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The Jaguars of Central America: Folklore and the Facts

June 7th, 2009

jaguars-central-americaIn Central America, the jaguar is much more than an exotic zoo animal. The powerful feline is an important part of the area’s ecology, culture, and history. If serious steps aren’t taken now, the jaguar might actually become history itself. Learning more about this noble creature, both the facts and the folklore, might help inspire us to make sure the jaguars remain part of Central America’s glorious culture.




Jaguars in Central American Myth

One of the biggest myths that persists today about the jaguar is the meaning of its name. Some early writers believed that the word means “beast that kills its prey with one bound.” Current researchers in language and etymology have found this to be untrue. In languages with similar-sounding words, it can mean anything from “fierce dog” to simply “beast.” Interestingly, many Central Americans don’t even use the word “jaguar”, but simply call the animal “el tigre” (tiger).

Regardless of what the name signifies, the jaguar itself has always represented power and strength. The Aztec people of early Central America believed that the god of the mountain sometimes took the form of a jaguar. Olmec and Mayan carvings also frequently depicted the cats themselves, or even humans with jaguar-like features. Today, while the ancient religions are no longer practiced, the jaguar is still an important symbol to the people of Central America. As it is an indigenous creature, it stands now as a sign of the enduring strength of the people who live there.

Real Jaguars in Central American Countries

The jaguar once spread as far as the southern states of North America, but hunters and poachers have now pushed them back to Mexico and Central America. While the creature seems to resemble a leopard physically, it has behavior much more in common with the tiger (so calling it “el tigre” is wise on the Central Americans’ part). The cats are the most powerful felines in the Americas, literally crushing their prey in their powerful jaws. The animals are solitary hunters though, which may help contribute to their demise. They only come together to mate, which makes hunting them particularly easy.

Some of the most interesting jaguars in Central America are those that are melanistic, meaning that they have an increased amount of black pigment. This means that some of the cats you might see in the Central American forests are black. It’s a common misconception that these are panthers, but as any zoologist can tell you, technically there is no such species as a panther! The word is simply used to describe a black-colored cat of a specific species, usually leopards.

The Last of the Central American Jaguars?

While the stories and legends of the jaguar are compelling, they may soon be all that’s left of the amazing creature. Thousands of animals were killed for their coats in the 1960s and ’70s when fur was popular. Though leopard skin coats are distinctly less fashionable now, the animal is still hunted to near extinction. One of their favorite habitats is the rainforest, which is itself threatened. The jaguar has been designated as near-threatened, which means it is predicted that they will be nearing extinction in the future. In some areas it is already nearly extinct.

Ideally, education about the mighty jaguar and its significance will help stop the poaching and deforestation. It would be a tragedy if this animal, a symbol of power and nobility for all Central Americans, should disappear. Like the people it represents, we can only hope the jaguar will remain strong and begin to prosper.


According to the author, Elizabeth Kelly is the pseudonym of a nationally published magazine writer with bylines in major newsstand magazines. Some of her articles are available for purchase through Constant Content.


One Response to “The Jaguars of Central America: Folklore and the Facts”

  1. comment number 1 by: Katia

    i have the same colors in my eyes like jaguars..can u give me a free both pictures and vidoes of jaguars..afterall…i now call them “my family branch”

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