Jaguars prowl alone, each needing a range of 10 30 square miles; although some of this range might overlap, jaguars prefer to avoid one another (except for mating). Yet this solitary animal, stalking through the Yucatán's vast ecological diversity, plays a vital role in the survival of everything from beetles to monkeys and perhaps the jungle itself. In fact, every creature plays a similar vital role in maintaining the food web which links all life.
In an ecosystem, the native plants, bacteria, insects, and animals create an environment together over centuries. This is the food web shimmering through every aspect of life: the temperature, the mist, the sunlight filtering through to delicate orchids; the snakes and birds and armadillos and jaguars, as well as the humans inhaling the moist, clean air.
The jaguar's role in this complex food web is that of top predator (not eaten by anything else). Jaguars have been reported to eat more than 85 different prey species, including mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish, but they'll also eat carrion and even certain plants (this is defined as being an "opportunistic" feeder). As opportunistic, top predators, jaguars, like humans, are more involved (more directly linked to other species) in the food web than are predators who catch only live prey.
One role of a predator is to eliminate the weak and sick of a species so that these traits or illnesses aren't passed on to others. Predators also prevent some species from becoming too numerous which can result in a ripple effect throughout the web: for instance, too many herbivores (plant eaters) can eliminate vegetation that supports certain insects. Those same insects might be responsible both for feeding birds and for building up soil (as "decomposers") by encouraging the decay of organic material; if soil composition is compromised, other plants can suffer. Plants are primary producers, using sunlight to make food by combining carbon dioxide and water and finally releasing oxygen. This process cleans the air of impurities and ultimately affects even the humidity and the temperature.
Thus the loss of a predator can shake loose an entire web. No one is quite sure how a weakened ecosystem (one food web) can affect the world, but it's likely that each web is a component of a global web.
One argument claims that if any one species becomes too abundant, then simple starvation re-establishes the balance. How can balance be achieved through imbalance? Starvation weakens an entire population the genetically strong ("fittest") along with the weak. Also, in reaching starvation, a species must virtually wipe out a food source, which, as we've seen above, weakens the entire web.
Throughout history, humans have constantly misunderstood the relationships of the food web, often assuming that the loss of one species or the addition of another wouldn't change the balance. Sometimes humans have imported a wild species such as the mongoose in the Caribbean that has wiped out other native species, then gone on to become an environmental problem through over-population. In other cases, as in the jungles, humans are bringing in domestic animals and plants; these animals graze plants down to the dirt and the non-native plants fail to build soils or support insects or birds as did the original plants. The web is gradually being dismantled. No one truly knows what the ultimate impact on climate, locally and throughout the world, might be.
Unfortunately, humans not only often fail to see themselves as part of the web, they also see themselves as superior, able to control the web through technology. In his book, Ecocide: A Psychoanalytical Study of the Destruction of the Environment , Fernando Césarman created the term "ecocide" to include this destructive attitude. In truth, while humans have analyzed food webs and interfered with food webs, we are far from being able to successfully alter, repair, or even fully understand them.
In the jaguar's case, we don't even understand one element of the food web. Jaguars are the most elusive of the world's big cats, and we've learned little about jaguars in spite of almost wiping them out; they are endangered throughout what is left of their range. Since we know little about jaguars, we know little about the effects this loss is producing.
Protecting the jaguar is one way to protect the complex food web that includes humans. We can't comprehend all of what losing the jaguar means, but we know that when jaguars no longer prowl the Yucatán jungle, then the jungle is diminished. And when the jungle is gone, perhaps we are the next threatened ones. Now is the time to remember these words of Chan K'in (Maya elder) "When the jungle is gone, we will be gone. When a tree falls, a star falls."
No one is quite sure how a weakened ecosystem (one
food web) can affect the world, but it is likely that each web is a component
Unfortunately, humans not only often fail to see themselves as part of the web, they also see themselves as superior, able to control the web through technology.
This is the food web shimmering through every aspect of life: the temperature, the mist, the sunlight filtering through to delicate orchids; the snakes and birds and armadillos and jaguars, as well as the humans inhaling the moist, clean air.
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