Why Indigenous Culture is Key to Jaguar Conservation

By Samantha Rincón and Rocío Bardales

Jaguar Peru

The importance of jaguars to ancestral cultures is evident across Latin America. We know that our Jaguar Corridor Initiative conservation efforts must engage local communities to be successful. By working with local and indigenous communities, we have both the joy and the challenge to rethink our strategies to incorporate their vision, sacred places and cultural background in this initiative to conserve jaguar habitat in their lands.

“When my great grandfather died, he turned into an otorongo,” said my local guide while walking in the forest looking for some small mammal traps we set the day before. “Otorongo” comes from Quechua and is the local name for jaguars in most areas of Peru. I looked up to him, smiled and asked more about it. “My grandfather was from Loreto and he told me this story when I was little, that his father was a shaman and that when he died, he became an otorongo and kept on taking care of the village."

Although stories like this are becoming harder and harder to find, the importance of jaguars in the spiritual view of ancestral cultures is still evidenced across the continent. These big cats are usually perceived as a symbol of power and strength. In Peru, Chavin and Moche cultures often portrayed jaguars in old ceramic pieces and sculptures, regularly in the form of a jaguar-humanoid (i.e. representations of humans with feline features or hybrids). Many believed jaguars represented the union between different forces of nature. Other examples of the importance of jaguars to Latin American culture include:

  • In Ecuador, Waoranis believe Jaguars have a paternal role watching out for other species. Everything revolves around the jaguar and if it disappears, the rest of the animals and plants would follow.
  • Kichwas from the Amazon believe that at first there were only spirits without form, and when they die, they come back as jaguars; the wisest and strongest of the animals.
  • For the Aztecs and Mayas, jaguars’ spotted fur relates to the difference between night and day, with their coat symbolizing the night sky.
  • In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, indigenous communities believe that jaguars can travel both in the physical and spiritual world, using sacred mountains as portals.
  • In other Amazonian cultures, jaguars are strongly linked with shamans, believing that they turn into jaguars in their ceremonies to roam in the jungle.
Human characters with jaguar headdresses in Mochica Culture Jars from Lima, Peru.
Human characters with jaguar headdresses in Mochica Culture Jars from Lima, Peru.

Native communities have always had their own way of approaching natural resource management, knowing when to hunt or not, when to harvest food and how to cohabit with wildlife. With ongoing colonization, many cultural links with nature have been lost. One of the worst invasions Amazonian communities experienced was during Amazon Rubber Boom, where thousands of native people were treated as slaves with the excuse of the “civilization”. Because of this, some of them escaped deeper into the jungle and even now, they live isolated and as nomads, still fearing that the world would keep them chained if caught.

Nevertheless, indigenous territories still play a key role in conserving large areas of habitat of many species including the jaguar. These native communities have acted as guardians of those territories, fighting against the economic exploitation of their lands. Further, those legally recognized indigenous territories usually overlap with National Parks or forest reserves and the management of those lands by indigenous communities is often recognized as an effective strategy to preserve natural ecosystems under a sustainable use of resources.

Escuela jaguar
Panthera team working with next generations to promote jaguar conservation with Escuela Jaguar strategy in Ucayali, Perú. Biored project of Conexión Jaguar Program.

We know that no conservation effort would be complete without engaging local communities, especially within the Jaguar Corridor Initiative. We work closely with local experts, who are natural observers of their environment and often the best guides in the field and the first ones to notice animal tracks. We try to combine our field results and scientific information with local knowledge to improve natural resource management.

“Escuela Jaguar” (Jaguar School) is an important way we pass on this knowledge to the next generation: we work with local schools and students to teach them the importance of jaguars in their ecosystem. Instilling this knowledge at a young age will inspire children to continue conserving wildlife as adults. In our upcoming projects with indigenous communities along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, we have an amazing opportunity to incorporate a participatory approach with them.

Jaguar team
Conexión Jaguar team installing camera traps in Ucayali region, Perú.

The Conexión Jaguar Program uses the Jaguar Corridor Initiative as a roadmap to promote forest conservation through carbon credit models. This works as incentives to local communities for preserving natural ecosystems that are valuable for biodiversity conservation. So far, this initiative has supported conservation of jaguar habitats with five projects in Peru, Brazil and Colombia and now we’re about to start our REDD+ projects with Kogi and Arhuaco indigenous communities in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta with our allies ISA and South Pole.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a hotspot for biodiversity and endemic species in Colombia due to being the highest coastal mountain in the world. This biological richness is complemented by an important cultural diversity with four indigenous communities that live there, who are descendants of Tayrona culture.

These communities have special relationships with nature; they believe the Sierra is the heart of the world and that they need to protect the equilibrium of this sacred place in order to preserve life on earth. The presence of the jaguar in their cosmovision is also very strong: Kogis call themselves the people of the jaguar and associate this big cat with health, control of diseases and death. Meanwhile, Arhuacos believe that the jaguar is responsible for holding the sun to prevent it from touching the Earth, which plays an important role in climate regulation and crop health.

Working hard
Panthera team working with Arhuaco community in human-felid conflict mitigation activities developed as part of Conexión Jaguar Program.

Through these projects with local and indigenous communities, we have both the joy and the challenge to rethink our strategies to incorporate their vision, sacred places and cultural background in this initiative to conserve jaguar habitat in their lands. We are already looking forward to building conservation strategies together using all of our knowledge and commitment combined. 

The remains of ancient cultures are living proof of how we can coexist with nature in perfect harmony. Perhaps looking deep into our ancestors’ beliefs and their strong relationship with nature could enlighten our path for jaguar conservation in the future.

Learn more about jaguars.