The Biodiversity Crisis: Jaguars

Part of the Biodiversity Crisis Curriculum Collection.

Allen Rabinowitz

Black and white photo of a jaguar
Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, Wildlife Conservation Society.

I never thought about biodiversity in the jungles of Belize, but neither did I take the incredible array of life around me for granted. I awoke every morning before sunrise, listening to the sounds of the night before they were silenced by impending daylight. After breakfast, I left my cabin in the Cockscomb Basin and walked the old timber road that cut a swath through the thick vegetation of the rain forest. My eyes looked toward the ground, searching areas of soft dirt for footprints that would tell me what big animals had passed in the night. In truth, there was only one animal I was interested in, and I would always find its tracks before I was more than 500 feet from my front door. The tracks were unmistakable in their size and shape, and conveyed a feeling of strength and power from the long, even stride they revealed. At this point, the day would start. I was on the trail of my jaguars.

After finishing my Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Tennessee, I came to Belize to conduct a two-month jaguar survey for the Wildlife Conservation Society. By the time I arrived at the Cockscomb Basin, nestled in the Maya Mountains of southern Belize, I was already realizing that Belize contained lots of jaguars. Still, I was not prepared for the abundance of jaguar evidence I initially encountered in the Cockscomb. Nor was I prepared to come face to face with a wild jaguar during the first day’s journey into the basin. Strangely, it was not fear I felt on that first meeting with a jaguar, but an almost overwhelming sense of my own smallness compared with the greater biological processes that were going on all around me.

After completing the survey and discussing the results with Archie Carr and George Schaller of the Wildlife Conservation Society, I returned to the Cockscomb to attempt the first detailed ecological study of this species in its rain forest habitat. The decision to return to Belize and study jaguars was not based solely on my feelings for the beauty and majestic nature of this animal, though the memory of that first encounter was never far from my thoughts. However, I had come to realize that, as the biggest carnivore roaming large forested areas of the Neotropics, the jaguar plays an important role in the natural biological processes of the region. The occasional carcasses left by jaguars in the forest or even a cursory examination of their feces along roads and trails clearly indicate that jaguars have an incredibly varied diet. Jaguars will eat monkeys, peccaries, pacas, agoutis, deer, turtles, tapirs, armadillos, iguanas, anteaters, alligators, fish, and almost anything else that crosses their path. Yet monkeys feed on leaves; peccaries feed on roots, seeds, and fruit, and occasionally eat insects; pacas and agoutis feed on fruits; and deer browse on twigs. Their eating habits help control the populations of their food species, just as the jaguars’ eating habits help control their populations. Loss of any of the species in this ecosystem, and especially the loss of the highest-level predator—the jaguar—could greatly alter the population sizes of various plant and animal species, possibly even driving some species low on the food chain into extinction. It seemed likely, then, that the jaguars play a key role—perhaps even what ecologists call a keystone role—in the maintenance of the forest structure itself. The forest, in turn, feeds and shelters these animals that the jaguar depends on—and thus feeds and shelters the jaguar itself.

Thus, everything was intertwined. If we focused on protecting a good-sized population of jaguars, wouldn’t we then be contributing greatly to the protection of the biodiversity in that population’s territory, and thus contributing toward reducing Earth’s loss of biodiversity? The jaguars of the Cockscomb Basin were just such a population, but first I needed the scientific data to show people the facts.

Using big box traps, I captured seven jaguars and fitted them with radios around their necks so that I could follow them. With this technique, besides keeping careful notes on all jaguar tracks, scrapes, and feces seen along roads and trails, pieces of the puzzle started coming together. I found out how far jaguars moved, where they slept, and how close they would come to each other. The contents and patterns of their scat droppings (feces) and scrapes (marks in the dirt) told me exactly what they were eating and how they were marking their territories to communicate with each other. I even took a closer look at the abundance of the prey, so that I could see if jaguars were being selective about their food choices. After almost two years, with my research near completion, I realized that there were other more immediate matters to be considered. The Cockscomb Basin was not a protected area, and people outside it were already petitioning the Belizean government for rights to occupy and cut the forest throughout much of the basin.

I had enough data. But now I had to present my findings to the government officials and convince them that protecting a spectacular piece of their natural heritage, and giving jaguars a safe haven, was good for the economy of the country, for the welfare of the people, and ultimately for their own political careers. I had over an hour with the prime minister and his cabinet. I pleaded the jaguars’ case as if my own family were being threatened with eviction. I explained that this was not only about jaguars. It was about preserving a piece of the country’s biodiversity. If we protected enough forest to support the jaguars, we would be preserving all the plants and animals that lived within the jaguar’s range. This, in turn, would ultimately be giving to the people of Belize, not taking away.

At the same time, I took the case to the people themselves. Protection would ultimately mean nothing if it was not accepted by those who had to live and work side-by-side with the jaguars. I talked to cattle ranchers outside the Cockscomb, and explained how healthy jaguars with lots of wild prey will not usually come out of the forest to kill cattle. I talked with the local Mayan communities who hunted and exploited the Cockscomb’s resources. I explained that preserving an area that they had taken for granted for so long might restrict some of their activities but would help maintain their plant and animal resources outside the Cockscomb indefinitely.

On December 2, 1984, the minister of natural resources, under instruction from the prime minister, declared the Cockscomb Basin a national forest reserve, with a no-hunting provision for protection of the jaguar. This was the beginning. Belize had just become the first country in the world to protect an area of forest specifically for jaguars. In 1986, the creation of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary was signed into law, and the area was opened for tourism. Former Mayan hunters who worked with me on my research were now appointed the area’s first wildlife wardens. In 1990, and again in 1995, the area under full protection was expanded until it reached nearly 1,000 square kilometers and had been declared “the major achievement in cat conservation for the triennium.” By 1995, complaints about jaguars from cattle ranchers in the area had decreased, and the Mayan village at the entrance to the basin had organized village cooperatives to make and sell crafts and medicinal plants to visitors.

Cockscomb Basin today stands as one of the world’s success stories in conservation, community participation, and ecotourism. A new generation of jaguars roams the forest relatively unmolested, and the Belizean people speak of the Cockscomb jaguar preserve with pride. My name is rarely mentioned anymore, unless one speaks of the history of the region. And that is how it should be. For the Cockscomb’s greatness lies not in the story of any individuals, but in the fact that therein lies a piece of the web of life.