Protecting the Maya Forest Corridor could mean life or death for jaguars in Belize

“Every jaguar has spots, but the spots are very unique to the individual,” he says. “You can identify a jaguar just by looking at its pattern.”

As a member of the Kekchi Maya, one of three Mayan groups in Belize, Central America, Cal grew up surrounded by forests, enchanted by tales of the sacred big cat that roamed them. Today, his job is to track and protect jaguars and other species in the Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, a protected area of ​​rainforest that is part of a major wildlife corridor in central Belize.

“The Mayans had great reverence for the jaguar – it’s a sign of royalty, of power, of strength,” he says. He remembers his grandfather telling him to respect the majestic mammal and never hunt it, and he remembers the fear he felt as a child when he saw jaguar tracks on the forest floor. “The reason I put these patterns (on my arms) is because I feel a connection to the ancient past,” he adds.

But despite the rich history, the future of the jaguar is uncertain. The number is declining, according to the IUCN, which indicates the species as nearly endangered, and destruction of key habitats is causing populations to fragment, which could lead to extinction throughout the region.

Critical bottleneck

In an effort to avert this catastrophe, a number of conservation organizations – including the Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, Panthera, Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society and re: wild – joined forces to protect an important part of the jaguar’s land. geographical area: Maya Forest Corridor. The relatively small area – less than six miles wide and covering 90,000 acres – has major implications for South America’s largest cat.

“It’s literally the binding thread between Belize’s two largest forest blocks,” said Elma Kay, biologist and CEO of the Belize Maya Forest Trust. Jaguars that are unable to cross between southern Belize and Guatemala due to deforestation and urban development use the corridor when heading north to Mexico or south toward the rest of Central or South America, she explains. It is fast becoming a crucial link in the entire jaguar area, which spans millions of square kilometers, with breeding populations found from Mexico to Argentina.

But the “little loaf of soil” is in danger of shrinking even more, warns Kay. In the past 10 years, deforestation to make way for large-scale farming, such as sugar cane and cattle ranching, has reduced the size of the Maya Forest Corridor by more than 65%, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The Maya Forest Corridor and its surrounding area have suffered from intense deforestation in recent decades. Credit: Panthera, Google Earth Pro

This creates a barrier for the big cats who need large areas to survive, explains Emma Sanchez, coordinator of Panthera’s Belize Jaguar Program. “If an area is cleared of forest, jaguars will not cross it because … they can be killed, there will probably be no prey for them, or they may have limited water,” she says.

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Cutting off the jaguar’s range has enormous consequences, she adds, because all stocks are connected through migration and breeding. If a small population becomes isolated, it lacks genetic diversity and eventually dies. “There are many cases of the species being extinct locally in different areas,” she says.

And losing the jaguar would have a contagious effect on the surrounding environment. Like an apex predator, they create a balance in the ecosystem, limiting the number of species below them in the food chain. “The protection and conservation of jaguars also protects a larger landscape where we have different habitats and many other species,” Sanchez says.

Protection of jaguar habitat

While the clock is ticking while deforestation rates are rising, nature conservation groups decided that the fastest and most effective way to protect the Mayan forest corridor was to buy the land in it.

At the end of last year, they secured 30,000 acres for protection using funds raised by several global nature organizations. Together with nearby nature reserves such as Runaway Creek, Monkey Bay and the land managed by the Belize Zoo, this brings the total protected area up to 42,000 acres, approximately the size of Washington DC.

The Maya Forest Corridor is located between two of Central America's largest wilderness areas.  In recent years, people have developed the area and built highways across it.

“We have to buy another 50,000 acres to complete the corridor connection,” Kay says, “and the reality is that there is not that much more available to buy in the area.”

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Some land is privately owned, and a rapid urban and agricultural expansion in the area means it is expensive, she explains. But there is hope. The government approved the project in 2019, and communities are recognizing the benefit of protecting nature, Kay says, as it will help provide sustainable livelihoods, water security and healthy soil.

A jaguar roaming through the Belizean jungle, trapped in the camera trap.

While the Maya Forest Corridor initiative has taken an international effort, Kay says conservation on the ground has been led by a grassroots Belizean movement. As a Belizean herself, “it makes me extremely proud,” she adds.

Respect for jaguars lives on among communities, Cal agrees. He just hopes the Jaguars will survive so younger generations can appreciate them.

“They are magnificent animals,” he says. “They are very shy, it’s hard to see them. But when you see tracks, you at least know that a jaguar is close.”

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