>>Destination: Belize

Top Cat

The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize is the world's first jaguar reserve—and a stronghold for the species. But although these elusive predators prowl its rainforests regularly, it's the rare visitor who actually glimpses one.

By Susan McGrath/Photography by James Balog

The artifically created habitat of the Belize Zoo mimics the wild. This jaguar has lived there since he arrived as an orphan.

It's a morning of cerulean sky, the first in days, and hiking-boot traffic is already heavy around the little white-clapboard headquarters of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, in southeastern Belize. A young Mayan man with a sardonic manner sprawls on a bench and observes the goings-on through keen, if half-closed, eyes. When two Americans clip past, he chaffs them in lazy tones. "I hear a jaguar caught a kid in the campground, and there's blood all over." They greet him with whoops of delight, prompting a few startled looks. The Americans are biologists, Scott Silver and Linde Ostro, visiting from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York. They understand a child wasn’t really savaged in the campground—though they've heard about the blood—and they know this young man. He is William Sho, Ostro's former field assistant, now a licensed guide.

"No, really, William," Silver grills him. "What do you think it was?"

Sho shrugs. "I think a jaguar caught something big, like maybe a brocket deer."

Silver badgers Sho till he hauls himself reluctantly from the bench and ambles the scant hundred yards down the main path into the Cockscomb rainforest. Sunlight turns the trailsides into thickets, tightly darned with vines above, hedged with red-and-yellow heliconia flowers below.

"Not puma?" Silver presses.

"No, because the finger pads are different. See this?" Sho points to a saucer-size print embossed in the ground. "This was a jaguar. A male jaguar."

Scarlet spots spatter the trail—so fresh the ants haven't found them yet. Crouching, Sho interprets the blood and spoor: Here the jaguar emerged from the woods, prey gripped between its jaws; here it padded up the trail; there it saw tents or sensed the sleeping humans; here it whirled around—see the diminishing spray of blood? It jogged back to this gap in the thickety edge, shoved through, was gone.

A dozen bedraggled hikers are pitching tents in the grassy campground. Silver hails them. "You folks here overnight?"

"Not yet!" comes the answer.

"There's a trail of blood along here! A jaguar carrying a kill."

The youths jettison tent pegs and tarps and tumble down the bank, eager to catch a glimpse of the elusive cat. They won't—this jaguar is sleeping off its meal somewhere among the trees.

Tourists come to Cockscomb from around the world, 10,000 of them last year alone. They camp, they hike, they float the river. They spot black howler monkeys and boat-billed herons and Montezuma oropendolas—spectacular brown songbirds with orange-tipped bills and golden tails. But even the gushiest of guidebooks cautions them: Don't get your hopes up. To be sure of seeing a jaguar, swing by the Belize Zoo, half an hour from the airport on the three-hour drive south to Cockscomb from Belize City. Because even here, in the world's first jaguar reserve, only the luckiest few will catch a glimpse of the black-spotted golden cat that puts Cockscomb on the map.

"Only very rarely does anyone see jaguars," says Ernesto Saqui, chair of the local village council and, until recently, this sanctuary's longtime director. "It's a very solitary, nocturnal, secretive cat. But it's important to come to where the jaguars live, where you can see their tracks on the ground" Not to mention the blood of their prey.

The sanctuary lies at the edge of the Maya Mountains, a scant 10 miles from the Caribbean Sea. Here the Cockscomb Range punches skyward with the deeply scalloped profile for which the reserve was named. Black granite fortresses cap the peaks; rainforest clothes the landscape in rumpled, intemperate green. It's a fittingly dramatic stronghold for the charismatic carnivore—and a land ideally suited to the predator's needs. The jaguars thrive here; there's a cat for every four square miles.

"You couldn't ask for better habitat," says Alejandro Grajal, Audubon's director for Latin America and the Caribbean, who has been to the sanctuary nearly a dozen times but has yet to see the iconic cat. "The place is a jaguar factory."

