Central and South America is home to four cat species: ocelots, jaguarundis, cougars, and jaguars. Of these, jaguars are the largest. The jaguar is revered in Mesoamerican cultures, not only as a powerful animal but as a god.
Central American Cultural Significance
In Mayan and Mexican culture, the jaguar is called Balaam. It is a symbol of life, associated with the regenerative power of nature. It also symbolizes fertile land. Politicians and kings held a deep connection to the jaguar. The jaguar was the ruler of time, the night, and the underworld. Like many other Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayan may have a jaguar god.
In Aztec religion, the jaguar was the animal spirit of the god Tezcatlipoca. Tezcatlipoca was a primary deity in Aztec culture. He is invisible and omnipotent. A fickle god, Tezcatlipoca could bring good or evil. He ruled over many things, including the night, the earth, obsidian, warriors, and jaguars. When Tezcatlipoca took the form of a jaguar, he was called Tepeyollotl.
In current day Mexico, people perform the Danza de Los Tecuanes or Dance of the Jaguar. It tells the story of a man-eating beast who descends on townspeople and eats their domestic animals. The townspeople call on the Lord of the Mountain to help. Working together, the Lord and the townspeople are able to overpower the Tecuán or jaguar. They rejoiced with a festival and told their story through dance. They still practice this dance today.
South American Cultural Significance
For the Arhuaco in Colombia, the jaguar is the manifestation of the divine. It is a warrior, ruler, guardian, and the bearer of the bloodline. The jaguar is a sage of knowledge who protects traditional foundations of knowledge.
In some indigenous Peruvian cultures, the jaguar is the sun. Imagery found includes glowing cat heads. The Bororó in Bolivia and Brazil connected the jaguar to the spiritual world. It is a source of strength. For the Matsés on the Peru-Bolivia border, the jaguar is a strong warrior. They embody the traits of the jaguar through face decoration, like nose piercings, false fangs, and face tattoos.
In addition, people observe and honor the jaguar’s ecological significance. It is America’s largest cat species, comparable to the lions of Africa or tigers of Asia.
As a keystone species, the jaguar is crucial for controlling and balancing various native animal populations in Central and South America. It preys on over 85 different species, including the tapir, South America’s biggest animal. It has the strongest bite force of any of the big cats, and can crack turtle shells.
Unfortunately, just like the other big cats, the jaguar suffers from human influences. Deforestation and animal trafficking reduce wild jaguar populations. There are conservation efforts designating protected lands for these predators. In addition, the cat conservation group, Panthera, is proposing The Jaguar Corridor Initiative, to protect jaguars throughout their entire range from Mexico to Argentina by working with local governments and people.
Excitingly, jaguars are moving into North America as well! As recently as March 2022, jaguars were seen at the southern border of the USA between Arizona and Mexico. Jaguars occupied much of the southern US but were hunted to near extinction. Reintroducing these powerful predators may restore balance to many landscapes in the southern US.
We have one jaguar at TCWR, Bagheera. He lives in our Discovery Area behind the gift shop. Come and visit him!