The Beast of the Jungle: Jaguars in Belize

Of all of the animals in Belize- the howler monkey, the puma or cougar, or the peccary- it is the jaguar that is the most visible, both as a national symbol for the nation and as a flagship species for conservation in the small Central American nation. Belize is the only one in the region in which English is its official language and a country in which a thriving ecotourism industry has driven conservation efforts to a scale beyond that of many Central and South American nations. Yet even in Belize, where it is protected from hunting, the jaguar- the largest big cat in the Western hemisphere and the third largest in the world- faces a dubious future, with the threat of illegal hunting, loss of habitat, and an already low population threatening to further reduce the cat’s already diminishing range.

Big Cat 2


Once, jaguars roamed from the southwest United States through Central America and into the South American Andes, yet over the years this range has been reduced by over 40% and, with the exception of a few scattered sightings in Arizona,  the species has been eradicated from the United States.

IUCN Jaguar Map


A largely solitary creature, coming together only to mate, the jaguar possess the most powerful jaws of all big cats- larger even than the lion or tiger- and hunt mostly at night over a territory of about 20 square kilometers. Like some leopards, jaguars can also be born black (although their spotted pattern is still visible beneath). These black jaguars are often differentiated by the name “panther”, though there is no difference between them and a normal, yellow and black-spotted jaguar.

Although Belize sports one the healthiest populations of jaguars in the world, aside from a few protected sanctuaries they only exist in large populations in two parts of the country: the uninhabited Mayan mountains to the west, near the Guatemala border, and the “Biosphere Maya”, an area that follows the path of the Rio Bravo and extends into Southern Mexico and Guatemala. In total, the Mayan mountains are home to around 400 jaguars, and the Biosphere Maya around 2500- although only about 200 jaguars may live in the Belizean section of this biosphere.

While these may seem like large numbers- certainly in light with the terrifyingly few individuals of some species on the endangered animals list (as of now, the jaguar is listed as “near-threatened”), according to some scientists, these numbers are too low to support a viable population that last more than 200 years, which is thought to require a number of about 650 animals or more- a goal that neither biosphere is anywhere close to achieving.

Because of this, some scientists are proposing the establishment of a wildlife corridor between the two areas, which would link the two populations together and allow for a more long-term, stable future for the Jaguar in the country.

While this particular corridor has yet to have been built, the Belizean government has been proactive in buildings its own wildlife corridor in central Belize, between the capital of Belmopan and the nation’s largest city, Belize City. This corridor is meant to help facilitate the travel of jaguars across their historic range, as well as protecting them from hunting and giving a place for populations to mingle and breed in.

Although this is a huge step in the right direction, other risks still exist for jaguars in Belize. Overhunting of jaguar’s natural prey, including deer and peccaries, has forced the animals to prey on livestock, turning them into “problem animals” that are often killed by ranchers in retaliation for the deaths of their animals.

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Devin Windelspecht is a freshman at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations.

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