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Are Jaguars Heading North?

Of the five native species of big cats prowling the Belizean jungle, it is the elusive and magnificent jaguarthat many tourists hope to see when they visit Belize. Only a lucky few have actually seen one of these beautiful felines in the wild. Because of its sensitivity to humans, theses cats can be an effective indicator for monitoring the integrity of core areas for wildlife corridor identification and conservation. Some protected areas remain susceptible to uncontrolled human activities and this can be detrimental for jaguar populations. Securing existing strongholds such as Belize’s biological corridors help safeguard the cat’s future.

North of Belize, the Wildlife Conservation Society is developing a survey and monitoring protocol for jaguars in the North-Western Recovery Unit (NRU) for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This is a 220,000 km² area which extends from west-central Mexico into the United States and contains an abundance of these beautiful creatures. The draft protocol provides an overview of the latest developments in methods and approaches that may be used to tailor a design for the ecosystems of the NRU, while being relevant to large jaguar landscapes and connecting terrains in general, such as the Central Belize Wildlife Corridor.

A small group of scientists and jaguar experts were invited for a multi-day workshop to review and improve the draft protocol. Amongst this group was Dr. Bart Harmsen, Panthera’s Jaguar Research Fellow at the University of Belize Environmental Research Institute (UB ERI). He contributed time and knowledge on the protocol development for NRU. He is mainly interested in General Carnivore Ecology, Predator-prey Relations, Carnivore Community Co-existence, and Carnivores in a human dominated landscape and Corridor Ecology. By building local capacity in Wildlife Research, together with Ph.D Rebecca Foster, he coordinates a Large Mammal Wildlife Project in the Central Belize Corridor where they study how the different mammal species make use of this mosaic landscape which is part of the entire Mesoamerican corridor system. In 2013 Ph.D. Harmsen was invited to become a member of the IUCN cat specialist group and he continues with vigour and dedication towards the conservation and protection of the beautiful carnivore predator-prey species.

Ph.D. Harmsen had the following to say about the experience working on the NRU protocol, “It was fantastic to be part of something big like the development of monitoring methods for recovery of jaguars in the Northern part of their range. There were jaguar experts coming from all across the jaguars range, from Mexico all the way down to Argentina and Brazil. It was a privilege to interact with all these people and exchange ideas and initiate collaborations. One of the Mexican experts will visit Belize soon to experience the Belizean jungle and exchange ideas. We are looking forward to his arrival and hope there will be more of these kind of exchanges. Belizean environmental scientists need to be part of an international network of experts to remain updated on the latest methods and means of carrying out research.

We need to showcase our accomplishments and findings and learn from others. I can proudly say that all the experts present at the workshop voiced their admiration for Belizean jaguar conservation in terms of protecting jaguars and working towards the maintenance of a viable connected population within the country. Jaguars are really disappearing fast from the Central American landscape. Belize is one of their last strongholds but threats are increasing here as well. It is nice to see that jaguars might be allowed to expand a little into their original Northern range and not only hear accounts of rampant habitat destruction.”At the UB ERI we continue to study jaguars in the Cockscomb Basin in collaboration with BAS and Panthera; and we can proudly say that this is the longest running jaguar monitoring program in the world. We are expanding our jaguar and prey research and monitoring to other parts of the country and seek to gain knowledge of population dynamics and conservation status at the National level.

To read more about the NRU protocol


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