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COCKSCOMB BASIN, Belize — As humans increasingly destroy big cat habitats around the world, this breathtaking Central American wilderness offers conservationists a rare piece of good news.
Compared to the dire fate of lions and tigers, jaguar numbers remain relatively healthy. And nowhere has a denser population of the Western Hemisphere’s largest feline than the sprawling, primeval landscape of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.
This 128,000-acre expanse of tropical forest — reminiscent of a scene from Jurassic Park — offers the solitary cats their perfect environment of virgin jungles and rivers in which to hide and a rich diet of peccary (a pig-like mammal), paca (a rodent the size of a large terrier), and armadillos.
Just as importantly, locals largely respect the laws prohibiting hunting jaguars — other than farmers on those rare occasions when the carnivores attack their livestock.
No wonder, then, that scientists believe Cockscomb is home to as many as 80 breeding-age adults, with others regularly coming and going from neighboring protected areas in Guatemala and Mexico.
Now the reserve is at the heart of a pioneering new plan to create a “corridor” linking jaguar populations across their range, from Mexico all the way down to Argentina.
The project, launched by US big cat group Panthera, aims to prevent these apex predators from being split up by roads, towns, farms and other human infrastructure into ever smaller and more isolated subpopulations.
Without a corridor to move along, each jaguar subpopulation will become increasingly inbred, with genetic mutations that make them vulnerable to disease and handicap them as hunters.
Yet saving the jaguar is complicated by how little it has been studied. Basic questions such as how the species mates remain unanswered.
Highly elusive and rightly wary of humans — and with the famous spotted coat blending perfectly into the forest floor’s dappled sunlight — even confirming the presence of the cat can be tricky.
“Many communities don’t realize there are jaguars around them,” says Panthera CEO Alan Rabinowitz, who helped found Cockscomb. “People tell us that their grandfather can remember coming across a jaguar but they are all gone now. But then we discover traces of jaguars and realize they are still there.”
Although wide swathes of pristine forest are ideal, the corridor does not need to be a place where jaguars can live. Ranches and other stretches of land used by humans can also suffice, as long as it will allow the occasional animal to pass across it under cover of darkness.
But finding that space isn't simple. It involves Panthera in the laborious work of bringing on board local landowners and communities, as well as governments. In June, Panama became the fifth Latin American country to sign up for the corridor initiative.
Meanwhile, Cockscomb remains the project’s poster child. Few people know the reserve better than Bart Harmsen, a Dutch expert who previously lived inside Cockscomb for five years and now teaches jaguar ecology at the University of Belize.
As he hikes through the sweltering jungle, Harmsen tells GlobalPost about the first time he bumped into one of Cockscomb’s big cats in the wild.
“My heart was pounding,” he says, as he scours the ground for jaguar traces. “It was curious and kept coming in my direction. I now know that I was never in danger. Just making a little noise and waving my arms around would have scared it.
“It was the first time I looked into the eyes of a truly wild cat. It is different than any cat in a zoo. There is a wildness in there that shines, an alertness and readiness that any zoo cat does not have.”
Since then he has bumped into jaguars nearly 20 more times — and never witnessed aggressive behavior — although nothing to compete with the sustained intensity of that first five-minute stare-down.
Within a couple of hours of poking around in the forest, Harmsen has managed to find both scat and tracks.
That's the most compelling proof I am likely to get of just how prevalent the carnivore remains in Cockscomb. Witnessing a jaguar in the wild usually requires a large dose of luck and, even more importantly, putting in the hours, like Harmsen, deep in the jungle.
Monitoring the cat is therefore largely done remotely, with a network of camera traps across the reserve. But state-of-the art GPS collars would yield far more information. They each cost $4,000 and Harmsen estimates he would need 100 — a dream that may never be realized given the limited conservation funding.
Once hunted on a near industrial scale for their trademark pelts, jaguars have been protected since 1975 by the CITES international conservation treaty. Nevertheless, in many areas, particularly in the Amazon, poaching continues.
Meanwhile, growing populations and economies across Latin America are leading to the continuing destruction of jaguar habitat. One of the reasons Cockscomb, and Belize generally, retains a relatively healthy population is that the country still has some 60 percent of its original jungle cover.
The difference is painfully obvious at the border with Guatemala, where Belize’s lush forests contrast starkly with its neighbor’s open fields.
As a result, Jaguars are now classified as “near threatened.” Yet they continue to exist across some 70 percent of their original 3.4 million-square-mile range, much of that in the Amazon.
The habitat starts in the southern United States, where lone animals continue to stray, occasionally crossing the border from Mexico, and runs all the way down to northern Argentina.
Meanwhile, jaguars have been completely wiped out in Uruguay and Central America’s most deforested nation, El Salvador.
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Even here in Cockscomb there are issues.
“People don’t really hunt the jaguars but they do kill the pacas, agouti and deer,” says Goldino Pau, 54, a former park warden who now has a citrus farm on Cockscomb’s borders. “The jaguar lives from those so if they go, then the jaguar will be in trouble.”
“It is not the people from around here. They know that the jaguar needs to be protected. But they come from other parts of Belize. I saw a pickup truck just the other day with guns and hunting dogs.”
Nevertheless, overall the jaguar remains in a much healthier state than lions and tigers, in particular the latter, now down to just a few thousand individuals in the wild and officially classified as “endangered.”
Another difference between jaguars and their larger African and Eurasian cousins is that — despite the myths and fear among some local communities — it is almost unheard of for jaguars to attack humans.
The few killings that have ever taken place have usually involved injured or cornered jaguars giving their assailants some of their own medicine.
Jaguars are also outstanding swimmers, meaning that the Panama Canal — and a new, wider waterway proposed in Nicaragua — will not stop the carnivores from passing back and forth.
“A mile of water would not be a problem,” Rabinowitz says. “What worries me far more is what is on either side of the canal; is it built up or relatively jaguar-friendly?”
If the corridor succeeds, then the answer to that question will be habitat that the jaguar may not be able to live in, but will at least be able to cross.
And that would mean that jaguars would continue to be the largest big cats still surviving in healthy numbers across much of their original range.