Jaguars: Gods, Vermin, or Conservation Icons?

Esteban Payán, Ph.D. Northern South America Regional Director, Jaguar Program

I’m not especially good with dates, but I will never forget 1988, when as a boy in Colombia I saw on TV a newly “discovered” tribe: the Nukak Maku. This Amazon tribe had been voluntarily isolated from the outside world until then—and today, they are on the brink of extinction, thanks to a failed inclusion and socialization program from the national government, western diseases, and being pushed out from their ancestral territories by the cocaine trade and terrorism. I recently saw a Nukak family as paupers in the town of San José del Guaviare while waiting for a helicopter to take me to Chiribiquete National Park—part of their ancestral homelands.

The Nukak Maku have lived in harmony with jaguars from time immemorial. Through the ages, jaguars have been characters of cult, constantly represented in creation myths, and even demigods in the cosmogony of many Latin American lowland indigenous groups. The jaguar has always been a strong character in the collective imagery of these ethnic groups and portrayed as hero or devil, the representation of thunder and lightning, or even as a rapist.

As one of my colleagues, Dr. Carlos Castaño-Uribe, explains when he is describing the petroglyphs in Chiribiquete National Park, “The jaguar is the only animal in these prehistoric societies that can eat us, for humans being considered prey is the ultimate fear and challenges violently our supreme consciousness as lords of nature.” That’s why jaguars are always preeminent in nearly all ancient society iconographies.I’ve always known that my career lacks a stronger approach to the cultural aspects of jaguars and humans. Human representations of these big cats is a stressful void for me, since as a Colombian, the overwhelming cultural importance of jaguars is ubiquitous, pervading everything from museums to the news, and even unfailingly brought up at dinner parties. But lately, I’m minding the cultural jag! My colleague Cristina Gomez and I have reviewed the changing iconography and representation of the jaguars in the collective Colombian minds.

As it turns out, the symbolism of jaguars through human history in Colombia has shifted from objects of admiration to detestation to—recently—conservation. Panthera Chief Scientist Dr. Alan Rabinowitz identifies this as the “Cultural Jaguar Corridor,” citing a universal admiration of jaguars in pre-Colombian times throughout Latin America. The iconographies of the first indigenous peoples changed after the Spanish colonizers came in. Jaguars became vermin that should be shot for pelts (Payán & Trujillo, 2006) or in retaliation for attacks on their cattle. This sentiment lives on in many rural and peasant communities (Boron & Payán, 2016; Hoogesteijn et al., 2016).

But now, the jaguar is being seen in a new light—as a conservation icon. As a large carnivore, the jaguar is the quintessential focal species and thus the ultimate conservation target for many conservation programs (Rabinowitz & Zeller, 2010) and an indicator of the health of intact ecosystems (Thornton et al., 2016). The conception of jaguars as one of the last stands of wildness and wilderness is present in many of us. This implies people now acknowledge something is at stake in the natural world, something at risk of being lost.

Educated city folk, conservation enthusiasts, and bright, sensitive campesinos alike understand the role of the jaguar in their ecosystems as regulators of and keystone elements of a healthy ecosystem in Colombia. Many armchair naturalists and concerned citizens follow the trials and tribulations of jaguars every day in the press and social media around the world. Jaguar valuation has also changed in form, from glossy pictures in coffee table books (Diaz-Pulido & Payán, 2016) to video reports of sightings and news clips that make prime time TV, all in the wake of the decrease of the species. Let’s hope it’s not too late to start minding the jaguar. 

To learn about Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative, click here. 

Check out the Journey of the Jaguar, our scientists’ three-year adventure to secure the ancient path of the jaguar through Latin America.

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