The Return of the Jaguar in the Yucatán Peninsula
From the top of the great pyramid of the ancient Maya city of Calakmul in the southern Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, you can see all the way to Guatemala. The jungle stretches out infinitely in every direction, an ocean of green punctuated only by the stepped pyramid peaks of two other Maya temples.
When I was there in March, there were hardly any other visitors. Calakmul was once one of the largest and most powerful cities of the Maya world, but now it stands in ruins, hours from the nearest urban center and enveloped by the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, one of the biggest swaths of unbroken tropical forest in the Americas.
It was early evening, and the black howler monkeys were waking up. From under the forest canopy came the guttural, trash-compactor roar of the loudest land animal in the world, one of many endangered species that live here, along with pumas, toucans, spider monkeys and coati-mundis. Perhaps most crucially, the jungle of Calakmul is home to the highest concentration of jaguars in Mexico.
Jaguars are elusive animals that, if threatened, can lacerate a skull with a single bite. Even highly skilled trackers need many days, if not weeks, to find jaguars in the wild, and I knew it was unlikely I would come face to face with one. The main goal of my trip to Calakmul was to explore the habitat where the jaguar was newly thriving, to get a better understanding of its significance and the environmental pressures it’s facing, and to talk to some of the important players behind efforts to save the species.
Still, I stared down into the vegetation, hoping for a flash of black and gold, for any flicker of the great jungle cat that has enthralled this part of the world for thousands of years.
Back from the brink
The Maya, like other ancient civilizations of Mexico, worshiped the jaguar as a deity, believing that it ruled the underworld and could move between worlds at will. Across pre-Columbian cultures, jaguar images appear on masks, thrones, reliefs and sculptures. Ancient rulers and warriors adorned themselves with the animal’s skulls, skins, fangs and claws. For 3,000 years, no animal was more symbolically important.
When archaeologists excavated Calakmul in the early 20th century, they uncovered the tomb of its greatest ruler, known as Jaguar Claw. Nearby settlements have entire temples devoted to the animal, whose range once stretched across the Americas, from present-day Maryland to the Pacific Northwest to the tip of South America.
Hunting, deforestation and urban expansion have shrunk that range to less than half of what it was before, and populations of the animal have long been in decline. But in Mexico, an alliance of ecologists, nongovernmental organizations and local communities have embarked on an ambitious conservation project that has effectively pulled the species back from the brink — part of a broader mission to save the jungles of the Yucatán. In Mexico, the number of jaguars is now growing, increasing to 4,766 animals in 2018 from 4,025 in 2010, a promising sign that conservation strategies are working.
“The jaguar is an umbrella species, so by protecting the jaguar, you are protecting everything else,” said Gerardo Ceballos, an ecologist and conservationist who has been working with jaguars in the region for almost 25 years.
In 2005, Dr. Ceballos founded the Mexican Alliance for Jaguar Conservation, which is based in Mexico City, and has conducted some of the most comprehensive studies of the species, taking samples of fur, dung and parasites, and tracking the animal with camera traps and GPS collars. They then use those findings to develop conservation strategies.
The alliance’s work is more important than ever as a controversial new train line that will bisect the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve approaches completion. The 948-mile Tren Maya will begin in Chiapas and travel northeast toward Cancún, transporting tourists from beach resorts on the Caribbean coast to archaeological sites inland. Opponents of the project cite environmental damage and unlawful evictions, among other concerns; they gained a temporary injunction in 2020, but in late 2021, the Mexican government resumed construction.
Once news broke that the jaguar population was increasing, the government agreed to route the train line according to conservation needs, adding numerous wildlife passes. It also tentatively agreed to expand the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve beyond its 726,000 hectares, or nearly 1.8 million acres, connecting it with other reserves in the area. If the government stays true to its word, “we will end up with 1.3 million hectares of protected forest,” Dr. Ceballos said. “It will be one of the largest in the tropics of the world.”
Into the jungle
After speaking to Dr. Ceballos in Mexico City, I headed for Calakmul, flying first to Chetumal, the capital of Quintana Roo, on the southeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula near the border with Belize. From there, it was only a half-hour drive to Bacalar Lagoon, where I had booked a night at one of many palapa-roofed budget hotels that line the shore. Bacalar is famed for its crystalline waters, which host some of the oldest life on the planet: 3-billion-year-old living fossils called stromatolites that are thought to be responsible for oxygenating the atmosphere. It’s also part of an important biological corridor for the jaguar that runs from Calakmul to Sian Ka’an, a lush biosphere reserve on the edge of Tulum.
“The jaguar is seen like a really mythical animal by the Mayan people from here,” said Diego Valdovinos Ramirez, a 21-year-old guide who captained the group sailing excursion I took through the lagoon. “Even with the passage of time, the people remember.” Light dazzled the surface of the water, long known as the “lagoon of seven colors,” but it has dulled in recent years as development puts pressure on its fragile ecosystem.
After our sail, I stopped at Navieros Bacalar, a roadside open-air cevicheria where foreign visitors and Mexican families dined on ceviches and local specialties like octopus “a la diabla,” cooked in a deep-red sauce of ancho and árbol chiles. Then, back at the hotel, I walked down a long wooden pier to one of the stilted palapa huts that sit on the lagoon and watched the sunset over the mangroves, looking toward the jungle beyond, where the jaguars would soon be making their nightly migrations.
An alternative vision
Even though there are still more jaguars on the Yucatán Peninsula than anywhere else in the country, it’s the only region in Mexico where the animal’s range has diminished — in part because of the development of the so-called Riviera Maya, a string of heavily developed beach towns that snakes down the Caribbean coast from Playa del Carmen to Tulum. Anyone who has recently visited Cancún’s receding shoreline or Tulum’s beach road crammed with air-conditioned hotels running on diesel generators knows of the ecological devastation that development has wrought.
