Although thousands of years of human hunting and habitat encroachment have generally reduced their numbers, many of Oaxaca’s native animal species still thrive in the wild. While some animals sensitive to human presence, such as jaguars, howler monkeys, and tapirs, are now rarely seen in Oaxaca, others, such as foxes, coyotes, coatimundis, and wild pig-like jabalís, seem unaffected by, and sometimes even appear to benefit from, human presence.
The excitement of seeing animals in the wild is the reward of visitors who take time to visit them in their own wilderness home grounds. Sylvan stretches, such as the pine-oak woodlands coating mountainsides northeast of Oaxaca City , the thick forests of the Huatulco  preserve, or the rich mangrove wetland of Manialtepec near Puerto Escondido , are ripe with wildlife-viewing opportunities for those willing to get off the beaten track and quietly watch and wait.
The benefits of quiet isolation once came to me when, lazing on a tropical beach, I spotted my first armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus). Although it behaved much like the familiar opossum, I was struck by its reptilian-like shell. The armadillo was going about its business, nosing through the forest-edge leaf cover nearby. Not seeming to possess particularly good eyesight, the preoccupied armadillo didn’t notice when I crept in for a closer look. He waddled right up and sniffed my shoe, which evidently gave him such a scare that he scuttled back into the woods in a flash.
One of the Mexicans’ favorite animals is the raccoon-like coatimundi (Nasua narica), known in Mexico as coati, or tejón, the European Spanish name for badger (although the coati is a completely different animal). While many urban Mexicans, charmed by the coatimundi’s acrobatic antics and inquisitive nature, keep them as pets, hungry country folks enjoy them for culinary reasons. You can identify one by its long nose and straight, usually vertically held tail. Watch for them at country markets.
The pig-like collared peccary (Tayassu tajacu) is definitely not one of Oaxaca’s endangered species. Known in Mexico as the jabalí, the Spanish name for the European wild boar, it is nevertheless an American native, ranging from the southwest United States through Mexico and Central and most of South America. Although it is easily distinguished by its whitish beige, collar-like marking that encircles its neck, the jabali is sometimes confused with the European wild boar (Sus scrofa), which was introduced into the Americas as a game animal, and now thrives in the wilds of the U.S. Southeast and Pacific Coast.
The jabali eats most anything and thrives in nearly all environments—often not far from towns and villages. The gray-to-brown short-haired jabalís, although normally shy when encountered alone, sometimes congregate in large groups and become aggressive. People have occasionally reported being chased and, in one case, forced up a tree, by collared peccaries.
Bats (murciélagos, moor-see-AY-lah-gohs) are widespread in Oaxaca, home to around two or three times as many bat species as the entire United States. In Oaxaca, bats were once widely worshipped, but today, as everywhere, they are both feared and misunderstood. Shortly before sundown, bats emerge from their cave and forest roosts and silently flit through the air in search of insects. Most people, sitting outside enjoying the early evening, will mistake their darting silhouettes for those of birds, who, except for owls, don’t generally fly at night.
The nonvampire Oaxacan bats carry their vampire cousins’ odious reputation with forbearance. They go about their good works, pollinating flowers, clearing the air of pesky gnats and mosquitoes, ridding cornfields of mice, and dropping seeds, thereby restoring forests.
Oaxaca’s remote mountains and jungles, notably in the Chimalapa region in the eastern Isthmus of Tehuántepec, still shelter a number of rare and endangered species. Accompanied by a competent tracker and suitably equipped with a jeep and a week’s worth of supplies, you may be lucky enough to catch glimpses of Mexico’s two seldom-seen primates, the spider and howler monkeys. The black spider monkey, whom your tracker will probably know as the chango or mono de araña, congregates in groups and uses its spindly arms and legs (thus the “spider” label) and its prehensile tail to reach its favorite wild fruits. Although its entertaining antics and endearingly mischievous ways have earned the chango a place as a pet in many Mexican homes, its present rarity is due in large part to its contribution to the diet of many poor indigenous families.
The even rarer howler monkey, called locally saraguato or aullador, is, by contrast, extremely shy and retiring. Seldom seen even in captivity, howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) withdraw far into the forest as mankind encroaches. Consider yourself lucky if somewhere in Oaxaca’s eastern jungle wilderness you can draw close enough to hear a big male howler’s far-off booming call. Consider yourself doubly fortunate if, on such an excursion, you also hear the chesty cry of a jaguar, the fabled tigre.
The jaguar’s cunning, stealth, and strength are the stuff of Mexican legend. In ancient times, the jaguar was the supreme source from whom kings, princes, and warriors drew their power. And when Mexicans recall the old proverb etched in their memories that “Each hill has its own tigre,” they remember that untamable presence out there beyond the campfire, the gate, the town limits, lurking somewhere in the darkness.
The legend is well deserved; at 250 pounds and six feet (110 kilograms, two meters) in length, the jaguar (Felis onca) is America’s largest, most powerful cat. With dark reticulated spots over a tan coat, the jaguar resembles a beefy, short-legged leopard. Although hunting and human encroachment have driven jaguars into Oaxaca’s deepest forest reaches, a few still live on, mostly in the southern coast and Sierra and the northeastern isthmus, where they hunt along thickly forested stream bottoms and foothills. Unlike its more common cousin, the mountain lion, or león, the jaguar will eat any game. They have even been known to wait patiently for fish in rivers and stalk beaches for turtle and egg dinners. If they have a favorite food, it is probably the pig-like collared peccary.
Although government rules strictly prohibit jaguar hunting, the temptation for a poor campesino to earn a year’s wages by shooting a jaguar and clandestinely selling its pelt is too great for the jaguar to survive for many more years in the wild in Oaxaca.
Despite their fearsome reputation and the demonstrated fact that they will fight back when cornered, little or no evidence indicates that jaguars are deliberate man-eaters.
Although jaguars are extremely endangered, other Mexican cats are less so. Besides the bobcat and mountain lion, both familiar north of the border, three other wild cat species make their home in Oaxaca. In descending order of size, first comes the ocelot (Felis pardalis). Its appearance, like a miniature jaguar, with a spotted yellowish-tan coat and stout legs, reflects its Mexican name, tigrillo. Full-grown male ocelots measure about 25 pounds (10 kg) and three feet (one meter) in length. Its soft, fine fur, highly valued as a pelt, has unfortunately led to the ocelot’s near-disappearance from Oaxaca’s forests.
Approaching large house-cat size is the jaguarundi, or leoncillo, which, full-grown, weighs in at around 13 pounds (six kg). Although its species label (Felisjaguarundi) clearly puts the brownish jaguarundi in the cat family, its elongated body and long tail (totaling up to 30 inches/75 cm) gives it an otterlike overall appearance.
With its spots and diminutive size, a full-grown margay appears at first glance to be a baby jaguar. A closer look, however, reveals spots more aligned in rows than the jaguar’s. Moreover, a domesticated margay, in contrast to the untamable jaguar, can be as endearing as your own family cat.
Like their larger cousins, the jaguarundi and margay are gradually disappearing from Oaxaca’s forest wildlands. They hunt mostly along stream banks in deep remote valleys and roadless mountainsides. They feast on small game, birds, and fish, and, as a matter of self-preservation, make it their business to see you before you see them.