"Only very rarely does anyone see jaguars. But it's important to come to where the jaguars live, where you can see their tracks on the ground."

A young Austrian couple, identically clad in haute khaki-and-zipper couture, wanders into the sanctuary's office to report seeing four scarlet macaws, and to book a room for the night. Warden Ignacio Pop goes over the choices: There's the campground, a very rustic cabin called The Rustic Cabin, a couple of pricier private cabins, and a handsome new pine dorm replete with composting toilets and a covered veranda. The Austrians take the dorm.

Pop pulls out a well-thumbed guide to the reptiles of Belize and opens it to the mug shot of the fer-de-lance. "The good news is that none of our visitors has been bitten," he says. "But! But! We don't want you to be the first one." Undeterred by the snake's description as "dangerously venomous and highly irascible," the visitors buy a trail map and head off to their room.

Pop, a Mopan Maya, is a short, squat, humorous man with large, square glasses and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. Mopan dialect is Pop's mother tongue. English, the official language of Belize, he declaims with poetic meter, as most Maya here do, and the accent drifts to the last syllable: CocksCOMB!

Once upon a time, Pop lived right here, in a house 500 yards from this office, in the tiny subsistence-farming village of Quam Bank, along with six or eight other families. His story begins the way all good stories do: One day, a stranger came to town.

The year was 1983. The man was Alan Rabinowitz, a WCS carnivore biologist. He stayed two years and, with the help of Pop and other villagers, got the information he'd come for: a rough estimate of the jaguar population, and proof that the Cockscomb Basin was some of Central America's best remaining jaguar habitat. Thus armed, the WCS; the Belize Audubon Society; the World Wildlife Fund; and Sharon Matola, the founder and director of the Belize Zoo, laid siege to the government of Belize, fervently arguing that the Cockscomb wilderness should be protected. The government agreed.

In February 1986 it created the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, and charged an environmental nonprofit, Belize Audubon, with the property’s care. The sanctuary eventually grew to encompass 120,000 acres, but from the very beginning it included the land beneath Quam Bank. Cockscomb’s preservation fell on Pop’s tiny village like an ax blow.

"Alan left, and a man brought a letter from the government saying we all should go out," Pop recalls. "Just go. That's all." The families loaded their few possessions into hired trucks and left, ceding homes and farms to the jaguar.

"The people were understandably bitter," says Ernesto Saqui, then a teacher in a nearby school.
" 'The jaguar is protected,' they said, 'but the people are disregarded. Why would you give the jaguar this rich land? The jaguars always have been there, and so they will always be.' "

The farmers got a bum deal, but they were wrong about the immutability of jaguars. They can, and have, disappeared from their land. The jaguar's range once included the southern United States, for instance, but the last recorded female with cubs there was killed in 1906. Although the occasional cat still wanders across the Mexican border, it is considered locally extinct. The ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote its epitaph: ". . . A glory has departed from the green lagoons."

A hummingbird hovers. A bat zooms over the water like a high-speed swag. The soft owl-call of pigeons gives way to the nightjar's rolling cooeeeeeeoo!

Four miles down the winding red-clay road that leads to Cockscomb, Silver and Ostro are setting a trap for jaguars, in the flat, green light of a subtropical afternoon. Although the IUCN Red List categorizes jaguars as "near threatened," in truth the cats are so widely dispersed, and so secretive, that nobody really has any idea how many exist throughout the Americas. Figuring out how best to count them is a high priority for conservation, and Silver and Ostro are at the cutting edge of this work.

Ostro wires a black-and-tan-camouflaged box to a post, at about the height of a jaguar's chest, then duplicates this setup on the other side of the road, and gives Silver the nod. He crouches, crab-walks forward, and . . . bang! Trapped. Camera-trapped, that is. The developed film will show Silver, a thin-faced man with a perpetually sleepy and quizzical expression, followed by some cars—remember the road—and a succession of heavy-bodied, black-and-gold cats.

