By Frank Jack Daniel
LAGUNA DEL TIGRE, Guatemala (Reuters) - To the ancient Maya Indians who once built elaborate cities in the Guatemalan jungle, the jaguar's spotted pelt represented the stars in the night sky.
Now the Western Hemisphere's biggest cat is being tracked from space.
A Mexican-Guatemalan team of scientists and hunters is using Global Positioning System, or GPS, satellite to track the movements of this secretive, understudied animal and to find ways to slow the destruction of its favorite habitat.
But first they have to catch live jaguars.
One of the big cats is fleetingly visible when it leaps from its tree hideout into the undergrowth chased by a pack of hounds.
Straggling behind, a team of hunters and scientists follow up the chase, slicing through the jungle with machete strokes.
Worn down after a five-hour hunt through the Laguna Del Tigre national park, the cat gives up.
Hunched into a sandy cave and gazing warily at its captors, it succumbs to a tranquilizer dart fired by veterinarian Janette Urdiales of the Nature Defenders conservation group.
Once it is safely asleep, the team fits a GPS collar and gives a full health check.
Urdiales, who leads the field project, worries jaguars' health is affected by changes in diet, as reduced habitat and over-hunted prey push them closer to ranches and villages.
"We test for feline
West Nile virus, toxoplasmosis and rabies. We want to see if the jaguars are in contact with people and domestic animals and what effect this has on their sanitary state," she said.
The collar marks a position every hour, collecting thousands of coordinates for a year, after which the scientists will recapture the animal to recover the data.
LORD OF UNDERWORLD
Worshiped by the Maya as lord of the underworld, the jaguar faces inbreeding, disease and hunger as the jungle is slashed and burned to turn it into pasture land.
Big landowners and landless peasants are destroying the jungle in Guatemala's Peten region to make room for livestock.
"In some areas just a third of the original forest cover is left," said biologist Danae Azuara in the national park.
No one knows how many jaguars are left in the world, but their habitat has shrunk drastically in the last 100 years.
"From the turn of the 20th century jaguar habitat has declined by at least 50 percent," said Alan Rabinowitz of the U.S.-based World Conservation Society.
Jaguars are only found in the Americas and the Maya jungle, spanning Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, is home to some of the highest jaguar densities in the world.
The world's third-largest cat, after the lion and tiger, jaguars can grow to more than 330 pounds (150 kg). They use stocky limbs to swim, climb and run and powerful jaws and claws to hunt everything from fish to deer and, in recent years, cattle.
The night-prowling jaguar is shy but has long lived near humans, who have held it in awe as an animal of legend since ancient times.
Between 500 B.C. and 800 A.D. the Peten jungle housed the Mayan kingdom of Waka', at the peak of its splendor during the reign of a king called K'inich B'ahlam, or Sun Faced Jaguar.
In other ancient cities the Maya dedicated pyramids to the powerful and dangerous jaguar, and the animal remains an important shamanic symbol among contemporary Mayans.
A Mexican project to tag jaguars started 10 years ago, and maps made using recent data show the cats are very cautious of human activity.
"You see from the collars the jaguars try not to come within 6 kilometers (4 miles) of roads," said Azuara.
Until now, jaguars from Argentina to Mexico have formed one long genetic chain -- and even swim across the Panama Canal to breed -- but as their habitat becomes more fragmented different populations risk becoming isolated from the wider genetic pool, making them susceptible to disease.
Widespread jaguar hunting was stamped out after international legislation and changes in fashion effectively killed the market for jaguar skins.
"What was fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s became bad taste a few years later," said project coordinator Rodrigo Morales, who added ranchers angered by "problem jaguars" that eat cattle now kill more than professional hunters.
Some argue the cats are already out of danger.
Veteran Mexican jaguar hunter Tony Rivera, who leads hunters in the Guatemalan GPS project, says bans on hunting mean numbers are now strong enough to allow controlled kills.
This view angers Rabinowitz, who heads an ambitious program to create a corridor of habitat jaguars across the length of Latin America.
"Its simply not true, Although you will hear people say there are more than ever before, overall as a species habitat has declined, numbers have declined," said Rabinowitz, whose organization runs New York's Bronx Zoo.