Journey to Belize: Dr. Harmsen

This post continues the retelling of my 2017 trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation.

A large part of June 23, 2017 was spent at the University of Belize’s central campus: where Panthera Belize is headquartered.

As I wrote in the previous Belize post, on June 23 I was finally able to meet with Dr. Bart Harmsen of Panthera Belize. Dr. Harmsen is one of the foremost authorities on jaguars in Belize, and being able to speak with him was a huge boon. Unfortunately, our conversation did not start off well.

When I arrived at Panthera Belize’s office, Yahaira was there again. She remarked that they had expected me yesterday. This was news to me, since I had not received any communications from them. When Dr. Harmsen arrived, he confirmed that he had sent me an email asking to meet yesterday. I had genuinely not received it, but I felt bad for missing the email.

Following our less than ideal introduction, Dr. Harmsen and I began discussing jaguars. I shared Jamal’s claim that habitat destruction was the dominant threat to jaguars in Belize, to which Dr. Harmsen agreed.

Dr. Harmsen explained that when a patch of forest is cleared, the jaguars that live there do not disappear instantly. In fact, the loss of vegetative cover makes them seem more abundant – temporarily. People remark that jaguar populations must be growing, because they see them more often. Then the cats vanish altogether, along with many of the creatures that inhabited that patch of forest.

A sign about the Central Belize Corridor that I saw in the Belmopan bus station.

Deforestation is especially problematic within the Central Belize Corridor (CBC). Dr. Harmsen showed me a map of Belize that contained two conspicuous green spots: one in the north of the country and one in the south. These were the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area and the Maya Mountains Forest Block, respectively. The Rio Bravo Area, which I had previously lived in, was part of La Selva Maya (The Mayan Jungle) of Mexico and Guatemala.

The CBC is a biological corridor, and part of the Jaguar Corridor Initiative. Its purpose is to allow wildlife to move between the protected forests in the north and south of Belize. Jaguars must be able to do this in order to remain genetically viable, and to maintain some cushion against local extinctions and stochastic (unforeseen) events (Rabinowitz, 2014). Unfortunately, land within the CBC is being cleared.

The CBC is not formally protected. In fact, much of it is privately owned. Landowners within the corridor are converting forests to agricultural fields, thereby threatening the CBC’s integrity. While it is alright for now, in 40-50 years the CBC may no longer serve as a functional corridor for jaguars. In nature’s terms, 40-50 years is not a long time.

Another threat to jaguars is bushmeat hunting. Harvest levels for wild meat in Belize are considered to be unsustainable, and this is leading to the depletion jaguars’ prey (e.g. pacas, peccaries, and deer). The loss of wild prey might encourage jaguars to attack livestock, thereby exacerbating conservation conflicts (Foster et al., 2014).

Animals like white-lipped peccaries, shown here, are hunted by both humans and jaguars in Belize. White-lipped Peccary by eMammal. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Of course, it does little good to talk about environmental problems without also thinking about how to solve them. To this end, Dr. Harmsen likes the idea of paying landowners to preserve forests. He explained that some people in Belize feel they are frequently asked to make sacrifices for conservation, but they do not receive anything in return. Paying landowners to protect natural habitats might alter this perception.

Dr. Harmsen’s suggestion falls into the category of Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). This strategy is somewhat controversial, and has been researched a great deal. The general consensus seems to be that PES schemes can bolster conservation outcomes – if they are administered carefully. For example, payments should be directly tied to measurable goals, (St. John, Keane, & Milner-Gulland, 2013).

Finally, I asked Dr. Harmsen about potential thesis leads. He stressed that if I conducted my master’s research in Belize, I should collaborate with the University of Belize. He also recommended that I speak more with Yahaira, who was interested in the social sciences. It looked like I had another meeting to schedule.

11 Thoughts

    1. The majority of the deforestation within the CBC is for agriculture. There are many landowners within the corridor, but some own much more land than others. These large landowners are mostly agriculturists/ranchers, and they have the most power to affect conservation outcomes within the CBC. Luckily they’re not unreasonable people, and Panthera’s put a lot of work into building relationships with them. So there’s definitely hope.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh good. That’s good to know. Often when I hear the word deforestation it is coupled with verbiage and photos that imply a blatant disregard for the environment. You did not do that btw, hence my question.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. My goal is not to attack people for their actions towards the environment, but rather to try to understand their motivations and find a way forward…especially when the people in question are from a very different country and culture to my own. I feel much more comfortable being outwardly critical of other Americans. In fact, at this stage we have to be (very) critical of certain Americans.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. LOL, I suppose. I tend to remain less critical because having worked in sooo many fields, I have learned that until you walk in someone else’s shoes, you don’t know what they are really dealing with behind the scenes. I recall once how a job I took on seemed a slam dunk until I had to do it. I’m sure you’ve experienced that as well.

            Liked by 1 person

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