Like the ancient Mayan people who worshipped them, Yucatan’s jaguars are survivors.

Despite deforestation due to fires, human population growth and the spread of agriculture, jaguars have resisted encroachments of man and found ways to subsist in Yucatan’s remaining jungles.

It is believed that nearly half of Mexico’s estimated 4,000 jaguars currently inhabit the Peninsula.

With some help from recent conservation efforts, jaguars – which have lived in the Yucatan for more than 850,000 years – may even be on the rebound.

Wildlife reserves, such as the Sian Ka’an Biosphere and the Puuc Biocultural State Reserve, now provide a refuge for jaguars and other endangered species in the Yucatan. A growing movement to preserve the peninsula’s wildlife and natural resources may help turn the tide in favor of the big cats’ survival in the region.

Just as the Mayas have endured centuries of foreign invasions and cultural onslaughts, jaguars have proven resilient in the face of man’s depredations. This is fitting for a creature that has played a crucial role in Mayan mythology since ancient times.


Jaguar is a Native American word meaning “he who kills with one blow.” The Maya, who named the jaguar “Balam,” regarded the animal as king of the forest, a metaphor for greatness, perfection and supernatural power.

In addition to holding a place second only to the serpent among Mayan deities, jaguars were associated with the culture’s ruling class. Not only did Mayan kings wear jaguar pelts; they also adopted jaguar as part of their ruling name. Examples include Jaguar Paw, Scroll Jaguar, Bird Jaguar and Moon Jaguar.


At the Temple of the Jaguar at Chichen Itza, the king walked beneath a frieze of a procession of jaguars during his coronation ceremony.

The big cats were also associated with warriors and hunters. Mayas who excelled in hunting and warfare often adorned themselves with jaguar pelts, teeth and claws and were thought to possess feline souls.

Jaguars were seen as rulers of the underworld, which was associated with nighttime. Daytime was linked to the living and the earth. Jaguars were thought to have the ability to cross between the two worlds.

The big cats’ ability to see during the night associated them with vision, prescience and foreknowledge of things to come. Cats have binocular vision, which means each eye can work by itself, providing better depth perception. This was another reason jaguars were linked to vision and foresight in Mayan culture.

The Maya also related the jaguar to subconscious urges and abilities. The power to become half-human and half-jaguar was thought to release a person from cultural restrictions and inhibitions.

If this has piqued your curiosity about jaguars, you may find yourself wishing you could actually

catch a glimpse of one in the wild. Several eco-tour operators offer jungle excursions in search of jaguars and other indigenous wildlife in the Yucatan.

So, why not give it a try? Even if you don’t see a jaguar, you’ll have an unforgettable experience!


by Robert B. Adams
Louisville, KY, USA 40243