Jaguars in Belize are under threat, but protecting this narrow strip of land could save them

Published 3:49 AM ET, Mon April 25, 2022
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Jaguars once roamed from the south of the United States to southern Argentina, but in recent decades both their numbers and geographic range have declined. The Central American country of Belize is now considered one of the remaining strongholds. The big cats are notoriously elusive and hard to spot in the wild -- pictured here is a jaguar from Belize Zoo. Jamen Percy/The Belize Zoo
Jaguars need huge spaces and can roam for up to 150 square miles. They rely on connectivity across the whole range for survival, but habitat destruction and human development are increasing threats. Carol Foster/ The Belize Zoo
One critical area of habitat in Belize is the Maya Forest Corridor, which connects the country's two largest wilderness areas. Jaguars use it to cross north to Mexico or south to Guatemala. In the past decade, deforestation has reduced the size of the Maya Forest Corridor by more than 65%, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. Panthera/StoryHouse Films
The narrow strip of land, less than six miles wide and covering 90,000 acres, is bisected by two highways, which can be difficult for wildlife to cross. Panthera/StoryHouse Films
Conservation organizations -- including Panthera, Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society and re:wild -- joined forces to protect the Maya Forest Corridor. Their aim is to safeguard the land by buying it. Panthera
Panthera is a global wild cat conservation organization involved in the efforts. It has studied jaguars in the area for years, setting out camera traps and using GPS collars to track their movements. Panthera estimates that there are around 50 to 60 jaguars in the area. Panthera/UB/ERI/BAS
Elma Kay is an ecologist and director of the Belize Maya Forest Trust. She has witnessed increased deforestation over the last decade as land is cleared for sugarcane plantations and other crops. Now she is working closely with local communities to protect the area from further development. Panthera/StoryHouse Films
Jaguars have a rich history in Maya culture. They were considered a sacred animal, and a sign of royalty, power and strength. Thousand-year-old paintings of jaguars adorn the walls of caves in the area. Brent Toombs/CNN
Reynold Cal, manager of Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, one of the protected areas within the Maya Forest Corridor, grew up hearing tales of the sacred and fearsome animal. Today, he works to protect them. Out of respect for the animal and to connect him to the ancient past, he has jaguar spots tattooed on his arms. Panthera/StoryHouse Films
The Maya Forest Corridor also provides an important habitat for other species, such as the endangered Baird's tapir (photographed here by a camera trap), the Central American spider monkey and the critically endangered Central American river turtle. Panthera
White-lipped peccaries are also found in the region and are considered vulnerable by the IUCN. Panthera
Losing the jaguar, an apex predator, would create an imbalance in the surrounding ecosystem. Here -- looking directly into the camera trap -- is a puma, another wildcat present in the region. Panthera/UB/ERI/BAS