Belize sets aside land for jaguar corridor

More than 7,000 acres of key jaguar habitat between Belize City and Belmopan, the capital of Belize, has been designated as a sanctuary for the embattled big cat, the conservation organization Panthera said yesterday.

Describing the sanctuary as "another huge step forward in the fight to save wild cats," Panthera said the Labouring Creek Jaguar Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary was designated by officials as a protected area "and adds one more stretch of safe passageway to the species' range."

Howard Quigley, Panthera's Jaguar Program Executive Director, led the Belize team to ensure that federally owned lands, known as Crown lands, were not partitioned off to developers in the country, and Gaspar Vega, the Belize Minister of Natural Resources, signed into law the creation of the protected area, Panthera said in a news statement about the corridor.

"At the same time, the Minister signed a Letter of Understanding with Panthera to cooperate on activities to support the reserve and the surrounding area, known as the Central Belize Corridor," Panthera added.

At a signing ceremony attended by press and government representatives from Guatemala and Mexico, the Belize Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Gaspar Vega said, "The Government of Belize is serious about ensuring that our country develops in a sustainable manner. We are committed to ensuring the long term viability of our natural systems and the Jaguar Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary is a critical link in the central corridor, without which biological connectivity would not be possible."

The largest cat living today in the Americas, the jaguar is no longer hunted for its beautiful coat, but continues to be threatened by hunting due to competition with livestock, deforestation and loss of wild prey, Panthera said.

"The big cats have been eradicated from 40 percent of their historic range due to direct killing and land development for agriculture. Jaguar populations still exist in 18 countries in Latin America, from Argentina to Mexico, but overhunting of their natural prey, such as deer and peccaries, forces jaguars to prey on domestic animals and often results in retaliatory killing by humans."

"The jaguar has become a national symbol for Belize, and a source of national pride for the country," said Quigley. "Jaguar conservation in Belize is a wonderful example of how we can conserve large cats in today's human-dominated landscape if we understand the animal and its environment--through good science--and account for their needs, along with the needs of humans.

"By preserving these areas, and then connecting them to other protected areas and jaguar populations, through developed landscapes, we allow for jaguars in populations blocks, and for jaguars to move through corridors they've used for decades, even with people present. This is not only key to their survival, but it secures a higher quality of life for the people living in these corridors.

"We at Panthera stand ready to work with the Belize government - the ministry, the Forestry Department, and the University of Belize - to ensure this sanctuary is managed properly and becomes a model for other sites along the jaguar corridor," Quigley said.

Omar Figueroa, a senator in the Belize legislature and a well-known jaguar researcher supported by Panthera said: "For me, it is truly an honor and a privilege to be a part of this designation because I firmly believe that ours may very well be the last generation able to choose tracks of national lands to protect."

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"The patterns of land use and land cover changes that are sweeping acrosss not only Belize and the wider region, but also the entire planet, are a clear indication of that reality. The future of biodiversity conservation, of sustainable development, hinges on how successful we are at integrating protected areas with the unprotected landscape," Figueroa added.

"The Prime Minister's actions today are in the best interest of our country, and I applaud him for having the courage and the integrity to advance a policy that is clearly and unequivocally in the best interest of all Belizeans."

Panthera has four decades of experience saving jaguars. "The Panthera Jaguar Corridor Initiative is the most comprehensive and transformative species conservation strategy ever, using a range-wide approach to ensure the future of the magnificent carnivore across its entire range," the conservation charity said.

Panthera works in 13 of the 18 jaguar range states protecting prey, collaborating with local communities to mitigate conflict, and partnering with local governments to secure and link jaguar habitat so the cats can roam and diversify.

"Panthera's President and CEO, Alan Rabinowitz, started working to save jaguars in Belize decades ago. He was instrumental in the declaration of Belize's Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world' first jaguar preserve--the result of his ecological study that found the Cockscomb Basin contained the highest density of jaguars ever recorded. The area was initially declared a forest reserve in 1984 with a "No Hunting" ordinance to protect the large jaguar population and other wildlife. However, after much concern that the Cockscomb Basin Forest Reserve was not protecting the jaguars' habitat, a small portion of the Reserve was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1986," Panthera said.

Panthera, which is based in New York and London, was founded in 2006 to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action. "By pairing sound science with decades of first hand field experience, Panthera's researchers collect and convert data into pragmatic conservation actions that continue to produce results in the countries where they operate. Panthera applies a strict filter to all of their conservation programs that assesses what wild cats need to survive, what strategies have a proven track record, and what is possible on the ground and in-country," according to the organization.
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