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Learning to hunt Crocodiles: social organization in the process of knowledge generation and the emergence of management practices among Mayan of Mexico

Fernando Zamudio1*, Eduardo Bello-Baltazar2 and Erin IJ Estrada-Lugo2

Author Affiliations

1 Grupo de Etnobiología, Instituto de Biología Subtropical – sede Iguazú, Facultad de Ciencias Forestales, Univ. Nac. de Misiones and Asociación Civil Centro de Investigaciones del Bosque Atlántico (CeIBA), Bertoni 85, 3370, Puerto Iguazú, Misiones, Argentina

2 Departamento de Gestión Comunitaria de los Recursos Naturales, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur-Unidad San Cristóbal de las Casas Chiapas- Ap. 63, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas 29290, Mexico

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Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2013, 9:35  doi:10.1186/1746-4269-9-35

Published: 24 May 2013



New kinds of knowledge, usage patterns and management strategies of natural resources emerge in local communities as a way of coping with uncertainty in a changing world. Studying how human groups adapt and create new livelihoods strategies are important research topics for creating policies in natural resources management. Here, we study the adoption and development of lagartos (Crocodylus moreletii) commercial hunting by Mayan people from a communal land in Quintana Roo state. Two questions guided our work: how did the Mayan learn to hunt lagartos? And how, and in what context, did knowledge and management practices emerge? We believe that social structures, knowledge and preexisting skills facilitate the hunting learning process, but lagarto ecological knowledge and organizational practice were developed in a “learning by doing” process.


We conducted free, semi-structured and in-depth interviews over 17 prestigious lagartos hunters who reconstructed the activity through oral history. Then, we analyzed the sources of information and routes of learning and investigated the role of previous knowledge and social organization in the development of this novel activity. Finally, we discussed the emergence of hunting in relation to the characteristic of natural resource and the tenure system.


Lagarto hunting for skin selling was a short-term activity, which represented an alternative source of money for some Mayans known as lagarteros. They acquired different types of knowledge and skills through various sources of experience (individual practice, or from foreign hunters and other Mayan hunters). The developed management system involved a set of local knowledge about lagartos ecology and a social organization structure that was then articulated in the formation of “working groups” with particular hunting locations (rumbos and trabajaderos), rotation strategies and collaboration among them. Access rules and regulations identified were in an incipient state of development and were little documented.


In agreement to the hypothesis proposed, the Mayan used multiple learning paths to develop a new activity: the lagarto hunting. On the one hand, they used their traditional social organization structure as well as their culturally inherited knowledge. On the other hand, they acquired new ecological knowledge of the species in a learning-by-doing process, together with the use of other sources of external information.

The formation of working groups, the exchange of information and the administration of hunting locations are similar to other productive activities and livelihood practiced by these Mayan. Skills such as preparing skins and lagartos ecological knowledge were acquired by foreign hunters and during hunting practice, respectively. We detected a feedback between local ecological knowledge and social organization, which in turn promoted the emergence of Mayan hunting management practices.

Social organization; Learning; Local ecological knowledge; Mayan; Commercial hunting; Common resources; Crocodylus moreletii