The photos will be almost comic in their similarity: every cat broadside to the camera, midstride and openmouthed (the better to test the air for smells). Squat and muscular, jaguars are more likely to win a prize at a monster-tractor pull than at a feline beauty pageant—even in Belize, where the cats are smallish by jaguar standards, a big male topping out at 170 pounds. Their bowling-ball heads anchor massive jaw muscles and canines an inch and a half long. An individual jaguar can drag an 800-pound bull 25 feet in its jaws and pulverize the heaviest bones.

A close look at the photos shows that each jaguar has a distinctive pattern of rosettes, a personal Rorschach that makes this hands-off method of census possible. "What we're doing is called mark-and-recapture analysis," Silver explains. "Only we don't have to mark jaguars, because they come already marked. And we don't have to actually capture them, because the camera traps do that." Analyzing the proportion of jaguars that have been photographed more than once during the survey allows the biologists to estimate the overall number of jaguars in the area.

"Now we're exploring ways to identify individuals by DNA in their hair," Silver says, handing Ostro a rectangular wire brush—a sort of currycomb used for carding wool. She wires the brush to a post, and Silver mashes a grainy brown paste onto the bristles. The paste smells like an animal den: musky, pungent. It is designed to induce in the feline passerby an irresistible urge to scrape a cheek hard against it, posting the cat's own scent and depositing a sample of hairs in the process. The ingredients of this alluring paste? Weaver's Cat Call is the trade secret of one John Weaver, a WCS biologist.

"All I know is that we tested scents on jaguars at five zoos, and this worked best," Silver says. Then he grins. "Lions and cheetahs prefer Calvin Klein perfume: Obsession, for Men."

Forty cameras monitor roughly one-third of the Cockscomb Basin around the clock, two months a year. They're generating the first statistically sound density numbers for jaguars ever, anywhere in the world. The new numbers seem to agree with Rabinowitz's much rougher, arduously collected, estimates of 20 years ago, suggesting that this population is stable; at Cockscomb, jaguars are holding their ground.

And what of the locals, displaced for the jaguars' sake?
Most moved to a nearby village of 45 families, a place with a spectacularly ordinary name—Maya Center—by the standards of a country that can boast of Gallon Jug, Go-to-Hell, Cabbage Haul, and Bound to Shine. But here something extraordinary is taking place: a resurgence of pride in Belize's Mayan culture.

Three women are on staff today at the one-story, white-stucco Maya Center Women's Group. They chat idly in Mopan, their glossy-black braids hanging behind them, heavy and absolutely plumb. Barely five feet tall, full of figure and bronze of skin, they wear traditional embroidered Mayan blouses over floor-length satin skirts. When this co-op was first founded, they had to order the outfits from Guatemala; no one here still dressed like a Maya then.

It was the women who were able to make the sanctuary work for the community as well as for the wildlife. They developed a cottage industry of crafts—baskets, beadwork, and carved stones—and sold them at the turnoff to Cockscomb. In return for collecting entrance fees, they were permitted to keep 10 percent of the take, money they used on behalf of the community, hiring a second schoolteacher, buying desks for the school, helping the village's elderly. Business was slow to begin with. But every year more visitors came. More crafts were sold. By 1992 the co-op was firmly established, and the economy of the whole village had improved. Maya Center was able to dig a community well, install electricity, and upgrade the school.

"Not only could we reap an economic benefit, but it could help to preserve our culture," says Saqui, who, as sanctuary director, first encouraged the women's enterprise and forged the community's relationship with Belize Audubon.

I share a pot of escabeche—a Mayan chicken garlic soup—with Saqui at Nu'uk Che'il, his wife's restaurant, and snag a ride back to Cockscomb with him in the slowly fading light. On the red clay road, I count one, two, three, four cryptic gray-brown nightjars before Saqui slams on the brakes. A young fer-de-lance is crossing the road, its slender body a collection of graceful curves. The snake is maybe four feet long, shiny and charcoal-colored in the waning light, with a beautiful little arrow-shaped head. It waits to see what the large white-metal animal will do, then proceeds into the grass not far from the jaguar trap. Saqui starts up the truck. One hundred yards along, it judders to a stop once again.

