Protecting the Mayan Forest Corridor Could Mean Life or Death for Belize’s Jaguars

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

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

“The Maya 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 recalls the fear he felt as a child when he saw jaguar tracks on the forest floor. “The reason I put these designs (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. Numbers are dwindling, according to the IUCN, which classifies the species as Near Threatened, and destruction of key habitat is causing populations to fragment, which could lead to extinction across the region.

Critical bottleneck

In an attempt to avert this disaster, a number of conservation organizations – including Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, Panthera, Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society and re:wild – have joined forces to protect a vital slice of land. in the geographic range of the jaguar: the corridor of the Mayan forest. The relatively small area – less than six miles wide and covering 90,000 acres – has outsized implications for South America’s largest cat.

“It’s literally the common thread between Belize’s two largest forest blocks,” says Elma Kay, biologist and chief executive of the Belize Maya Forest Trust. Jaguars, unable to cross between southern Belize and Guatemala due to deforestation and urban development, use the corridor when heading north to Mexico or south to the rest of Central America or the South, she explains. It is quickly becoming a crucial link throughout the jaguar’s range, which spans millions of square miles, with breeding populations found from Mexico to Argentina.

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

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

This creates a barrier for big cats, which need large tracts of land to survive, says Emma Sanchez, coordinator of Panthera’s Belize Jaguar Program. “If an area is deforested, the jaguars won’t cross it, because…they can be killed, there probably won’t be any prey for them, or they might have little water,” she says.

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Cutting off the jaguar’s range has huge consequences, she adds, because all populations are linked through migration and reproduction. If a small population becomes isolated, it lacks genetic diversity and eventually dies. “There are a lot of cases of locally extinct species in different regions,” she says.

And the loss of the jaguar would have a ripple effect on the environment around it. As an apex predator, they create balance in the ecosystem, limiting the number of species below them in the food chain. “Protecting and conserving jaguars also protects a larger landscape where we have different habitats and many other species,” Sanchez says.

Protecting Jaguar Habitat

With time running out as deforestation rates increase, conservation groups have decided that the quickest and most effective way to protect the Maya Forest Corridor is to buy the land there.

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 lands managed by the Belize Zoo, this brings the total protected area to 42,000 acres, roughly the size of Washington DC.

“We need to purchase another 50,000 acres to complete the corridor connection,” Kay explains, “and the reality is there’s not a whole lot more product available for purchase in the area.”

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Some land is privately owned and the 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 local communities recognize the benefit of protecting nature, Kay says, as it will help provide sustainable livelihoods, water security and healthy soils.

A jaguar prowling in the Belizean jungle, filmed by a camera trap.

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

Respect for jaguars lives on among local communities, Cal acknowledges. He just hopes the jaguars will survive so that younger generations can enjoy them.

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


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