Community-based Wild Cats Conservation Program

To determine the ecology of the felid assemblage native to Belize


The jaguar is culturally significant across the Americas and has been identified as an umbrella species. It is the focus of conservation efforts throughout its range and across national boundaries, ensuring the conservation of numerous other plant and animal species that share its ecosystems. However, jaguar populations are still declining as connected landscapes are rapidly diminishing, and there is a paucity of shared knowledge and data among nations for successful recovery efforts. The Labouring Creek Jaguar Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary was established as part of a central jaguar corridor to provide a protected landscape between Belmopan and Belize City, which connects protected areas in northern and southern Belize. Even with these efforts, population numbers are increasingly fragmented and there is a steady rise in human–wildlife conflicts as contact zones spread with increasing human population growth.


Even more striking is the dearth of data on the other felid species that co-occur with the better-known jaguar. Although the puma has the widest range and is a relatively common animal, little is known about its biology. The ocelot is also frequently encountered but beyond home range data in some areas, it is an understudied species. Jaguarundis and margays are the least studied of the five felids in Belize and there are virtually no data on their ecology, home ranges and feeding and mating behaviours. As a result, the co-existing felid assemblage presents an unstudied system in Belize, vital to effective habitat sharing and well-designed conservation strategies.


The implementation of a joint camera trapping survey and telemetry tracking of the felid guild will provide vital information on the fine-scale activity patterns, home ranges, movements and behavioural ecology of the five felid species, and will ultimately provide data on resource portioning and species coexistence. This monitoring programme will accurately determine not only species richness but also detectability and occupancy by felids, in addition to vital data on prey density and human disturbance for a complete understanding of community structure.


A community-conservation programme that involves both local landowners and residents will ensure that felids are not viewed as threats but are beneficial to a landscape. The areas surrounding the New River and New River Lagoon are mostly privately owned, but if wild cats are to survive in this landscape mosaic of forest, agriculture and pasture, conservation measures need to be a joint venture with landowners and communities. Presently, our camera trapping efforts involve multiple landowners, from three villages and of differing cultural backgrounds. Across our study period, not only have no more jaguars or large cats been shot, but the perspectives of landowners are changing to now value cat movement on their property.


Field research that entails tracking felids and quantifying prey availability will determine land use and occupancy rates of wild cats and prey on landowner property. Results will be applied to develop best management practices for involved communities and for sustainable eco-tourist ventures that benefit and depend on conserving wildlife in the area. A grass-roots conservation programme is integral to both educational outreach and effective conservation efforts. We aim to understand how human impacts affect the felid guild in an increasingly human-dominated landscape. By involving rural communities living near wildlife in conservation initiatives, they help to shoulder the management of wildlife and share in the revenues earned by wildlife industries. Only through better understanding of the species involved can long-term survival be predicted in an ever-changing ecosystem.


WAZA Conservation Project 13007 is implemented by the Lamanai Field Research Center, with support provided by Zoo Miami, Rolling Hills Zoo and Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. Other stakeholders involved in the project include the University of Florida, Wildlife Capture International, Lamanai Outpost Lodge and Belize Forest Department.




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    Wild Cat Conservation

    (1) © Lamanai Field Research Center, (2) - (3) © Frank Ridgley/Zoo Miami