National Geographic’s online edition recently featured zoologist Alan Rabinowitz describing what he calls the “jaguar cultural corridor,” anchored by the Olmec and moving in time to the Maya, Aztec and Inca, all distinct cultures and all holding the jaguar to be sacred. The jaguar corridor in space once stretched from Argentina north all the way to what is now Southern Arizona, Texas and New Mexico.
Jaguar, seen here preying on a predator, was the apex predator, hunting atop the food chain. The Maya in pre-Columbian times, and traditional Maya surviving today, believe Jaguar can see into the spirit world. In 2011, UNESCO listed the jaguar shamans of Yuruparí, Colombia, as an endangered “intangible heritage of humanity,” the primary danger being Christian missionaries seeking converts among the Colombian Indians. In modern times, the danger is not just to the religious practice but also to Jaguar’s very survival.
When the Spanish invaded, they brought herds of cattle, which Jaguar took to be dinner on the hoof. The colonists attacked the big cats to protect their herds but soon took up trophy hunting. Jaguar is the third largest cat in the world, after the lion and the tiger, and his coat is a thing of beauty.
Unfortunately for the sacred cat, his beautiful coat progressed from hunting trophy to fashion statement. The human wearing of animal fur comes and goes, even though with modern synthetics that are both warm and good looking, there is no longer any necessity. Designer Oleg Cassini, who in the early sixties dressed Jackie Kennedy in a leopard-skin coat, has since advocated for synthetics. The Great History blog claimed, “Over 250,000 leopards were hunted and killed as women purchased their copy of Jackie’s coat.”
When cat fur became a fashion statement by rich people, Jaguar’s coat was at a premium, and about 18,000 jaguars per year died for the luxury fur trade, until the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of 1973 brought the pelt trade to a near halt. Still, the combination of hunting and habitat destruction threatens Jaguar, who is said to be extinct in Uruguay and El Salvador. Jaguar habitat in the Americas mimics the spots on Jaguar’s coat.
At the turn of the 21st century, conservationists enlisted DNA technology to determine how many ecoclines, subspecies, “races,” are represented by surviving jaguars. To their surprise there is only one jaguar genome in all of the Americas. The tale of the DNA led to a conservation movement to reconstitute the geographical version of the so-called jaguar corridor by connecting the islands of friendly habitat up and down and across the continents.
An organization dedicated to preserving all the big cats of the world, Panthera, is pushing the Jaguar Corridor Initiative in 13 of the 18 countries known to contain breeding populations. Indigenous communities are key to finding and protecting paths for the jaguars to walk between habitat “islands” in seas of urbanization and farms carved out of forests from Argentina to Mexico.
The Jaguar Corridor Initiative stops in Mexico because the evidence of breeding jaguar populations in the U.S. is thin.
The last Arizona resident jaguar in the U.S. was thought to have been shot in 1965. Shot with a gun, not a camera. Arizona got around to outlawing jaguar hunting in 1969.
In 1996, two jaguars were photographed in southern Arizona, one of them hard by Arizona’s border with the Tohono O’odham Nation. Smithsonian carried a report in 2005 that three individual jaguars have been documented by camera traps, and they have to be either part of a U.S. population or outliers from the threatened habitat in Sonora, directly across the Mexican border. Tohono O’odham lands are in a prime location to make a jaguar corridor between Sonora and Arizona. Naturalia, a Mexican conservation group, has purchased a 10,000-acre ranch in Sonora to serve as the core of a private jaguar reserve on the Mexican side.
Texas, where the last known jaguar had been killed by 1949, is also having big-cat sightings. It’s also worth mentioning that one of the last Texas jaguars was killed near Brownwood, which is nowhere near the Mexican border. If the cats are hanging on in the U.S., the borderlands are the logical location. The Texas border with Mexico includes Big Bend National Park (801,163 acres) and Big Bend Ranch State Park (311,000 acres), which would make as handy a jaguar corridor as the Tohono O’odham land bordering Arizona.
Recent claims of jaguar sightings in Texas are complicated by a known cougar population, raising the possibility of mistaken identification. The only recent camera trap picture in Texas is controversial because the cat that has a jaguar-shaped body appears to be black. Big Cat Rescue has a black jaguar in captivity, so it is possible.
DNA inspired the jaguar corridor idea as a way to finesse the impossibility of setting aside enough land for jaguar habitat. One male jaguar may claim as much as 53 square miles. The Rio Bravo/Rio Grande would not stop Jaguar, who is an excellent swimmer. The infamous border fence might, but it will probably never be finished, and the pieces of it that exist include lots of vehicle barriers, which will not stop a cat.
According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the government spent $15 million a mile for the pedestrian fence sections but “only” one million a mile for the vehicle barriers. The outrageous cost is lucky for Jaguar, because the evidence of surviving jaguars in the U.S. is still sketchy enough that there is no organized effort to extend the jaguar corridor across the Mexican border.
The financial realities of fencing the border will probably outweigh the political posturing, and open spaces around Big Bend and the Tohono O’odham Nation make a potential northern extension of the jaguar corridor. If the U.S. can’t agree on a way to exclude people while admitting cats, the only jaguars in this country will be British sports cars, and the Mexican border will mark the northern extent of the big cat’s range. Without the jaguar corridor, the U.S. breeding population, if there is one, would be isolated. That outcome would spell the end of the U.S. as home to the Mayan sacred cat.