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The black jaguar and the guardian of the forest

By Maycon Melo and Barbara Arisi

In Brazil, a group of hunters killed a black jaguar. Not satisfied with the crime of killing an endangered animal, they made a video where one of them shows the magnificent animal between his arms while threatening the Guardians of the Forest, the indigenous people that monitor the area to defend forest life.

Two illegal hunters were arrested on October 20 in the municipality of Arame, 476 kilometres from the state capital São Luís do Maranhão, for killing the animal inside the Araribóia Indigenous Land in the municipality of Amarante do Maranhão. A video by the hunters is circulating on social media in Brazil, where the hunters mockingly show the enormous female jaguar that had just been slaughtered, shocking those who watch it.

In addition to committing the crime of killing a wild animal (a crime provided for in Law 9.605/98 and punishable by six to twelve months of confinement and a fine), the hunter also made a threat: “If you do not want to die, do not risk yourself in front of me. If I did this with such an animal here, imagine what I would do with a Guardian.”  

The “guardian” to which the hunter refers is the indigenous group created by the Guajajara people for the protection and surveillance of their own indigenous territory (IT). With much dedication but little to no financial support, the Guardians monitor the ethno-environmental conservation areas in an attempt to contain and combat the deforestation, fire and invaders. 

Indigenous people of the Gavião Pyhcop Catiji people in the Governador IT in Maranhão (Photo ©  Maycon Melo/MMA/UniCEUMA)

The image of this splendid animal killed in such a way is just the tip of the problems in this Amazon region. For over a decade, the indigenous peoples who live there – the Guajajara people in the Araribóia Indigenous Land; the Gavião people in the Governador Indigenous Land; and the Krikati people in the territory that bears their same name – have been denouncing the invasion of their territories.

Deforestation, fires, the presence of illegal hunters and gatherers, and the advancement of illegal agribusiness activities in these indigenous lands have culminated in a scenario of environmental collapse, conflicts and death. In 2019, Paulo Guajajara, a Guardians of the Forest member, was killed during a loggers’ ambush. It happened on the same date that a delegation of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) was holding a public demonstration in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, as part of the campaign “Indigenous Blood: Not a Single Drop More”.

Seizure of illegal timber in the Governador Indigenous Territory, in Maranhão (Photo ©  Maycon Melo/MMA/UniCEUMA)

The Guardians’ surveillance and territorial management policy is replicated in other Amazonian Indigenous territories. It is motivated by necessity due to the inaction and sluggishness of the public agencies that have the task of watching over the conservation, security and protection of the indigenous people, plants and animals that live in the ITs. With little or no support, the forest rangers do a dangerous job that should not even be theirs. They are constantly risking their lives by crossing paths with criminal and dangerous men. 

Photo © The Civil Police of Maranhão

On October 22, the Civil Police showed the pictures of black jaguar’s skin and the weapons and ammunition seized after the hunters’ arrest. A criminal process will follow, as the hunting of endangered animals such as the black jaguar is a crime under Brazilian law since 1967, according to the Brazilian Institute of Environment (IBAMA).

The threat to indigenous people is also a crime. It is tragic that both the dead black jaguar and Paulo Paulinho Guajajara were killed trying to defend their territory, the magnificent forest that is the Amazon. With astonishment, we watch the increasingly accelerated destruction of this forest. A forest precious in bio- and sociodiversity, which is being burned, deforested, riddled and destroyed by mining, agribusiness and pasture companies.

People like these hunters are however the small criminals in a world of big crimes committed by more powerful people and also guilty of the death of jaguars, rivers, and so many indigenous people. They leave behind them a devastated land with death, blood, skin and traces of magnificent beings like the jaguar.

As anthropologists, we have learnt from the Gavião and the Matis indigenous peoples that the power of the jaguar continues in the forest, well, at least while there is a forest…

Maycon Melo is a lecturer at the MSc Program in Environmental Studies at Ceuma University, São Luis do Maranhão, Brazil.

Barbara Arisi is a lecturer at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Amsterdam University College in the Netherlands, and a columnist for Amazônia Real, an independent journalism site where a longer version of this article was originally published in Portuguese and in English

More readings:

O caçador xamã: etnoclassificação ambiental e socialidade humano-animal entre caçadores Gavião Pyhcop catiji (Amazônia maranhense)

Red list: Jaguar – Panthera Onca 

Opening photo: The very rare and beautiful melanic jaguar of the tropical rain forest. © Conservation International, courtesy of the TEAM Network.

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