In this guest post, graduate student Noelle Duerwald argues that community-based conservation offers the best future for jaguars in Belize.
Did you know that the jaguar, (Panthera onca), is the largest cat species in the Americas? They have a huge range that spans from the Southwestern United States all the way to Argentina.1 They inhabit 18 countries in Latin America, including Belize. Their habitat in Belize is especially important to preserve because it serves as a corridor, connecting populations in Mexico, Guatemala, and Central America.
Because jaguars are top predators in their native habitats, conserving them maintains the balance of the food chain because they play such an important role in controlling other species’ populations.
However, jaguar populations are in trouble. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List has classified the jaguar as Near Threatened due to a number of factors, including: habitat fragmentation and destruction, illegal poaching, conflict with locals, and a decline in the jaguar’s primary prey species, which are armadillos, pacas, and peccaries.2
Community Based Conservation (CBC) in Belize
Local communities play a pivotal role in biodiversity conservation. Although outside scientists can enter a community and initiate a conservation project, the project’s long term success is dependent on local involvement and engagement. This approach is called community-based conservation (CBC).3
Belize already takes part in a well-known CBC project called the Community Baboon Sanctuary. The sanctuary was established in order to protect a large population of black howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra).
Membership in the Community Baboon Sanctuary is completely voluntary. The rise in tourism that a healthy howler monkey population would attract is the biggest incentive for landowners to participate. The Community Baboon Sanctuary is a leading grassroots initiative for community conservation and a role model for developing participatory ecotourism.4
The fact that Belize already has established such a successful community-based conservation project for black howler monkeys may inspire other CBC initiatives to develop. Jaguar protection could benefit by having the support and participation of the local community.
Jaguar Conservation Efforts
Belize is home to the only jaguar preserve in the world, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.
This area of land is an important habitat for wildlife. It could also be a good place to start with community-based conservation efforts for jaguars in Belize, showing how co-management of protected areas is key to conserving them. This could be done by setting up some monitoring programs that encourage locals to join; this leads to environmental stewardship and gives the community a sense of pride and ownership and gives them more of a stake in the protection of the land.
Other benefits of CBC include increased eco-tourism, which usually directly increases the income of local residents and increases the connection to the land for the community.
Belize could benefit from creating more CBC projects and may use other ongoing projects that are currently underway in other countries as a model.
According to Lavariega et al. (2020), community-based wildlife monitoring programs for jaguars have been successful in other places such as the Chinantla Region in Mexico. In order to empower the local community and highlight the value of jaguar conservation, this initiative incorporated local engagement in data collecting and external data analysis. After assisting in population monitoring, several members of the local community said that their attitudes had significantly changed and that they now valued conservation techniques such as camera traps.5
In Colombia, jaguar conservationists have worked with the surrounding community of coffee bean farmers using CBC techniques. Farmers can qualify for a “Jaguar friendly seal” for their coffee bags if they work with conservationists to modify their farms to incorporate more suitable habitat for jaguars and their prey. This creates a corridor that allows movement for the animals while still benefiting the farmer. Agriculture is also a large part of Belize’s economy with the largest crops being sugar, citrus and bananas. A similar seal might help Belizean farmers to conserve habitats for wildlife.
One of the ongoing projects surrounding jaguar conservation is Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative. This project aims at connecting all significant jaguar habitat regions in an effort to maintain gene flow among jaguar populations, which is crucial to the survival of a species. Panthera is currently supporting jaguar conservation efforts in 11 out of the 18 countries where jaguars are found.
This project is working to establish a corridor connecting the locations of the species’ known populations across the entire geographic range. In Belize, the goal is to ensure continuous habitat from the north to the south. Panthera also provides training on anti-predation techniques to farmers and ranchers, which helps to lessen confrontations between humans and jaguars.
Currently, an area of land in Belize called the Maya Forest Corridor is in need of protection in order to connect crucial areas of habitat for jaguars and other wildlife.
The Maya Forest Corridor is the last remaining strip of land that connects two areas of high biodiversity to each other, therefore protecting it is vital to Belize’s jaguar populations. Currently, the organization Re:wild and the Maya Forest Corridor Coalition have purchased 30,000 acres of the land but are working to conserve the remaining 50,000 acres of crucial habitat for facilitating wildlife movement.
Belize is home to a declining jaguar population. These big cats need our help in order to survive. Based on past outcomes, community-based conservation projects are most likely to succeed and give lasting impacts. Therefore, jaguar conservation efforts in Belize should involve the local community and work to ensure their support.
About the Author
Noelle Duerwald is a graduate student at Miami University of Ohio, where she is a member of Project Dragonfly. Noelle has a bachelor’s degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California Santa Cruz, along with extensive travel experience in Belize. Noelle has a strong interest in conservation, especially when it comes to wild cat species.
Foster, R. J., Harmsen, B. J., Urbina, Y. L., Wooldridge, R. L., Doncaster, C. P., Quigley, H., & Figueroa, O. A. (2020). Jaguar (Panthera onca) density and tenure in a critical biological corridor. Journal of mammalogy, 101(6), 1622-1637.
- Zeller, 2007
- Steinberg, 2016
- Berkes, 2007
- Alexander, 2000
- Lavariega et al., 2020
Fascinating creatures and information Josh.
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Thanks Cindy! They definitely are fascinating creatures.