Kaxil Kiuic: A Model for Conservation in the Yucatan Peninsula

Many of the indigenous species of the Yucatan Peninsula are slowly disappearing. These range from the formidable jaguar to the colorful motmot and countless animals that play important roles in their habitats. Not only are these species indicators of the health of the planet, but they have also been fundamental icons of power, sacredness, purity, life and death to ancient cultures such as the Maya. For example: the Maya regarded the jaguar as king of the forest, a metaphor for greatness, perfection and supernatural power. Today the jaguar is slowly fading into archaeological memory due to a growing human population and the systematic destruction of its natural habitat. In fact, many species are under threat from extinction around the world, however, in the Yucatan Peninsula, a group of scientists are making a difference and providing a glimmer of hope for the jaguar as well as other indigenous species in the Yucatan Peninsula.

I had the opportunity to chat with  Markus Tellkamp, James Callaghan, Ricardo Pasos and George Bey from Millsaps’ Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve in the Yucatan Peninsula and asked a few questions about how they have been so successful in creating a unique setting for research, education and conservation.

Fe: What do we know of the jaguar?

Ricardo Pasos: Actually, we know surprisingly little about the jaguar, and unfortunately much of what we know is not encouraging for the future of this big cat.  We know it is the third largest of the felines worldwide and the largest in the Americas.  We know its range has declined dramatically, though it still stretches from northern Mexico to Argentina.  The Yucatan Peninsula has Mexico´s largest population of jaguars, but even here our knowledge is limited to a few studies at reserves around the periphery.  We believe Puuc Jaguar Conservation is the first to examine populations in the heart of the Peninsula, and to supplement biology with an investigation of attitudes toward the jaguar in the small Maya communities of Yucatan State´s Puuc Hill region to help us enlist local support for protection measures.

MarkusTellkamp: Formerly considered a being of supernatural powers, jaguars are now even reviled and driven to near extirpation from the Yucatan peninsula. Even though jaguars are on the informational brochures of most eco-tourism outfits and conservationist foundations, very little is known about the habitat needs and movement patterns of this furtive species, especially in the human-dominated landscapes of the interior of the peninsula. Here in the seasonally deciduous tropical dry forests the jaguar still roams the hills and valleys of what is known as the Puuc region.

Fe: What is the Kaxil Kiuic Conservation Project?

Markus Tellkamp: At the Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve (KKBR), operated by the Mexican non-governmental organization Kaxil Kiuic A.C. and owned by Millsaps College of Jackson, Mississippi for more than 10 years, jaguars still find enough forest cover to subsist, or maybe thrive. Embedded within the southern portion of the state of Yucatan, the 1,800 hectare (4,400 acre) large KKBR is now part of the newly created Puuc Biocultural State Reserve that aims to protect more than 150,000 hectares. (The state reserve is aprox 135,000 hectares or 333,000 acres. However, its area of influence or buffer is closer to 150,000 hectares.) Trail cameras have provided us with evidence that jaguars live in this formerly neglected area. A picture of a female even suggests the possibility that jaguars breed in this area. Furthermore, this last largely forested region of the state of Yucatan may be an important corridor for the large-scale movement of jaguars important to the long-term survival of this species in southern Mexico.

Fe: Given  the growing human population and expanding settlement in the region, how will the project deal with frequent interactions?

Markus Tellkamp: Puuc Jaguar Conservation will begin with a mark-recapture study using trail cameras to document the population status of the local jaguar population. This biological study will be complimented with a ethnozoological study to ascertain the role that jaguars play in modern Maya societies of the region. As part of this component, Puuc Jaguar Conservation will provide conflict mitigation advice and education to local ranchers and campesinos (farmers) who may suffer losses of livestock to wild animals such as the jaguar. We suspect most losses, incidentally, are currently due to feral dogs, not jaguars or puma.

KKBR has a strategic position within the Puuc Biocultural State Reserve, occupying a bottleneck that is surrounded by the agricultural frontier carved into the forested landscape by the communities of Xul and Yaxachén. On a larger scale the state reserve is a long swath of forest that provides a conduit for jaguars and other large mammals from the Puuc all the way to the Petenes region of the peninsular northwest. KKBR thus is not only a reserve within a reserve, but a corridor within a corridor and ultimately a model for conservation in the Puuc and Chenes regions.

