end of this century, which without a doubt would create serious imbalances in nature that will threaten many other species and will affect the same people who are destroying us or our habitat today. Fortunately, there are institutions and people who are very concerned about the future of our species and determined to save us from extinction. They know that to achieve this, the jungles, swamps and deserts that jaguars need to survive must be maintained and protected effectively, so that there are safe havens for my species and for the animals that are my prey and with which I live.
I have recently heard of a very ambitious initiative to create several of these shelters called “natural reserves”. Among them is one called Naturalia, and I know that it seeks to join efforts and collaborate with individuals, organizations, companies and public and private institutions that really care about my survival, as well as that of my home. I am confident that this initiative will be successful and that my species will endure in these magnificent lands you call nature.