A few weeks ago we showed you the birthday party for April the Tapir, the star attraction at the Belize Zoo. And while April may have the distinction of being the national animal - the jaguar is also a prize attraction because it is the most dangerous predator in Belize's jungles. And in the wild those jaguars move across a wide area known as its natural corridor, which spreads from north, through central to southern Belize. Preserving that vast corridor requires more than a reserve, it needs a concerted community effort. That begins with education - which is the responsibility of the Environmental Educators at the Belize Zoo.

They set up a contest for school children who live within the reaches of the jaguar corridor where art, poetry and an essay about the Jaguar were the creative entry options. The winners of that contest were today given, what can only be called "The Royal Jaguar Treatment." Jim McFadzean was invited to the fanfare and has this report.

Jim McFadzean Reporting
You could say its got its paws on just about everything in Belize and is probably one of the most intriguing and widely known wildcats of this region, if not the World. It's become so internationally famous and appreciated, that a movement was spawned to protect it by creating what's known as one of the first Jaguar Preserves in the World.

Sharon Matola, Director Belize Zoo
"Research has indicated that no more than 800 jaguars remain in Belize. Now that population is good if we maintain and the way we can maintain it is by making sure that their habitat is out there for them."

Located in the Cockscomb Mountains, the Jaguar's nationally protected Preserve is managed by the Belize Audubon Society. But outside that sanctuary, the most intelligent of wild cats has its footprints pretty much all over the country.

Sharon Matola
"Jaguars will go in and out of the Cockscomb, that area of Belize connects with other forests, so they are found there, they are found in exceptionally good numbers in northwestern Belize where we release Harpy Eagles at Rio Bravo and the Gallon Jug Area and also at the Chiquibul Forest."

This prized predator has become so important that recently it was the subject of an art and creative writing contest developed for schoolchildren who live within the reaches of the jaguar corridor. And to celebrate the winners of this contest, Director of the Belize Zoo, Sharon Matola went to great lengths today to put on a spectacle worthy of one of Belize's most celebrated residents.

Winners of the contest Rosalinda Hernandez and Jertrudis Santos, both of St. Matthew's Primary school, along with their parents, were treated to a flyover of the Cockscomb Mountains by Lighthawk, a conservation air flight team,. while skydivers Colin McGowan and Andy Butchko with aid from the Belize Defence Force Air Wing made a surprise jump to present the two winners with Junior Buddy T Shirts.

But the icing on today's cake was left for the last, a personal encounter with the renowned Jaguar.

Jim McFadzean
"It is this type of first hand experience, the kind of getting to know you that Zoo officials are hoping will provide a more meaningful experience for these students"

Jim McFadzean
"How was the experience touching the Jaguar?"

Student
"Well, kinda scary but it's beautiful. I have never seen a Jaguar so close, his big paw, his big face, colour, beautiful colour. I love it"

Jim McFadzean "How was your experience, face to face with a jaguar, what was it like?"

Student
"It was fun, but I was scared. Face to face, it's really hard to be with a jaguar, but it's cool because he is in a cage, right? It's very good. Before I didn't like those animals but now I really appreciate them."

And there is no doubt about the special affinity one takes away after getting so close to a Jaguar, but in the case of this reporter, getting close shouldn't mean touching one.

Jaguar rolls and Jim touches his paw through cage)

Indeed, touching a Jaguar is absolutely prohibited at the Zoo and rather a foolish but totally innocent action on my part. More reason why today's event sponsored by Matola and her dedicated team, was extremely useful for everyone.

Jim McFadzean, Reporting "And that's exactly what the purpose of all this was today, for the kids to get close to a jaguar, to fall in love with a jaguar so that this will be a new and kinder generation to these animals, Reporting for Seven News, I'm Jim McFadzean."

The Belize Zoo currently houses and cares for 12 Jaguars. The Zoo in an effort to contribute to the maintenance of a healthy jaguar population both in Belize and internationally, has gifted Jaguars to both the Philadelphia and Milwaukee Zoos.

Channel 7