"A jaguar!" Saqui hisses.

There, standing plainly in the middle of the road, is the great cat itself. The jaguar stares into the cab with round eyes. Unafraid. Annoyed, perhaps. It turns and pads heavily away on enormous, thickly furred paws. Saqui lets out the brake a little and we roll slowly along behind. This one is a big animal; a male, Saqui thinks. Dusk dims its golden color and blurs its rosettes, but we can see its teddy-bear ears and round head, its stout body and shortish legs. In the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee, the jaguar steps into the forest and is gone.

"You're lucky. You saw a jaguar," Saqui says. Elated, I mumble an inarticulate reply. We sit for a moment gazing at the patch of forest that has swallowed up the cat. It looks different to me now. This isn't just an assemblage of plants, large and small. There are jaguars here.

At the park, Saqui rolls to a stop in the parking lot and we stroll along the river trail. He shines his flashlight on a tree trunk leaning out over the river. Silhouetted along the edge, an animated, luminescent vine is marching from the canopy to the ground. The beam of light swoops down, and there is the highway in full rush-hour swing—thousands and thousands of leaf-cutting ants coursing along their immaculate rut, each toting its snippet of leaf to the fungus kibbutz underground. It's a stirring sight in the tiny theater of the torchlight, as if all the sloops in the world were streaming before the wind under leafy-green sail.

We settle onto a bench and look out over the water. Its surface shines like platinum in the moonlight. The sky darkens; Saqui's harried-bureaucrat look loosens into repose. "The people don't yet understand Cockscomb from a conservation point of view," he says. "But they understand that preservation is in their best interest from an economic view. They know the people come here to see the birds and the animals and plants. Eventually, I hope, they will understand the whole."

We sit quietly, the air fragrant with some unseen bloom. Rafts of yellow yemeri blossoms float downstream, catch on a snag, and spiral free. Small things happen. A hummingbird darts and hovers. A frog hops past. A bat zooms over the water like a high-speed swag. The soft owl-call of pigeons gives way to the nightjar's rolling cooeeeeeeoo! One lands on the ground beside us. With each syllable its whole body hiccups, feathers ruffling up and settling down. Our jaguar is probably still prowling the forest. I wonder whether he'll have his photo snapped, or if he'll succeed in catching a fat armadillo. I hope he will.

It was an amazing stroke of luck to see a jaguar. But our jaguar is lucky, too. When his great-grandparents were mere nursing cubs, Belize set aside this grand forest and its abundant prey base on their behalf. Thanks to that farseeing move, here you may still see jaguar tracks denting the soft ground—or, rarer, the bright blood from its fresh-killed prey. You may even, if you';re in the right spot at just the right time, come across the enigmatic creature itself. For here is a wild place, in full and robust health, its natural ecosystems intact. Riding on the jaguar's broad back, those smaller things—the frog, the leaf-cutting ants, the nightjars—are thriving, too.

SUSAN MCGRATH's most recent article for Audubon, "Color Blindness," appeared in the December 2003 global warming issue.



© 2004 National Audubon Society

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Tracking the Jaguar

The Belize Audubon Society (independent from the national organization) manages nine of the country’s protected areas, including the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Its website (www.belizeaudubon.org/html/parks/cbws.htm) tells you how to reach the reserve, where to stay when you get there, and even describes the trail system. The Belize Zoo, half an hour outside of Belize City, provides visitors with an excellent introduction to the country’s native wildlife. Its Tropical Education Center offers overnight accommodations. You can also support the nonprofit from home: A $100 donation to “Adopt a Jaguar” will pay for a jaguar’s daily care for a year (www.belizezoo.org/). The Belize Tourism Board offers information to help kick-start your trip to the country’s wild places (www.travelbelize.org/). To learn more about conservation areas and how they are managed, consult the Protected Areas Conservation Trust (www.pactbelize.org).