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The Jaguar and Why He is the Keystone Cop of the Rainforest

Feb 29, 2008
The jaguar or panthera onca has to be one of the most magnificent animals on Earth. Maybe the most magnificent. Only the tiger and lion are larger cats. Our Maya friend Aniceto says we have a jaguar den on our ranch; probably some shallow limestone cave covered by dense growth. Part of our ranch is virgin rainforest.

We've never seen our jaguar but he has. One evening coming back from his "milpa" he saw it in the middle of the road. Usually they don't come out at all when it is light, but this one did. The jaguar or "el tigre" as he is called by the Maya, probably was hungry and looking for a tepe, tejon or javalina. Humans eat the same food, though we barbecue tepe and the jaguar chomps it down raw.

The jaguar kills its prey by biting the neck and skull of its victim. As the keystone predator in the jungle, the jaguar serves a great function by eating the predators that kill smaller prey. Except for man, the jaguar has no enemies. Not many friends either, but that comes with being at the top of the food chain and having a very nasty bite.

My Mayan friends say they can never remember an incident where a jaguar attacked a human. That certainly doesn't mean a jaguar wouldn't attack a human; but in the wild they really don't. Even so, when most Maya go deep into the jungle, they carry a shotgun.

Clearly man is more afraid of the jaguar than the jaguar of man. Maya men tell of times when they would be startled to look to the side of the path and find a jaguar sleeping peacefully; in the deep jungle "el tigre" takes his siesta wherever he pleases.

The jaguar cannot be domesticated and has little fear of man. It is also considered to have the most unpredictable behavior of any animal in captivity. Jaguars aren't meant to be in captivity. It's not what they do. Jaguars are wired for one thing and it has nothing to do with cages.

A Maya familiar with the jungle can spot jaguar tracks, dung and the plant life the jaguar disturbs while traveling through the jungle. To an untrained eye such signs go unnoticed. Rule number one is when in the deep jungle take a jungle man along as a guide.

Unfortunately the jaguar can climb trees and have been seen jumping from tree to tree. Hence the tree house I plan to build on my ranch will provide no protection from the jaguar...ha. I can imagine sleeping one night and waking up to a pair of large eyes staring me in the face; maybe a giant boa or maybe a jaguar.

My one concern is one day we will be out walking around on the ranch and come across the den with little jaguars in it...oh, boy. Well, no one said the jungle was without some risk. The jaguars, however, readily eat cattle, sheep, turkeys and dogs.

Several weeks back, Aniceto took me back into the jungle and we saw dog hairs in jaguar dung. Aniceto said that his friend had two dogs eaten by the jaguar one night...and his friend could hear his dogs yelping as the jaguar dragged them off into the jungle. Since dog is man's best friend, that sound had to be unnerving.

Several months before, his friend's cousin shot a jaguar trying to make off with a sheep. It took four men to carry the jaguar out of the jungle. Jaguars can grow up to 200 pounds and eight feet long including the tail. That makes them king and keystone of the jungle ecosystem.

The Maya see them as predators and not endangered. One's perceptions change if one has little children playing around the jungle palapa; "el tigre" certainly might be considered much more of a predatory threat. But fortunately one does not hear of jaguars foraging for small humans outside villages way back in the jungle. The jaguar is smart enough to leave children alone...common jaguar sense probably passed down from generation to generation.

The jaguar is a representative of the truly wild and that which cannot be tamed. For most of us, the jaguar is a symbol of the magnificence of the wild and what nature has created over the eons including a very nasty bite.

Let's hope we both keep our respect and distance and don't find ourselves peering at each other in the pitch black jungle night. And that's very okay by us because in the deep jungle it's always big advantage jaguar...
About the Author
Jack Deal is the owner of Jack D. Deal Business Consulting and a jungle ranch in Mexico. Related articles may be found at http://www.jddeal.com/blog and http://www.freeandinquiringmind.typepad.com
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