Assessing Jaguars in Belize’s Jungles

By Bart Harmsen, Ph.D.
Director, Belize Program; Conservation Scientist

Jaguar facing camera trap

January 10, 2022

One of the many countries we work in to protect jaguars is Belize! In this blog, learn from our Belize Program Director Bart Harmsen about the history of the program, the challenges of camera trapping in the country and our goals for the future. You’ll get a unique glimpse into the mysterious world of Central America’s jaguars. 

The first questions you get asked as a cat expert when working in a range country of a particular cat species are “how many of them are in this protected area?”, “how many are there in the region?” and “how many are there in the country?”. Well, these questions are actually quite difficult to answer when the cat species is extremely elusive and hardly ever seen, like jaguars living in the broadleaf jungles of the neotropics. If you look at videos of jaguars on the internet, there are many of them walking and hunting along river edges in the Pantanal. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. The Pantanal has more common sightings because it is a relatively open landscape with gallery forest along river edges where jaguars hunt. So, they predictably can be seen and detected along the river from a boat. For the remainder of jaguars’ distribution range, they mainly live a secretive life behind a forest wall of green, with only rare glimpses and a few tracks in the mud for humans to wonder about. In these areas, how do you start counting and doing your accountant work of figuring out how many are where? 

Jaguar night

Thankfully, jaguars like to walk on open jungle pathways. Here, they can be reliably photographed with camera traps. We have been doing this type of camera trapping in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize since 2003, meaning next year, we will reach the landmark of 20 years of camera trap monitoring. At the beginning, when ordinary cameras had already mostly transitioned to digital, camera traps were still not at the stage where they were fast enough to be reliable. While the rest of the world went digital, camera traps were still using film. Talking about this makes me feel I am part of history, and when I talk to a current new generation of young researchers, the concept of film cameras is completely alien to them! While film may be a thing of the past, there are still a few old jaguars alive today that were first captured on film camera. Some have been in our records for 13 years in a row, meaning they are a minimum of 15 years old (they have to be at least 2 years old if caught on camera for the first time as an adult).  

Our long-term monitoring in Cockscomb allowed us to study jaguars in the basin in-depth, but we were never able to say if individuals perished or simply moved to another river catchment. Only when we started to exchange pictures of our individuals with other researchers studying in other parts of the country did we notice that some of the individuals we only detected a few times in Cockscomb turned out to be the main residents in areas surveyed by other researchers 50-100 km away from the point of first detection in Cockscomb. The reverse was the same — an unknown new resident turned out to have a backstory kilometers away from Cockscomb.  

Camera trap jaguar

This illustrates the importance of collaboration between researchers. To account for jaguars at a landscape level, communal gathering of data becomes an absolute necessity. No research group can do this alone. Therefore, in Belize, we are trying to create an easy data exchange, a single data bank where one can deposit their camera data. Like with a bank, one can have their account and can withdraw data and lend it to others for particular projects. And Panthera is paving the way for this to take place. Panthera personnel has the longest record of experience with large-scale camera deployment and subsequent use for analyses in the country, and we have accumulated one of the largest datasets of camera trapping across the country. This, combined with Panthera Integrated Data Systems (PantheraIDS), a state-of-the-art data management and analytics platform, allows Panthera to help partners setting up monitoring programs and assure data actually streams into a central and standardized system.  

With this system, our future work will flourish. We have set up partnerships with co-managing NGOs and foreign universities to combine data into PantheraIDS, with the purpose of generating national assessments for different wildlife species caught on camera, including jaguars. The reports will be a conglomerate effort, allowing the government to get accurate and precise information on jaguar distribution within their protected area system and beyond for the first time. This will be the first time that a country can amass such data within a single study, with adequate sample sizes of detected jaguar individuals to allow such estimation (100+ for a country like Belize).

Two jaguars
©Ya'axche Conservation Trust/Panthera

Apart from counting and estimating the number of jaguar individuals and their distribution across the landscape (the accounting part), we will also be able to assess when different jaguar individuals run into trouble when venturing into villages and livestock farms. Panthera and partners equally deploy camera traps around villages and farms across the country, allowing us to assess the level at which individuals move out of protected areas. We have already established on several occasions that specific individuals change their hunting strategies and are regularly detected within the human-dominated landscape. This is especially useful if we can link these detections to calls for help when people lose domestic animals to hungry jaguars. We also have been able to link individuals in our database to confiscated skins and photos of shot jaguars, allowing us to track individuals through time and assess their tragic ends. Even more importantly, we sometimes detect jaguars close to human habitation when there actually is no conflict. All these data allow us to understand and prevent human-jaguar conflict. Over time, our efforts will allow us to tell the story of a vibrant jaguar population in Belize. Though the country is small in size, it will help us showcase one of the most secure jaguar populations in the north of their range.  

Learn more about jaguars