The best fate that many animals from Belize could ever hope for is to be the prey of jaguars. Visiting Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary we discovered the complex habitat that jaguars need in order to survive, and at the same time we were amazed by the beauty and diversity of species living in that jungle.
Personally, I wanted to avoid Belize in this three months travel. It felt like visiting six countries in such a short time span is too much. However, now, at the end of the travel, I can say that Belize gave me one of the most amazing experiences of this Central American travel. We started off in Hopkins where we discovered the Garifuna community and played drums with one of the most famous drum-masters in Belize. We swam with nurse sharks in San Pedro. We visited the Child Aid project of Humana Belize where we helped renovating schools. And the most fascinating adventure for me: we spent a few days camping in the jungle, in the Cockscomb Basin.
We were lucky to have two unofficial guides with us in the wildlife sanctuary. Guillermo, our team leader from One World Institute Norway is a birdwatcher and has a long experience as a guide in Costa Rica. Christian, who works for Humana Belize, is a Danish birding enthusiast who lived in Belize for the past 20 years. Christian knows the local wildlife and understands the specific challenges it has to face in the area. He was happy to join us on our trip in the reserve and share his knowledge. After setting the camp, we prepared our binoculars and cameras, and we chose one of the trails that visitors are allowed to use. It’s hard to describe what I felt being surrounded by that vegetation and by so many different species of birds! It was like peeking into a completely new world, with fascinating shapes, colors and sounds. Watching humming birds it’s a thrilling experience in itself: they seem so delicate, yet they play such a vital role in the survival of certain plant species.
And there were so many other birds! We could see them up close, since they weren’t so disturbed by our presence. Guillermo and Christian are able to identify any bird with only a glance, and most of them even by the sounds they make. It was great having them around because they could answer all of my questions related to the nature around. During the trip we saw more than birds. My top 5 list of animals we spotted would be: kinkajou, tarantula, basilisk, peccary, and toucan. And even better than seeing these animals was finding out about their specific roles in the ecosystem. I particularly liked finding out from Christian about the use of local plants as medicine. He explained their different uses, from painkillers to disinfectants. Seems that there is little need for pharmaceuticals in Belize if you know what grows around you.
The most important information I got from Christian was understanding how the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary works in more general terms. The Sancturay is a reserve for biodiversity: it protects the forests, fauna and watersheds of the eastern region of the Maya Mountains. But it is also recognized internationally as the world’s first Jaguar Preserve. Why are jaguars so important in this ecosystem, apart from being one of the majestic Big Cats? Jaguars are predators – at the top of the food chain in Belize. A food chain is nothing more than “what eats what” in an ecosystem. Food chains are also called “food webs”, because the term “web” describes more accurately the relationships between predators and prey in an ecosystem. However you call it, the jaguar is at the top: nothing eats this cat. Jaguars feed on lots of species both from water and from the forests: caiman fish, peccaries, tapirs, deer, and so on. Therefore, in order to have a sound population of jaguars in the preserve, the rangers need to protect everything in the food web: all animals that are the prey of jaguars, and all plants or animals that are food for the jaguar’s prey. In short, it means protecting all species, be it plants, insects, reptiles, birds, amphibians, or mammals.
Jaguars are threatened by habitat destruction, and by persecution (trophy hunting, poaching for fur, or hunted by farmers). First of all, their disappearance from the food chain causes uncontrolled populations of the species which are its prey. In turn, these species will over-consume the plants or other small animals on which they feed. It’s very difficult to predict all the consequences of the disappearance of a predator because of the very intricate relationships between living things in an ecosystem. People do not fully understand these relationships, and the consequences are not immediate. However, ecosystems are the ones providing invaluable services for the planet, and for humans as a consequence; services such as potable water, breathable air, fertile soil. Moreover, it’s been proven in African ecosystems that the diminished number of big cats (lions, leopards), has led to the rise in infectious diseases in the human population from the region. It’s difficult to foresee what we lose in the long term when a predator goes extinct, but we can be sure it will have grave impacts on us and the environment.
Second of all, the increase in populations of species like peccaries and tapirs is not beneficial either for these animals, or for their habitat. These species are mostly herbivores, and they would end up eating crops from surrounding farms. Having a natural predator is much better for any species, because predators only eat what they need in order to survive. Unfortunately, this is not true when it comes to people. If these herbivores end up eating crops, they will be hunted to extinction by farmers.
Nowadays, jaguars are thriving in Cockscomb Basin. We were not able to see one – they are rather shy animals and avoid humans when they feel their scent. I realize the extreme efforts of the park rangers and of the people who fought for the preserve; but today they can say “we have a healthy habitat for jaguars”. After this trip in the jungle I understand all the implications of this phrase, so, apart from my love of nature in general, this is the reason why I value this particular experience so much.