It is a creature that has become iconic in film, art, literature, legend and national identity. The mighty jaguar, whose fur bedecked ancient Aztec warriors and whose aspect fuelled images of their Gods. Once ranging throughout the North and South Americas, it's been pushed further and further south until it is no longer seen in Canada, while it's nearly gone from the USA. But its dwindling numbers, near threatened with extinction, still roam the dense jungle reserves of Mexico.
The jaguar (Panthera onca) is the only panther native to the Americas or, indeed, to the western hemisphere. For many, the stereotypical jaguar is black. Such notions are fuelled by appearances like that in 'Apocalypto'. However, most jaguars look more like their cousins, the leopards.
Jaguar, as it's commonly seen
There are some distinct differences between jaguars and leopards though. The jaguar is heavier and stockier, weighing in at 124–211lbs (8s 9lbs-15s; 56–96kg). It is also longer, from head to the base of the tail, measuring 1.62–1.83 metres (5.3–6 ft). Finally, the markings on the body, known as rosettes, are thicker, blacker and less numerous than on the leopard.
This isn't to say that black jaguars don't turn up naturally from time to time. Melanism, a condition causing an excess of black pigmentation, can occur, but only roughly 6% of the jaguar population exhibit this. Even then, direct sunlight will illuminate the markings blending into the fur. Incidentally, there are no black panthers as a separate species of big cat. They are all melanistic jaguars, leopards, tigers or lions.
Melanistic jaguar, aka black panther
The opposite can also occur, with albino jaguars showing up as white panthers. These are less common in Mexico, as they are further south in Paraguay.
Jaguars are carnivores. Their diet consists of a large variety of animals, which they hunt with powerful efficiency. Like all big cats, they are adapt at biting deeply into the throats of their prey, effectively suffocating them. However, there is something special about jaguars, which makes them unique amongst felines. They have a second method of slaughter.
Jaguar bringing down a tapir
They bite down between their prey's ears, crushing the temporal bones at the base of the skull. In this way, the jaguar's canine teeth can penetrate the brain and instantly kill their victim. It's believed that this adaption was learned 11,000 years ago, when the late Pleistocene extinctions left them with little to eat but armoured reptiles, like turtles.
It may be reassuring to know, therefore, that human beings are not the jaguar's natural prey. (The situation is more often reversed, hence the fact that jaguars are heading towards extinction, due to deforestation and human hunters.) This isn't to say that jaguars won't attack humans, if they are provoked. They have no fear of us and, in an unarmed fight, the jaguar will win. However, they are elusive and will go out of their way to avoid humans. They will only attack if sick, injured or feel that their cubs are being threatened.
Jaguars don't come into the cities and resorts, so you are most likely to only see one if you visit somewhere like Xcaret. This video was filmed there.
Tours into the Yucatán jungle, one of the few remaining natural habitats of the jaguar, tend to be with experienced guides. Mauled tourists are bad for business, so you would be thoroughly protected, on the off-chance that you encountered one. However, should you find yourself in the unlikely situation of being stranded there alone, with a jaguar staring at you, then there are things that you can do.
First you can rejoice in the fact that you are experiencing an extremely rare encounter.
Secondly, do not run. That might be against all instinct, but running people look like prey. You'll be doing nothing but triggering the hunter in your new friend.
Thirdly, don't stare at it. Watch it, by all means, but do not look straight into its eyes. That's the feline equivalent of saying, 'would you like a fight?' You don't. It's bigger than you. Instead, face it, but look past it, or at the ground in front of it, or to the side of it. Not the eyes.
Fourthly, back away slowly. The jaguar is a hide and ambush kind of hunter, just like any cat. If it's in full view, watching you, then it's not actually hunting you. You're just the current entertainment, while it evaluates you to see if you're a threat to it. Backing away slowly is your way of saying, 'I'm no threat. I'm really lovely. Bye.'
By now, all should be well. The jaguar will have either stayed where it is or gone away, bored by the strange human. In the utterly bizarre circumstance that it decides to attack, then raise your arms in the air, wave them around and start shouting. This makes you look bigger and more dangerous than you actually are and might deter it. Above all, don't start running, even at this point, because it can speed along at 35 miles per hour and you probably can't.
Jaguar inspired art and tours can be found all over Mexico, though its actual habitat has mostly been pushed back to very narrow strips of reservations. Hopes that this magnificant cat can survive were given a boost, in 2009, when one was spotted in central Mexico, for the first time in a century.