On the Trail of the Jaguar in Central Belize
Tue, June 24, 2008
In the 1980’s, American zoologist Alan Rabinowitz led the crusade to establish the world’s first jaguar reserve in Belize’s Cockscomb Basin. The rest, as they say is history. Belize has gone on to great international fame as a conservation trailblazer and our protected jaguar population in Belize has become a thing of genuine wonderment and not a few touristic marketing manoeuvres.
And while tourism and conservation have exploded, in the 20 years since the Cockscomb Reserve was established, no Belizean has stepped forward to take up the mantle and local jaguar research has been dominated by foreigners. And that’s where the subject of our next story comes in. He is Omar Figueroa, a Cayo boy and Belize’s first jaguar man, or to put it more properly, first full-time jaguar researcher. And Figueroa’s not only picking up where Rabinowitz left off, he’s literally re-mapping what is known about jaguars in Belize.
Jules Vasquez visited with him at the Runaway Creek Nature Preserve off the Coastal Road.
Jules Vasquez Reporting,
This is the Runaway Creek Nature Reserve. In the early light it seems picturesque as the morning sun shimmers and dances on a wet weather pond. But don’t let that idyllic setting fool you, this place can be hell! First there’s the nearly impassable roads...and while those are difficult, the bush is far worse.
This may look like a casual jungle hike led by Reserve Manager Reynold Cal with jaguar experts Omar Figueroa and Bart Harmsen and Pecarry Hills guide Gilford Hoare. But after the floods, it feels like a descent into hell: it’s a trek through the most mosquito infested area I’ve ever encountered. And if you don’t see a cloud of them hovering behind Figueroa’s backpack you can see them here, when he stops. But what to do? Just shake them off and walk on – on the trail of the jaguar.
Omar Figueroa, Jaguar Researcher
“We’re trapping jaguars and pumas and deploying GPS collars with a pre-determined program of positioning fixes.”
Figueroa knows that the cats are frequent visitors to this cave and they have been captured on specialised unmanned photosensitive cameras that were placed in the cave and all along this route to make sure they are looking in the right place. And the cave is one of those places where the big cats bring prey to eat, away from the mosquitoes and the heat. Cat scat as it’s called shows that they’ve been through here fairly recently. These shards of pottery indicate that the cave was also used plentifully by the Mayas along with jaguars. One of them crushed this turtle and this armadillo.
“They usually attack by grabbing an animal by the back of the neck. They bite and then they break their skulls here at the back.”
But after a brief stop in the cave, it’s more trekking, deeper into the jungle where after an hour we do find a spider monkey who looks like he’s having his own mosquito issues but no jaguar as the trap we’ve come to check is unsprung.
“So it is negative for today but tomorrow’s another day.”
He’s re-covering the neatly concealed trap – so that the jaguar doesn’t see it. This is the first time this type of leg hold trap has been used in Central America.
“It’s a leg hold trap, a specialized leg hold trap that essentially tightens a noose around the jaguar’s leg. It comes equipped with a shock absorber so that when the jaguar jerks on it, the joints are not injured and it also has swivels so there is no twisting on the leg. So it is by far the safest method to trap these large carnivores.”
And to demonstrate how safe, Figueroa tested it himself – showing that it caused no trauma to his hand. But apart from being harmless and almost undetectable on the jungle floor, the trap’s most important feature is that it is fitted with a radio transmitter, which tells the trapper when something’s been caught. When it is activated this pin is released and it sends a signal to trappers out in the field who use this portable antenna to track the radio signal. One beep every three seconds like this.
[Beeping…this is 07 and then that one is not triggered and then 08..beeping…one pulse every three seconds.]
Means nothing has been captured; if it beeped three times a second that would have meant something was caught. Nothing on this day but weeks earlier the beeps came in a flurry, and this snarling jaguar was waiting for them.
[Footage of Wild Jaguar]
Coming in direct physical contact with a wild jaguar is a rare and exhilarating moment that very few have had.
“You have to understand that we’re dealing here with the largest cat in the Americas and, if you really look at it real closely, we’re looking at the cat that has the strongest bite, pound for pound in terms of pressure per square inch; the strongest bite of any of the large cats all over this planet.”
Bart Harmsen has been working with jaguar research in the Cocksomb for five years but he’s never been this close.
“Suddenly you can touch your study animal and for me that was one of the most thrilling moments in the world in a lot of ways. Before that it’s been four years of seeing sometimes maybe a glimpse of them or seeing them sometimes walking on the trail and suddenly you have this powerful cat right in front of you and it is a magical feeling. I feel like a privileged person now that I can do that.
