This narrow dirt corridor could mean life or death for jaguars in Belize

“Every jaguar has spots, but the spots are very unique to this 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 from Belize, Central America, Cal grew up surrounded by forests, enchanted by the stories of the great sacred cat that prowled within 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 forms part of an important wildlife corridor in central Belize.

“The Mayans had a 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 remembers the fear he felt as a child upon seeing 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 jaguar’s future is uncertain. The numbers are dwindling, according to the IUCN, which lists the species as near threatened, and the destruction of key habitats is causing populations to fragment, which could lead to extinction across the region.

critical bottleneck

In an attempt to avert this catastrophe, several 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 an essential slice of land within the jaguar: the Mayan Forest Corridor. The relatively small area – less than 10 kilometers wide and covering 90,000 acres – has huge consequences for South America’s biggest cat.

“It’s literally the common thread between Belize’s two largest forest blocks,” says Elma Kay, biologist and managing director of the Belize Maya Forest Trust. The 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 toward the rest of Central or South America, she explains. It is quickly 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 “small piece of land” is in danger of shrinking even further, warns Kay. Over the past 10 years, deforestation to make way for large-scale agriculture such as sugarcane and 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 surroundings have suffered 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, explains Emma Sanchez, coordinator of Panthera’s Belize Jaguar Program. “If an area is deforested, jaguars won’t 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 the jaguar’s range has huge consequences, she adds, because all populations are connected through migration and reproduction. If a small population becomes isolated, it lacks genetic diversity and eventually dies. “There are many cases of locally extinct species in different areas,” she says.

And losing the jaguar would have an indirect effect on the surrounding environment. As an apex predator, they create a balance in the ecosystem by 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,” says Sanchez.

Protecting the jaguar’s habitat

With the clock ticking as deforestation rates rise, conservation groups decided that the quickest and most effective way to protect the Maya Forest Corridor was to buy the land within it.

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

The Maya Forest Corridor sits between two of the largest wilderness areas in Central America.  In recent years, humans have developed the area, building roads through it.

“We need to buy another 50,000 acres to complete the corridor connection,” says Kay, “and the reality is there isn’t much more available for purchase in the area.”

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

A jaguar roaming the Belizean jungle, captured by a camera trap.

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

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

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

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