“Twenty years ago, this area was thick jungle,” Heliot Zarza Villanueva, an ecologist who is working with Dr. Ceballos on the jaguar project, said as we drove the next day into the state of Campeche toward Calakmul. “They cut down all the trees, destroyed the soil with chemicals and turned it into this barren grassland.”
As we passed vast fields of sugar cane, sorghum and soybean — crops not endemic to the region that are used to make biofuel — Dr. Villanueva explained that many troubles in the Yucatán date to the Cardenista land reforms of the 1930s, when the post-revolutionary Mexican government offered land to people who came from other parts of the country to farm it, often expropriating it from the Maya.
A big part of the Jaguar Alliance’s conservation work has been orchestrating deals between the government and local farming communities called ejidos. Many Calakmul ejidos are now pivoting from ranching, agriculture and illegal logging to conservation work, including community forest management and the sustainable cultivation of organic products, like the nutrient-rich Ramón nut, silky Melipona honey that won over the Noma chef René Redzepi and Chicza, an all-natural chewing gum made exclusively from chicle, which the Maya people have harvested from the sap of the chicozapote tree since ancient times.
The jungle thickened as we drove deeper into Calakmul, stopping at the sites of two new eco-tourism projects within the reserve: Valentín Natural, a jungle campsite often visited by monkeys, pumas and the occasional jaguar, and Casa Ka’an, a cluster of private guesthouses equipped with solar panels, solar water heaters and biodigesters for wastewater treatment. These low-impact, ejido-run accommodations offer an alternative vision of tourism in the Yucatán.
We passed the so-called Bat Volcano, a dried-out cenote, or limestone sinkhole, that’s home to more than three million bats of eight species that swirl out into the air every evening at twilight. Rainbow-colored ocellated turkeys crossed in front of the car as we moved more and more slowly into the rainforest. The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve is one of the most biodiverse places in the world, with nearly 70,000 species of plants and animals.
We entered the archaeological zone and continued on foot into the ancient city of Calakmul, once home to more than 50,000 people, where the Ka’an, one of the most powerful Maya dynasties, reached its peak and its downfall. We walked through ancient plazas, where heavily eroded, carved monuments depict scenes from the city’s former life in hieroglyphic text and imagery: births and burials, celebrations and battles.
Even though it was high season, barely any tourists crossed our path. We were alone among the ruins, enclosed by the forest. We climbed the largest temple, one of the tallest in the Maya world, and looked out over the green expanse, listening to the cacophony of the jungle.
“There are around 800 jaguars in the area,” Dr. Villanueva said after a long pause. “This habitat is very important for so many species.”
We spent the waning daylight hours exploring the surrounding wilderness, our ears and eyes peeled for any sign of feline life. Eventually, we made our way out of the archaeological zone, stopping in the village of Xpujil for tacos and margaritas at Sazón Veracruzano, one of many decent roadside restaurants within the biosphere reserve.
After dinner, we headed to the base camp where the Jaguar Alliance undertakes its research, a cluster of palapa huts around a small lake within the reserve. It was pitch dark by the time we arrived, but the jungle seemed to be just waking up. The air seethed with the sounds of cicadas, frogs, owls and countless other nocturnal creatures vibrating through the night. I retreated to one of the palapa huts and, after chasing off a large black tarantula that had somehow sneaked inside and taken up residence above my bed, I let the tropical drone of Calakmul carry me off to sleep.
‘I didn’t realize I was doing damage’
I woke up at dawn to meet with the members of the Jaguar Alliance in another hut at the edge of the lake. They track jaguars several times a year, using a tranquilizer gun to sedate the animal so they can take blood and attach a collar. Their crew includes ecologists, a veterinarian, a pack of hounds, a dog trainer and the well-known jaguar hunter Don Pancho, who joined the conservation project two years ago.
“At the beginning, people were critical; they said it’s like putting the coyote in charge of the chickens,” said Don Pancho, a thickset, mustachioed man in middle-late age whose half-buttoned shirt revealed a thick silver chain over weathered brown skin. “But I had all this experience,” he said. “I knew how to track the jaguars, where they liked to go, how to attract them. So they needed my help.”
Don Pancho shot his first jaguar when he was 14 years old to protect the livestock on his parents’ subsistence farm. Local farmers hired him, paying him with cows, pigs, goats.
Eventually, Don Pancho started leading hunts for wealthy foreigners through the Safari Club International, he said, mostly Americans working for the chewing gum companies that would come to Calakmul to harvest chicle from the jungle. “I used to get a $1,000 tip for a hunt — that’s just the tip,” said Don Pancho, who said he stopped hunting jaguars after the practice was outlawed in 1987.
“I didn’t realize I was doing damage,” he said.
In the end, I never did see a jaguar, but the jungle got under my skin. The air was hot and alive with the sounds of buzzing insects and the flapping of tropical birds. Troops of spider monkeys swung through the branches above me. Gnarled strangler figs twisted up toward the sky. When you’re inside of the jungle, it feels endless, inscrutably immense, impossible to destroy. But with each year that passes, this forest grows smaller.
“In the last 20 years, we lost 1.8 million hectares of forest,” said Dr. Ceballos, who was a lead author of a seminal 2015 study on what is known as the sixth mass extinction. For him, the jaguar program has always been part of a broader project — to save Mexico’s rich jungle ecosystem before it’s too late.
“We don’t have the luxury of 20 years or more,” he said. “What we do in the next four or five years, what we save, is what will be saved in the long run.”
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