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Huge wildlife corridor in Belize sees progress, boosting hope for jaguars and more (commentary)

Jaguar in Belize. Image credit: Panthera.

  • Conservationists are working hard to create the Maya Forest Corridor, connecting the massive Belize Maya Forest in the country’s northwest with the Maya Mountains Massif network of protected areas in southern Belize.
  • Frequented by tapirs, opossums, armadillos, agoutis, jaguars, and other big cat species, the network of reserves and corridors could prove to be critical conservation infrastructure for the region.
  • A biologist who was just there shares news of some major land purchases and plans for wildlife underpasses for the Coastal Road, which is now in development along the corridor’s route.
  • The views expressed are of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

I was quite thrilled reading Jut Wynne’s commentary on the Maya Forest Corridor (MFC) published by Mongabay on May 24th of this year. Jut described the critical importance of the MFC being the missing link connecting the Belize Maya Forest to the Maya Mountain Massif. Being an ecologist and environmentalist, I find any news of efforts to establish wildlife corridors very exciting. I so hope for this project’s success.

The Maya Forest Corridor seems to be an example where success is most probable, but challenges remain.

My excitement was fueled because I was on my way to Belize in June. I had the good fortune to tag along with University of Kentucky biology faculty Dr. Emily Croteau’s Study Abroad course on conservation biology and field techniques she was teaching in Belize. Emily has spent much time in Belize and has a deep passion for cats, especially big cats. After years of planning, Emily’s maiden voyage to teach her Belize course set sail when the University of Kentucky decided in April that Belize’s efforts to battle COVID-19 was successful enough for the course to happen. It is only one of four UK Study Abroad courses given a green light this summer. The remaining 21 courses were canceled because many countries remain deep in the battle with this pandemic thus deemed unsafe.

A jaguar, image by Eduardo Merille via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On 13 June, eight very fortunate students, Emily, and I landed in Belize City to begin our adventure. We all had high hopes our trail cameras would capture tapirs, opossums, armadillos, pacas, agoutis, and the five great cats of the Belize jungles.

Our hopes were especially high of seeing evidence of the most charismatic of these mammals. Everywhere we went in Belize contemporary art, paintings on walls, statues, and figurines of this creature were visible. This species has a deep history in Maya culture and religion. Many Mayan gods don attributes of this creature, especially those of the underworld. The Maya believed the Sun God of the day transformed into the underworld god of the night – the jaguar.

Jaguars were ever on our minds as we looked for sign of these big cats and hopes our trail cameras would capture them. We walked caves cut through steep and jagged limestone hills knowing jaguars frequent these same shortcuts rather than climb over the hills. These caves hold ancient litter of Maya: flint tools, broken pottery, worked bones and conch shell remains. Skulls of peccaries long dead were found – ancient prey of jaguars as indicated by crushed brain cases (in contrast pumas crush the necks of their prey).

And on the wall of one cave was a 1,700-year-old Maya painting of a jaguar. Evidence of jaguars was all about. The smell of fresh, pungent droppings; a large footprint in the mud from the night before; scrapes in the leaves along trails indicating a jaguar was marking its territory. It was most exciting that trails we walked by day were used by jaguars at night. The hopes one of these magnificent creatures could be hidden in the dense jungle watching us pass by was exhilarating.

See related: Belize’s Maya Forest Corridor a ‘missing link’ to giant rainforest reserve

A rare 1,700-year-old cave painting of a jaguar in Belize. This was the first Mayan cave art found in Belize and is one of only nine known examples in Central America. Photo courtesy of Jim Krupa.

One of our stays was at the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. This 122,650-acres preserve was established in 1986 as the first preserve specifically for jaguars. Current estimates suggest 60 to 80 jaguars reside there. The rest of the time we were within the Maya Forest Corridor. We stayed at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and spent two days at Runaway Creek Nature Reserve. These two sanctuaries are 1,070 acres and 6,000 acres, respectively, both critical components of the MFC.