I actually thought that they would be really angry at you but they just try to get away from you. I mean they’re snarling at you, they are definitely snarling but you can see that they are just trying to shy away from. You got this big powerful cat that you know has the power to kill you but they’re not doing that. They are looking at you and they’re trying to just get away. They know that if driven to it, they will charge at you but first they are just trying to get away. And that surprises me, the shyness in these powerful animals.”
Reynold Cal, Reserve Manager
“The jaguar is a very feared animal and the Mayans, my ancestors, revered it very much and to actually get close to it, it is very exhilarating.”
“It is the quite experience for me because I had never gotten so close to a jaguar alive. I usually see them when they are dead and that is the only time I went so close to one that was alive so it was kind of scaring to me.”
“So it is intimidating and you have to be very careful. When I encounter a cat in a trap, I really don’t have time to think about a lot of things. I get focused and I just have to make sure I drug that cat as quickly as possible because the jaguar is coming at you. The difference between a jaguar and a puma in a trap is the puma is running away from you and the jaguar is coming at you. So you have to move fast and there is no room for error.”
This is what he moves with, a carbon powered tranquilizer gun, seen here under the tutelage of world re-knowned trapping expert Barren Simpson. Here, this puma gathers a defensive stance but is hit before he knows what caught him and shortly after he’s falling asleep. Once asleep, he’s fitted with this collar. At US$4,000 each, it’s designed to be lightweight but efficient; it has a VHF transmitter, a UHF transmitter and a GPS transmitter.
“These collars weigh about 300 to 400 grams. It is very light compared to the weight of these top predators. They come equipped with UHF beacon and a VHF beacon. In addition they have a GPS. So when the cat is running around, the GPS is working. It is getting fixes and it stores it on board.”
And that’s where this computer comes in, Figueroa tracks them with the VHF signal – and then hones into the collar with a UHF download.
“After I have identified where these cats are, I hook up with my computer and I establish a connection with the UHF beacon and it is through that connection that I download all the GPS points and I can download two to three hundred points per second when I have a good connection.”
And beyond the exhilaration of capture and the adventure of the trek, that’s the real purpose of this study. To find out where the cats are, where they roam and how they co-exist.
“If you look Belize, the entire country, you have two huge conservation blocks. But in the central portion of Belize there is no connectivity, there is no corridors.”
“We need to know how these cats are moving around in this landscape and with this kind of knowledge, knowing how these cats are moving around, the Belize government will be able to shape policy of how they have to deal with these jaguars.”
And as what are called apex predators, jaguars are critical to understanding the state of play of the surrounding environment.
“The main reason behind using these cats is that as the apex predator they play a critical role in maintaining the structure and function of ecosystems. So when you devise a conservation policy, a natural resource policy, focused on these cats, you simultaneously protect a host of sympatric species. When you focus and you develop conservation policy, natural resource policy around this jaguar you are essentially protecting a host of other specie, flora and fauna biodiversity in general.
Then we will better be able to start to gain some educated guesses as to how many jaguars we have in this country and really where the critical areas are that we need to protect for these cats. You could protect 50% of this country but you could be protecting, half of that you don’t really need to protect. It could be an erroneous plan.”
And while tracking will fine tune plans, it will also tell us about this fascinating predator.
“All the large cats Jules, across this planet, have really inspired their fair share of legends of superstitions but only the jaguar has really dominated the culture and the religion of an entire continent. You could go back to as early as recorded history in South America and 5,000 year old jaguar sculptures have been unearthed from that era. You can go back 2000 years ago and there are 20 jaguar sculptures and even around us there are the Mayan times. So from a cultural perspective it is important. It is easy to reach out to people and project the jaguar as the conservation icon.”
And a large part of that iconography is the enduring mystery of these predators and their deadly stealth as they traverse the country’s interior. And hopefully, some of the allure of that mystery is preserved, even as these cats are studied and probed.
Figueroa’s research is for the completion of his doctorate at the University of Florida. The study area is concentrated in the contiguous Peccary Hills and Runaway Creek Reserves in central Belize. Combined they occupy an 18,000 acre swathe. So far 3 pumas and 3 jaguars have been collared.
His research is funded by award from the International Foundation for Science based in Sweden. The Panthera/Wildlife Conservation Society with local institutional assistance from PACT and BTB and privately from David Gegg and the Peccary Hills Initiative and Dr. Gil Boese, Foundation for Wildlife Conservation and the Runaway Creek Nature Reserve who have both donated collars and other assistance.
Shortly after our story, the mosquitoes got even worse and the team pulled up traps. Figueroa is presently in the USA acquiring more collars so that he can set up more traps to cover a greater area.