The Jungle Matriarch: One Jaguar’s Legacy

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

Jaguar F11-9
©PANTHERA/BELIZE AUDUBON SOCIETY

In this blog, Panthera Belize Director Dr. Bart Harmsen illustrates the life of F11-9, a female jaguar in the Cockscomb Basin, a critical sanctuary for jaguars in Belize. Read on to discover her contributions to jaguar research as she nears her final days. 

I first met F11-9 in 2011. That is what her name means, after all — she was captured on camera trap in 2011, a young adult female jaguar roaming the forests of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize. At the time, we did not yet know the critical role she would play in this dynamic paradise for jaguars. And now, approximately 11 years since that fateful day, she has shown us a great deal, contributing to our understanding of this jaguar population. 

As one of Panthera’s oldest and most prominent programs, Panthera Belize has the privilege of documenting the individual livelihoods of Belize’s jaguars, thanks to records garnered with our partners, the Belize Audubon Society, over 20 years. These records enable us to paint a rare, clear picture of the life of F11-9 and her importance to her ecosystem. Her story begins with a notable appearance in a camera trap. Although we spot jaguars with relative frequency, this appearance was different.

F11-9 with other jaguar
F11-9 with one of her cubs.
©PANTHERA/BELIZE AUDUBON SOCIETY

Female jaguars play a role different from male jaguars in their ranges. I previously told the story of Ben the jaguar, a dominant male in Cockscomb Basin who has since declined after injury. His story was one of movement — as a male jaguar, he dispersed far from his mother’s territory, traveling jungle trails far and wide to establish his territory and gain access to female jaguars. Female jaguars like F11-9 behave differently. They stay close to their mothers’ home ranges, sometimes splitting ranges with the jaguars who raised them. 

Because male jaguars journey across vast swathes of territory, they are more often seen on our camera traps than female jaguars, as we often position our camera traps on open jungle roads. Seeing a female on these camera traps is a rare treat, as female jaguars usually stay away from larger, dominant males who frequent the roads and may kill their young. Rarer still was the sight F11-9 provided us. When we viewed her camera trap photo, there was a notable little companion in tow — a jaguar cub. Cubs are scarcely seen on our camera traps, so we carefully noted F11-9’s presence. She was a sign of things yet to come, holding the future of Cockscomb in her path across the dark forest night.

F11-9 with armadillo
©PANTHERA/BELIZE AUDUBON SOCIETY

F11-9 began to show up more frequently in our records. In 2013, she became notorious for her ability to hunt armadillos, as seen in the incredible camera trap photo above. More and more, she was finding her way into our camera trap gallery within the small range where she was likely born and will probably spend her entire life. And then, in 2014, our initial vision of her significance was confirmed. Cubs accompanied her! 

This was not the last time we saw her with cubs. In 2015 and 2016, our camera traps also showed her with young jaguars by her side. F11-9 had become a staple of Cockscomb’s jaguar population. Along with Ben, who likely sired some of her cubs, she was a vital force in our mission to protect jaguars.

 

F11-9 with cub
F11-9 and her cub.
©PANTHERA/BELIZE AUDUBON SOCIETY

Unfortunately, F11-9 is nearing her final days. She likely is unable to hunt as well as she used to. In recent months, people have seen her on the Cockscomb trails, skinny and unable to walk very well. Injured and elderly, she will likely patrol the forests for only a short while longer. 

Her legacy lives on. Like Ben, she has contributed so much to the ecosystem. Her son has since become an established male at the other end of the Basin, and her daughters roam parts of the territory she has called home likely all her life. A new generation rises from the rosettes of F11-9, Ben and other jaguars in the sanctuary, a generation critical to jaguar conservation. Although a generation inevitably passes on, their stories live on, a cluster of threads in the fabric of a crucial jaguar population.

Learn more about jaguars.