The tropical Central American country of Belize is home to five species of wild cat: jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarundi. You can see images of each species in the above slideshow.
These 5 species of cats have learned to co-exist in the same area by eating different prey and keeping out of each others way. Such a large variety of cats in such a small geographical area is amazing!
Each species plays a vital role in maintaining healthy prey density, with the smaller cats controlling rodent populations. Rodents carry diseases that can be transferred to humans and rodents eat a lot of plant life. If the rodent population were to skyrocket due to the absence of small wild cats, plant life would dwindle and diseases would run rampant.
Puma patrolling its jungle territory
Belize is a country about the size of Massachusetts and is located in Central America along the caribbean coast. It is an English speaking country and is fairly safe to travel in. The human population is mainly in three cities and along the coast, leaving the mountainous interior somewhat untouched and wild. This untouched area serves as a wildlife corridor for animals to travel between southern Mexico and Central America.
Like other developing countries Belize is feeling the stress of population increase which in turn destroys the wild habitat range. The main source of income for most Belizeans is farming. To make more money to support their families they are slashing and burning more jungles. This is where the issue lies......and that is why we are gathering credible data and working with the local government and villages to practice mutually beneficial conservation plans to help ensure Belize's wildlife remains wild with plenty of habitat to live in and expand on.
Bladen River surrounded by lush jungle
PHASE ONE ran from 1/2016 to 12/2019. Our goals were to gather evidence of all five species of wild cat living in the area and analyze human-wild cat conflict areas. Cameras were set up in the maya jungle mountains and along the foothills of the mountains. During this phase we captured 3,931 of images of wildlife with 876 of them being of wild cats - 273 were of jaguar, 177 were of puma, 300 were of ocelot, 88 were of margay and 38 were of jaguarundi. We had cameras set up deep in the jungle and there were also cameras set up close to human activity. The data suggested that in the areas that were deep in the jungle, wildlife was abundant, healthy and populations were higher the further away from humans they were. In the areas that were close to human activity, there were less animals and the smaller animals tended to stay closer to the research station while the larger ones stayed farther away from the station. The smaller predators may stay closer to the station because their prey were attracted to the compost pile scraps and they may have felt more protected from poachers. The images we gathered in this phase helped us get an overall understanding of the wildlife in the area, how they behave, and predator:prey ratios.
Margay sitting on a wood plank over a small stream in the research station's protected area.
PHASE TWO started 1/2020 and is still in progress. We have two areas of study in this phase.
One study is on the cacao crop agroforestry which is a popular current eco-friendly way to plant a mixture of crops in the same space to help improve crop growth as well as provide a mini-jungle canopy layer for wildlife to utilize. This practice is an improvement on the old way of clearing the land to plant small crops which was not wildlife friendly and fragmented the landscape. We have cameras set up in a new crop area as well as an old crop area, with both crops being actively used and maintained by humans. These crops are growing cacao trees and have been incorporated with different height native trees to improve on the overall current agroforestry practices, which would result in a healthier crop yield and be more wildlife friendly.
Our goal is to gather information in the form of images so we can determine what wildlife is utilizing the crops and how we can improve on the agroforestry to increase wildlife use in the areas.
The second study is a focus on margay behavior. This species has had little study and analysis done on them in Belize. We are focusing cameras on areas where we believe margay frequent to understand their activity patterns, resting areas and overall behavior when on the move. This information will give us a better understanding of margay needs so we can revise current conservation practices for this species. We have cameras dedicated to finding margay resting spots, these cameras are moved periodically throughout the jungle to identify areas of strong margay presence. Once these areas are identified more in-depth research will be done in these areas to gain a better understandingof this small feline.
Setting up a trail camera inside a cacao crop
PHASE THREE will begin in 2021. We will continue the cacao crop research and margay research from Phase Two and we will also begin a new project in central Belize for Phase Three. This new project is two-fold. We will be working with the Belize Zoo in the Central Belize Wildlife Corridor. There is a huge conservation project underway to protect the land and restore it back to a wildlife haven. There are many moving parts to this project that numerous organizations will be involved in. Our involvement will be to monitor a private section of land with trail cameras in order to analyze the reintroduction of wildlife to the area. Some of our cameras will be in locations strictly for this reintroduction process and some will be in locations to focus on the lesser known species, margay and jaguarundi. As seen in this picture we have already been on-site scoping out the area and looking for wild cat signs. Now that we are familiar with the landscape we are working on determining potential camera station areas where the smaller wild cats might utilize. We look forward to working with the Belize Zoo and other NGOs on this long term wildlife conservation project.
Searching for wild cat signs (tracks, scrapes, etc)