The sinuous, jade-green tail feathers of the quetzal adorned Mayan rulers' clothing and served as currency. The birds themselves enjoyed royal favor and protection.
"In the province of Vera Paz they punish with death him who killed the bird with the rich plumes," wrote Bartalome de Las Casas, the Fransiscan friar, historian and human rights advocate, in the mid-16th century, according to "The Ancient Maya," by Sylvanus Morley.
After the Spanish conquest, the quetzal lost its sacred protection. The quetzal's luxuriant feathers made it a valuable target in the 20th century. As the bird disappeared, Central American nations and Mexico passed legislation to protect quetzals by banning trade of its parts. Yet, even as quetzal poaching diminished, deforestation shattered the quetzals' cloud forest habitat into disconnected fragments stretching from southern Mexico to Panama.
Now, bird-watching tourism boosts local economies in quetzal territory, giving people an economic incentive to protect the birds, although poaching, deforestation and climate change still menace the emerald avians.