Matt Miller, Director of Monkey Bay, was excited to share new developments concerning the corridor. The biggest of these is the purchase of 30,000 acres of the Big Falls property with the closing coming soon. This new acquisition will be placed into a public trust agreement between the government of Belize and the Maya Forest Corridor Trust. In addition, negotiations are underway to purchase 6,000 acres of an old citrus farm called Tiger Sandy Bay Farm. This piece of the puzzle is adjacent to Runaway Creek Nature Preserve separated by the Coastal Road. A critical part of this acquisition will be a 2-mile-wide, 900 acre pine savannah connecting to Runaway Creek.

The hope is that 2,000 acres of this farm will be a forested part of the MFC, while the other 4,000 acres will be for agricultural purposes, such as growing hemp. The hope is protecting the land as agricultural will prevent developers from acquiring it. Current estimates are that approximately 60 jaguars exist in the MFC. Hopefully these additional acquisitions will secure more habitat for jaguars, the other four species of cats, and their prey. And in so doing, hopefully the populations of all these species will increase.

See Mongabay’s coverage of the MFC when it was originally announced here.

A track of either a jaguar or puma on a road to the Sibun River at Monkey Bay, the latter has a smaller yet similar print. Photo courtesy of Jim Krupa.

Although this is good news, the MFC still faces problems and threats. As Jut Wynne discussed in his commentary, development of the Coastal Road slices through a 10 mile stretch of the MFC and is a threat to wildlife movement. As this road is widened with adjacent habitat cleared and as tar and gravel are laid, it becomes a more imposing barrier to the movement of wildlife between Runaway Creek and Tiger Sandy Bay especially where the pine savannah meets Runaway Creek.

Initially the road was designed with no wildlife underpasses. Fortunately, conservation groups convinced the road construction company to put in 4 meter by 3 meter wildlife underpasses, but research from Mexico indicates wildlife underpasses for big cats and tapirs need to be 6 meters wide. The current thought is that two such underpasses are needed for the critical 2 mile stretch of the highway between Runaway Creek and the pine savannah. The cost of these is $160,000 each. There is hope this may happen. Conversations are ongoing between conservation groups and the U.K. funder of the road project (editor’s note: see update about the underpass issue at bottom).

Coastal Road pre-construction (left) and under construction (right). Before construction, several sections along the 37 mile road were nearly overtaken by vegetation. Images courtesy of Jut Wynne and Zhawn Poot.

As good as the news is of successful efforts to acquire and protect more forest within the MFC, development of the Coastal Road is a step back if needed wildlife underpasses are not installed. The Coastal Road project is a little more than a year into the three-year timeline before completion of the project. When I was there in June, tar was being laid. The time to build these underpasses is now. Once the road is complete, the cost of these underpasses will increase significantly and the feasibility will be much less likely.

Let us hope and wish those conservation minded individuals and groups can convince those funding the Coastal Road project of the Maya Forest Corridor’s importance and the need for gene flow across the extent of the Corridor to insure the well-being and survival of jaguars, their prey, the other cat species, and tapirs. There is not much time remaining for these critical decisions to be made. We must wait and hope and see how this turns out.

The Maya Forest Corridor is simply too vital an endeavor to be crippled by bad decisions or lack of action by those with the money responsible for development of the Coastal Road.

Jim Krupa is a biologist and award-winning professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Kentucky-Lexington. 

Banner image: Jaguar in Belize. Photo courtesy of Panthera.

See all of Mongabay’s coverage of wildlife corridors here.

Update (8/23/21): The government of Belize announced that on August 19, 2021, representatives from the Ministry of Infrastructure Development and Housing (MIDH) and the Maya Forest Corridor (MFC) Coalition visited specific sites along the Coastal Road currently under construction. The purpose of the visit was to assess and discuss the design of two culverts that traverse the MFC and will be utilized as wildlife underpasses.

Editor’s note (9/2/21): Caption info for the paw print photo was updated, previously it had stated that it belonged to a jaguar, but its correct identification remains unclear according to others who saw it. 

Map depicting the extent of the proposed largest rainforest reserve in Central America including the Maya Forest Corridor, Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, and Coastal Road. Image courtesy of ERI and NAU.
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