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#470539 - 08/19/13 06:14 AM Cockscomb Basin: Where the big cats are
Marty Offline

Photos captured via camera trap by Panthera, a big cat conservation group, in Belize's Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Jaguars roam Belize’s tropical Cockscomb forest, the heart of a pioneering plan to carve a green corridor linking the big cat species across the region.

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. 

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.

More from GlobalPost: In the Costa Rican wild, jaguars feast on sea turtles (PHOTOS, VIDEO)


#472558 - 09/15/13 05:57 AM Re: Cockscomb Basin: Where the big cats are [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Ben's Bluff Waterfall

Hiking The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Stann Creek, Belize

“Take only photographs
Leave only footprints”

A light drizzle has just transformed into a rush of water pouring down on us as we listened to Doyle, the self proclaimed best tour guide of Cockscomb in all of Belize, enthusiastically tell us how an American man named  Alan Rabinowitz had struggled for years to convince the powers that be that the damp, mushy soil we stood on must be conserved to keep wild jaguars from becoming extinct.

Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Rabinowitz Belize is home to the world’s first and only Jaguar preserve – the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, 150 square miles of land restricted from hunting, fishing, logging or any other kind of habitat destruction. This area of tropical forest is unique, the first and only sanctuary set up for the conservation of Jaguars. The Jaguar Preserve offers incredible hiking trails through pristine lush jungle filled with wildlife, rivers and waterfalls. Although there’s an estimated 200 Jaguars living in the preserve its likely you could hike here everyday for years and never lay your eyes one.

Not letting the now slight sprinkle deter us we trekked into the bright green jungle, so beautiful I can’t help but feel like we might stumble upon a National Geographic crew making their next film right around the dirt trail we were headed on. The first part of our all-day tour was to learn about the plant’s and their natural uses to the Mayans who roamed this land.

Malay Apples

Pictured above are Malay apples – a sweet fruit that turns red when ripe. We found a single ripe fruit hidden on the ground and gave it a bite – as my teeth carved their way into it a sweet juice dripped from my lips. It tasted like a cross between a red apple and a pear.

Cashew Fruit Tree

Next we saw pineapple and cashew trees. Cashews grow individually from the bottom of the cashew fruit and are encased in a toxic skin that has to be carefully removed before exposing the edible and tasty nut inside. Doyle told us of his youth, selling the roasted cashews to make a buck – and the long, grueling process of creating a finished tasty product by hand. Eating a can full of cashews will never be taken for granted again.

After a short rest and some amazing Belizean lunch, we hiked to the river which we would inner-tube down until intersecting another trail; leading us to a waterfall.

Ceiba Tree

Along the way we found a Ceiba tree, which are breathtakingly huge and are part of mythical Mayan beliefs.

Leafcutter Ant

Surprisingly, few bugs were letting their presence be known, but one was not the least bit shy, or hard to find. Leafcutter ants were busy going about their day, running up and down their ant-highways with chopped up leaves on their backs.

River Tubing

Tubing down the river was great fun, dodging branches and vines along the way… due to recent weather the water level was high, and the current fairly swift.

After exiting the river all I could see ahead was the incline of the hill we had to tackle next, soaking wet, in mosquito infested bush. Under Doyle’s direction we made a hasty retreat up the hill with the pesky blood sucking insects hot on our trail. A solid 15 minutes and a couple dead mosquitoes later I couldn’t tell if I was still soaked from the river or my own sweat. Just as our legs began to fatigue the slightest sound could be heard, the familiar noise of water being pulled down by gravity onto rocks. It was sweet music to my ears. We had reached the waterfall and wasted no time testing the temperature and jumped right in.

Waterfall Shower

The cool water was refreshing and rejuvenating. We swam inside and took a shower, wiping away the layered mixture of dirty water, sweat and bug repellent. Next we were off to slide down the rocky creek and back to civilization. Jessica demonstrates one of the many fun slides in the video below:


As we left the creek behind and headed back this magical place offered one last surprise.

Green Tree Snake

Before anyone could speak a word I was on my hands and knees, crawling while trying to focus my camera. I shot photos while simultaneously admiring the bright green reptile’s stunning beauty. It was a 5 foot Green Parrot snake (Leptophis ahaetulla), non venomous for those of you freaking out. It showed no fear, nor aggression as I inched ever closer and we both froze like statues for a brief moment, no movement other than the flicker of it’s bright blue tongue.

..it was the perfect end to a great day.

Tips before visiting:

  • Bring insect repellent
  • Wear light clothes, it’s hot and humid
  • Bring water, stay hydrated
  • Don’t forget the insect repellent

If you’re staying near Placencia ask around for Doyle, or DTourz (no website currently). He came highly recommended and I can’t imagine anyone giving a better tour of the preserve than him. The price (from any company) run roughly $80 USD per person.



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