The Jaguar Rehabilitation Programme at the Belize Zoo

The jaguar is the largest and most powerful cat in the Western Hemisphere. In Belize, they are found in the lowland forests and along the coast. But hunting and deforestation have increasingly put these big cats at risk of being killed because they are pushed to go close to communities to prey on livestock and domestic animals. While Belize still has one of the healthiest populations in Central America and the jaguar is protected from hunting, they are still at risk of being killed by humans in Belize. To reduce these killings, the Belize Zoo and the Forest Department work closely to manage the Problem Jaguar Rehabilitation Programme at the zoo. Today, reporter Andrea Polanco visited the zoo to find out more about this important conservation work to help preserve these big cats in Belize.

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

This is Sylvia. She is a rehabilitated jaguar at the Belize Zoo. If she hadn’t been rescued – it is very likely that Sylvia would have been killed. About a year and a half ago, she was killing dogs and scaring residents in a village. And so the Belize Zoo decided to enroll this problem jaguar in its rehabilitation programme.

Sharon Matola, Founding Director, the Belize Zoo

“We received a call from a village that says, ‘hey, this jaguar has killed and eaten six dogs in one week so if you don’t take her, we are going to have to kill her.’  We are proud of our programme because we know if it is a problem jaguar it has a problem and she certainly did. She is missing a canine tooth and she is missing bottom teeth and she had intestinal issues. She is grunt – she looks young but she isn’t so young. Her making it in the wild and hunting just was not on her menu. And as you can see, how close can you get to a jaguar like this that actually has learned to like people.”

Back in 2003, the Belize Zoo started a rehabilitation program that offers enrichment training for problem jaguars like Sylvia. To date, most of the eighteen jaguars that are at the Belize Zoo were rescued as problem jaguars. The aim of the program is to reduce the number of jaguar killings by removing jaguars from communities where they kill livestock and domestic animals. At the Zoo, they go through a series of trainings to get them use to human interactions and reduce their aggression before they are introduced to the public.

Sharon Matola

“And it has grown to be one of the most successful programs for jaguars anywhere. So we want to continue it. Today we have saved twenty-six jaguars from being destroyed. Jaguars contribute to the natural history and awareness to the great people of this nation about a great cat. She also knows that she gets a treat because she is a great cat. Here’s a treat.”

Since Sylvia became a resident at the Belize Zoo, she has grown to become a main attraction in the jaguars’ exhibit. She loves treats and also performs tricks on command.

Sharon Matola

“She has learnt to roll. At first she was very reluctant and now she rolls for anybody.   Roll for Ayianna. Roll for Ayianna! Wow! Look at what you made her do. Without having to elaborate, Ayianna has a new experience with an endangered species and feels good about the jaguars in her country, so it is a win-win for everybody.”

Sylvia is only one of the stars of this show. These two males are Martin and Lindo both problem jaguars who have graduated from the rehab program. Now they entertain visitors at the Zoo. And this one is Sugar Daddy – he is learning how to walk up and down his own runway. But as much as the zoo’s Founding Director Sharon Matola would like to see these cats in the wild – these enclosures may be their best chance of survival.

Sharon Matola

“Once they get to trust people and they know they are not threatened, and then they become educators. And it is a wonderful, wonderful thing that that we are all very proud of. If life were perfect, I would let them all go but they would just go back to their evil ways and get shot. So, we have come to a point in their rehabilitation where we have to be realistic. We put them back they are going to get destroyed. We keep them here and they serve as education and research animals. The world is not a perfect world anymore but at least it is a good answer to a bad problem; an environmental conflict.”

The Belize Zoo’s Jaguar Rehabilitation Program plays an important role in the conservation of these wild cats. Studies have shown that there may be only about eight-hundred more of these cats in Belize. Matola says that the loss of habitat and dwindling of prey species put these cats risk of being killed.

Sharon Matola

“Loss of habitat is a huge deal. Belize is losing habitat and the cats are hunting in places they can’t hunt anymore. Cats that are damaged; their loss of habitat and also their prey species like peccary and deer are also hunted by people. So, their usual reasons for sustenance just aren’t there anymore. So, hopefully the forest reserves we are creating can aid this terrible thing that’s happened. But until it does get straightened out, at least there is a program to help the cats.”

It is an expensive program to run and the Belize Zoo is working to add a new jaguar experience to make money to care for these big cats. These days, Junior Buddy is the showman jaguar. He has a popular act called the Junior Buddy Encounter where visitors give feed him treats and in return he rolls over or lick their heads.

Sharon Matola

“We charge For the Junior Buddy experiences and all that money goes into contributing to the problem jaguar rehab program. We are going to start jaguar tours – a tour centered on our jaguars and charge money for that. Every single cent will go towards seeing the program survive and grow be enhanced.”

Channel 5