James Callaghan: It is very pleasing to see that after more than a decade of work our private reserve is not only an open air classroom for a number of national and international school groups, but that it has become the living laboratory for interdisciplinary bio-cultural research which we first envisioned. It is also exciting to think that our research project will contribute to a significant body of knowledge about the jaguar developed by Pronatura Peninsula Yucatan, Biocenosis, El Eden and Amigos de Sian Kaan and UNAM in other parts of the peninsula. It now becomes possible to develop strategic alliances to combine talents and resources towards the development of a pan-peninsular jaguar monitoring program. To do so would provide us with the information necessary to guide our future conservation policies and management practices on landscape and ecosystemic dimensions.

The jaguar conservation project is just part of the many programs that have been spearheaded by Millsaps’ Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve. Other ongoing programs and accomplishments include research and conservation of the archaeological zone of Kiuic, monitoring of fauna and the registry of new bird species, studies that are trying to correlate regional climate, deforestation and population dynamics of many species. This is a remarkable and exemplary undertaking. Please visit the Kaxil Kiuic Website for more information on the many educational and conservation programs.

Fe: What is the History of the Archaeology at Kiuic?

George Bey: The site of Kiuic is considered one of the classic Puuc centers and has been known to the wider world since Stephens and Catherwood’s publication of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (Volume 2). The explorers visited the site during their 1840-41 travels and it forms a lively bit of adventure in their book. During their visit to Kiuic they stayed at the Casa Real of the local Maya cacique. The Maya landowner made a strong impression on the explorers, as it was the first time they met a Maya of such self-confidence and wealth. They could see in the owner of Rancho Kiuic the descendants of the great lords of the ancient cities they had been visiting throughout the region. Amazingly, the ruins of the Casa Real are still visible today and are strikingly similar to the drawing of them done by Catherwood during their visit.

The site was visited in 1881 by the Austrian born photographer and adventurer Teobert Maler who took a set of important photographs of Kiuic providing not only images which could be compared to those of Catherwood but also a record of the state of many of Kiuic’s important buildings at this early time. Perhaps the most famous event of this visit was to discover and draw the remains of the House of the Diamonds, a badly damaged vaulted building noted for its beautiful, restrained façade composed of half-columns interposed with large stone diamonds. During the exploration of the House of the Diamonds they recovered and then lost a painted hieroglyphic capstone whose whereabouts are still unknown today.

Photographer and Adventurer Teobert Maler visits House of the Diamonds in 1881


Significant archaeological work at Kiuic, including detailed mapping and extensive excavation did not begin at Kiuic until 2000 with the advent of the Bolonchen Regional Archaeological Project and the creation of the Kaxil Kiuic biocultural reserve. Present work at the site indicates it was first occupied around 900 B.C. and continued to develop as a Puuc center until sometime in the 10th century when it was abruptly abandoned. The Puuc architecture at the site is recognized for its elegance and restraint, with the extensive use of colonettes. Early architecture at the site predating A.D. 800 displays the use of high quality modeled stucco decoration equaling that found at other northern lowland sites such as Ek Balam. The archaeology in the region has been lead more recently by an amazing group of scholars including George Bey, William Ringle and Tomas Gallareta Negron.  Their work has  advanced our knowledge and understanding of these ancient settlements in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Please visit the Kaxil Kiuic and KKBR Websites for more information.


Fabio Esteban Amador is an archaeologist, science communicator and visual artist. He uses visualization tools to get people excited about seeing, understanding and preserving their world and history. He is currently using gigapan technology, underwater imaging systems and aerial photography and video to capture art and culture around the world. Lately he has focused in the development of a new concept, strategy and workshop called the Art of Communicating Science, aimed at using creativity and visual technologies in exploration, discovery and story telling. He started his career as an art student at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and followed his interests in becoming an expedition artist by graduating as an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Lately, he has focused on the archaeology and exploration of caverns in Quintana Roo, Mexico, photo-mosaicking shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean and capturing images and video from aerial platforms to document archaeological sites to create digital elevation models. Amador’s continued effort in communicating science has allowed him to use photography, cinematography and other multi-media tools to reach large audiences through his public lectures at universities, presentations at international scientific and professional symposia, publications in scholarly journals and on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal and NatGeo News Watch online blogs. Currently, he is a senior program officer for the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program, promoting and coordinating scientific and exploratory research around the world. He is also an associate research professor at George Washington University and Executive Director and President of Fundacion OLAS, an organization devoted to capacity building for Latin American scholars dedicated to the study and preservation of the submerged cultural heritage.
  • Jack Robinson

    Extraordinary place; wonderful photos. thank you.

  • Steve Dennstedt

    I am an international photographer and, along with Jack Robinson and others, I volunteer my time and limited talent at Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Center & Puuc Jaguar Reserve. It is an AMAZING place, staffed by incredibly dedicated people, and it is a privilege to be allowed to participate.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media