The future of the jaguar was made a little more secure last week with the signing of a critical conservation agreement between the government of Belize, global wildcat conservation organization Panthera, and the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) of the University of Belize.
At a gathering held near Belize City, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, Senator Lisel Alamilla led the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Panthera’s CEO and leading jaguar scientist, Dr Alan Rabinowitz and Interim President of the University of Belize, Dr Wilma Wright on Friday, February 21.
According to a press release issued by Panthera, the trilateral agreement represents a pledge by all parties to collaboratively implement science-based conservation initiatives that secure and connect jaguars and their habitats in Belize and beyond its borders, facilitate land development that is both ecologically sustainable and economically profitable, and mitigate human-jaguar conflict throughout the country.
“The signing of this historic agreement epitomizes conservation action and partnerships coming full circle. Nearly thirty years ago, I studied the jaguars of Belize, and today we return to the birthplace of jaguar research and conservation to reignite and strengthen the commitment, strategy and resources required to ensure this species lives on, for the next thirty years and beyond,” Dr Rabinowitz was quoted as saying. “This MOU now represents Panthera’s sixth jaguar conservation agreement with a Latin American government, and our team will continue to work, country by country, to build partnerships with all nations home to the jaguar, connecting and protecting the entire eighteen-nation mosaic that is the jaguar’s range.”
Belize’s forestry minister noted that the jaguar is an iconic species of Belize. “Their survival is dependent on our willingness to seek solutions that balance human interest and protection of their habitat. I am convinced that Belize, along with all its partners, can find win-win solutions for us to co-exist,” Alamilla said.
Today, Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative (JCI) is the largest and most effective carnivore conservation programme in existence.
Spanning nearly six million square kilometres, the JCI seeks to connect and protect jaguar populations from Mexico to Argentina to ensure the species’ genetic diversity and survival. Belize is one of 13 countries with which Panthera is implementing strategic jaguar conservation science, and with the agreement it has now solidified MOUs in Latin America with the governments of Panama, Guyana, Costa Rica, Honduras and Colombia.
Located on the southern tip of Mexico and along the eastern border of Guatemala, Belize serves as an integral link, connecting jaguars within these countries, and all jaguar populations south of Belize. “As a stronghold for jaguars in Mesoamerica, Belize is also highly unique in that it protects a greater proportion of land (43%) through national parks and private reserves than any other nation in Central America,” the press release said.
Dr Rabinowitz, who pioneered the field of jaguar science and conservation, first radio-collared jaguars in Belize in the early 1980s, illuminating new insights into the ecology of the species and setting the stage for subsequent research which demonstrated that Belize’s Cockscomb Basin contained the highest density of jaguars ever recorded at the time, anywhere in the wild.
This research was instrumental in establishing the world’s first jaguar preserve in 1986 – the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.
Today, Dr Rabinowitz’s and Panthera’s jaguar conservation initiative in Cockscomb and the Maya Mountains is the world’s longest-running scientific study of the species’ population dynamics, ecology and behaviour. As proof of the strict and effective protections afforded the species, Cockscomb still shelters one of the highest densities of jaguars anywhere in the wild. Panthera’s unique camera trap data has documented the presence of 131 jaguars in the Cockscomb study area over 11 years, and uncovered new findings about the species, including that wild jaguars can live at least 13 years.
According to the press release, since 2008, Panthera has also partnered with the Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development, ERI and Belize Audubon Society to apply environmental education projects, monitor jaguar populations and their prey, reduce jaguar-livestock conflict, and maintain critical connectivity of these populations in and between the Central and Southern Belize Corridors, which touch the borders of Mexico and Guatemala.
University of Belize Interim President Dr Wright said the signing of the MoU is significant because it brings together three parties interested in protecting and conserving the jaguars of Belize. “This MOU will result in strategic action plans to reduce tension among humans and wildlife and allow us to better contribute to the sustainable development of Belize,” she said.