The Story of Ben, Our Jaguar Friend

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

Ben the Jaguar

In the tropical jungles of Mesoamerica, it's rare to see a jaguar, let alone get know the life history of individuals. Within the Panthera Belize program, Ben the jaguar became an exception to this rule. Meeting Ben profoundly changed my scientific career. 

Ben’s story began in 2011 as a jaguar in our records simply known as M11-8. By 2013, we started to note him as the jaguar dominating our records. Ben was everywhere in the East part of the Cockscomb Basin, taking up half of all our camera trap pictures. This pattern continued into 2014 and 2015. The time was ripe for a meeting. And in 2015, I first met Ben. We received funding for a telemetry study and were able to safely capture him. For our team, the enigma of M11-8 became a reality; we got to touch him, examine him and collect data, before fitting a GPS collar around his neck that would allow us to track him for over a year, after which it would automatically drop off. Shortly after this, our main field technician for the Belize program, Arturo Ramos, known to everyone as Ben, died in a tragic car accident. He assisted with capturing M11-8 and setting up the traps. In honor of our friend and jungle expert, we renamed M11-8 Ben.

Arturo (Ben's namesake) and I GPS collaring Ben.
Arturo (Ben's namesake) and I GPS collaring Ben.

Now, we would wake up every morning with updates on where Ben was and track how he staunchly patrolled his East Cockscomb Basin jungle realm. He frequently travelled along the river systems of the Basin, coming back to the trail system we monitored with cameras. After Ben dropped his collar, he kept walking the trails. One day, I bumped into a big male accompanied by a female. We stared at each other for about a minute before the pair decided to move off the trail (a typical jaguar encounter but a very good one). As the pair walked past the camera, photographing themselves, I knew I would be able to figure out who they were. The male was Ben, and he had found a companion! 

Ben dominated these trails until 2019, photographed hundreds of times by our camera traps. After a year off due to the pandemic, we checked our cameras — there was a healthy population, but no Ben. He was at least 12 by then, old for a wild jaguar. We all sadly concluded that Ben had perished. However, if you have been counting, I met Ben one more time.

Ben strolls
Ben taking a stroll.

In August 2021, Emma Sanchez, the country coordinator for Belize, who had been present at Ben’s trapping, messaged me. A local community outside of Cockscomb had captured a jaguar alive and they wanted the government to remove it. In the evening she reported back, “THEY CAPTURED BEN, I RECOGNISED HIS PELT PATTERN!”  

This was news! Ben was alive but in an unknown state. The Forest Department brought him to the zoo for examination. He was a shadow of his former self; his canines were shattered and he was extremely skinny. His chest and face were riddled with pellets from a gunshot blast. These wounds likely drove him to hunting around the farms, being unable to hunt wild prey and having to rely on slower and easier prey in the form of domestic animals. Ben became the victim of an all-too-familiar clash along the edge of wilderness and rural village civilization.

Ben in his healthier days
Ben in his healthier days.

Due to his injuries, Ben could never go back to the wild, and was brought to the Belize Zoo, where he currently resides. Although Ben has seemed to adapt to captivity well (he is calm, and has a good relationship with keepers), his story as a wild jaguar is over.  

Ben will no longer contribute to the wild population. He has sired enough cubs and his genes are still wandering in Cockscomb. I am not sure what role Ben will play in the future. However, the story I have told should represent the wild cat he once was. The story of his wilderness life is now the most important part for me. It is a tale of how a wild jaguar lived and thrived in the rough, beautiful, sweltering jungles of Belize and carved out his own existence. I hope we can keep telling Ben stories well into the future.

Learn more about jaguars.