Video: Following the Fate of a Jaguar Family in Belize

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


As hurricane season rips through the U.S. again, I worry about what the elements will do across the Central American Caribbean range of jaguars. I’m reminded of the devastating effects of last year’s Hurricane Earl, which razed trees and trails housing jaguars in Belize’s Cockscomb Basin.

Just before that storm hit, we reported that two little vulnerable cubs were seen on camera trap images. We were relieved to discover they — and their mother — made it through.

Caribbean forests have been hit by hurricanes for centuries, typically rebounding amid large contiguous forest patches offering fresh genetic material of seeds and wildlife. But large-scale deforestation has changed this, and the devastation of isolated important patches can be catastrophic. In this case, the Cockscomb will likely be able to recover if no further catastrophes — like large-scale fires or another hurricane — hit.

We’ve been fortunate enough to continue following the fate of the young jaguar family, kicking off a string of sightings in December 2016. The mother looked very lean and had a big bump on her nose and around her eyes — evidence of botfly parasite larva and the strain of caring for a young family. The larva are an extra drain on her body, but not harmful to her long-term health.

The cubs looked healthy, and we determined from their size difference that one is male and the other, female. It was good to see that Cockscomb still provided enough for a mother to get two cubs this far.

In February, we detected the larger male cub on his own — a very unusual sight. He looked healthy and well-fed, but we were worried that something had happened to the mother and sister, and that the little male would have to fend for himself before he was really ready.

But in April, we saw mother and daughter on the trail together, triggering three different consecutive cameras. They looked healthy, and we were relieved—but now worried about the fate of the male. Was the February detection a sign that he got separated? Sometimes videos can miss an animal that lags behind and avoids detection, but the chances of it happening three times in a row are slim. And we knew he was too young to make it on his own.

In June, we detected mother and daughter again with the male still missing. We fear the worst. Most likely, the male got separated and has not made it. But it’s not inconceivable that he might show up — these secretive cats have a tendency to surprise you at every corner.

Our studies have shown that young females settle close to their mother’s home ranges, so closely related clusters of mothers, sisters, and aunts occupy an area. The little female, if making it to adulthood, will therefore likely stay in the sanctuary and help contribute, like her mother, to a new generation of jaguars in the park.

The young male would have (or will!) left the area permanently to settle away from the related genes of his mother and sister at about 2 years old. His job is make sure that genes are spread far and wide and get mixed up throughout the region. Our network of cameras around the country, distributed in the forested corridors and different protected areas, might still pick him up.

We have an ever-expanding database of individuals, and we track the exchanges between areas on a countrywide level. We are learning more about the needs of the species and what ground we have to leave for them to survive. This is not about how to manage jaguar populations; jaguars can do that on our own. We just have to make sure that we protect habitat — and hope that Mother Nature goes easy on us.

Learn more about the Jaguar Corridor Initiative.