Jaguars of the light

A group of biologists is putting Oaxaca’s Yaguar Xoo sanctuary on the map.


Oaxaca’s Yaguar Xoo sanctuary is based in the area of Yagul, a UNESCO heritage site, rich with archaeological and environmental history. Victor Rosas and his team are developing the premise of the space, bringing in the local community and visiting academics to learn about their projects.

Key initiatives at the sanctuary are Jaguars en Selva with the Jaguars of the Light and Batagave; respectively focused on rehabilitating jaguars and raising awareness about bat populations through a bat-conscious mezcal certification.

Mezcal is a Mexican spirit distilled from agave, and bats are one of the major pollinators of this iconic plant. Batagave will work with mezcal producers, encouraging them to embrace the importance of bat conservation.

Rescue and rehabilitation

Anna Bruce

A significant element of this certification will be leaving a percentage of agave plants to flower, rather than harvesting it for use in mezcal production. Producers will be reimbursed with agave seed, grown on site at Yaguar Xoo. The site will also offer educational tours and mezcal tastings for visitors in a dedicated space in front of the sanctuary.

I first met the team when discussing a collaboration with the sanctuary and my project Rambling Spirits.

We work with mezcal producers in Oaxaca offering guided tours to understand the terroir of this complex drink. Our initial plan was to bring guests to explore the area of Yagul and learn about the Batagave project.

We were welcomed by Rosas and his team, and after finishing our business were shown around. My partner and I were blown away by the space and immediately committed to being involved with the sanctuary as a whole.

Rosas has taken over much of the running of the sanctuary from his father, who opened the space almost twenty years ago. The sanctuary rescues animals from all over Mexico. They receive exotic creatures from unfit environments, and when possible, work towards their rehabilitation into the wild.

Enriching environment 

Anna Bruce

The first big enclosure you see as you enter the sanctuary houses two bears. Rosas remembers when the bears were rescued in the late nineties, when he was just a boy. They show their age, but seem happy and mellow, running over to the sounds of Rosas’ voice. Beyond the bears are two tigers (one white), a lion and lioness and pair of pumas.

The main focus of the sanctuary are the jaguars. The sanctuary offers walking tours around some of the enclosures. Many jaguars are not visible, which is part of the rehabilitation for those that might be released into the wild. Animals you can see have been rescued from circuses or domestic situations. When they come to the sanctuary they are often in poor condition and have never developed their natural instincts.

Biologists at the sanctuary feel it is important that these animals do not just sit and sleep in their enclosures. They have developed an environment enrichment program, using meat and obstacles to build strength and agility, while having two jaguars attempt it at once encourages natural territorial behaviour. Through these activities it is possible, that some of these jaguars, if they are Mexican genus, may be introduced into the wild.

Under supervision from Rosas and his team, we got to enter one of the enclosures that they use for enrichment, and were shown how to set it up. It was explained to us that it is important for visitors to the sanctuary to witness these activities with the jaguars, to see their strength and understand their nature. These are not pets, but strong animals that need a huge habitat to survive.

Jaguars are the largest native cat species in the Americas and the third largest in the world. They are robust, with large heads that house one of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom. Jaguars are part of the ‘panthera’ family, which also includes lions, tigers and leopards. Typically jaguars have bold rosette-like markings. Some appear completely black and are commonly known as ’black panthers,’ but if you look closely the markings are still visible.

Complex mythology 

Anna Bruce

Jaguars are imbedded in Mexico’s history and mythology. They are represented as sacred figures, belonging to another space and world, not that controlled by men. María del Carmen Valverde Valdés, Doctor of Mesoamerican Studies UNAM, said: “The jaguar represents what is outside, in another space. He is seen as the lord of the animals.” 

There are famous caves in Yagul with paintings showing jaguars dating back thousands of years. Jaguars sometimes make their dens in caves, which linked them to the earth and fertility. These majestic beasts became absorbed into a complex dual mythology, representing both light and darkness, heaven and earth. Embracing this idea, Jaguars of the Light is the name of the progressive rehabilitation project that is at the forefront of activity in the sanctuary right now.

There are a total of fifteen jaguars in the sanctuary and two are almost ready to be released back into the wild. In October 2016, these two females were discovered alone in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, Campeche. They were just a fortnight old. Yaguar Xoo was awarded the opportunity to raise them because of their experience with rehabilitating jaguars. They are called Celestun Peten and Nicte ha, they are theJaguars of the Light.

The objective of Jaguars of the Light is to demonstrate, over a two year period, that these jaguars are able to survive and be independent in the wild.

Luis Yescas is a published biologist working with Victor, he is in charge of monitoring the two cubs. On arrival they stayed with Yescas so he could keep them alive at such a fragile young age. They received a special milk formula, using a pillow and teats covered with a faux fur, rubbed with the scent of a female jaguar. Once stable, the cubs were put into a large space, enclosed so there is no human influence.

Specialised methodology

Anna Bruce

Rosas and the team have been working on this specialised methodology to stimulate natural behaviour and supply the learning and needs of Celestun and Nicte ha, which they would have received from their mother.

In the first few moths in their enclosure they were fed using a gilly suit, so that the cubs did not associate getting food from humans. Eventually they were weaned off the milk and were introduced to live prey. They are now fed by putting the prey into the area using a chamber, so that there is never any human interaction.

The jaguars are monitored to make sure they are away from this entrance at this time, so the prey enters without fear and the jaguars do not get used to one point of entry. There is also a large source of water where they have learnt to swim, dive and fish. This is essential for a wild jaguar.

Around the enclosure are towers (hides), where for a time Rosas and his team could watch the jaguars live. As they have matured the jaguars have become extremely alert. In minutes they are aware of movement in the towers, so this is now restricted. We were honoured to be invited into one of these hides to see the Jaguars of the Light ourselves.

Now the cubs are monitored using four cameras inside the space and each has a GPS collar. Yescas watches and documents 24 hours of footage, collecting notes on growth and behavioural development.

Fluctuating population 

Anna Bruce

The sanctuary must record every detail documented to show their progress to funders. Although jaguars are officially protected in Mexico, Rosas said there needs to be more active support to improve understanding of these animals and create a template to support the growth and rehabilitation of cubs like Celestun Peten and Nicte ha. Rosas and his team are part of a Mexican collective researching jaguars and raising awareness to protect them (Alianza Nacional para la conservation del jaguar).

The sanctuary have supported surveys into jaguar populations that has seen a rise of 20 percent from from recorded 4000 two years ago.

Despite this positive data, Victor expressed a concern at the lack of data in general. There are similar projects in Brazil and Argentina, but there is little official information about the process of rehabilitating jaguars. There is hardly any literature covering the kind of work they are doing in the sanctuary, and experts in the field are not all in agreement on the best way to follow through with a study such as this, where the end goal is liberating the jaguars.

The team have to write their own guide and build a clearer picture of how jaguar populations fluctuate in the wild and how they can be reintroduced safely.

Next month Celestun and Nicte ha will be taken back to Campeche where they will enter the final stage of their rehabilitation. An enclosure will be set up allowing the team to monitor the jaguars as they get used to their environment. They anticipate a two month period to allow for this adjustment.

Finally the jaguars will be back where they belong - the youngest to ever have ben raised and released back into the wild.

This Author

Anna Bruce is a photojournalist based in Oaxaca, Mexico. She is a founding partner of Rambling Spirits, a project offering tailored experiences in Oaxaca with a focus on learning about mezcal and the region where it is produced.

You can donate to the sanctuary here

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