(CNN) — Jaguar spots are etched in black ink onto Reynold Cal’s forearms. Tattooed on the left is the rose-shaped design found on Romeo and on the right is that of Superman, names Cal gave to two of the big cats after observing them on camera trap footage over the years.
“Every jaguar has spots, but the spots are very unique to that person,” he says. “You can identify a jaguar by looking at its pattern.”
A member of the Kekchi Maya, one of three Maya groups in Belize, Central America, Cal grew up surrounded by forests, enchanted by tales of the sacred big cat that roamed within them. Today his job is to track and protect jaguars and other species at Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, a protected rainforest area that is part of an important wildlife corridor in central Belize.
“The Mayans had great reverence for the jaguar – it is a sign of royalty, power and strength,” he says. He remembers his grandfather telling him to respect the majestic mammal and never hunt it, and he remembers the fear he felt as a child when he saw jaguar tracks on the forest floor. “The reason I wear these patterns (on my arms) is because I feel a connection to the ancient past,” he adds.
But despite the rich history, the Jaguar’s future is uncertain. According to the IUCN, which lists the species as Near Threatened, numbers are declining and destruction of key habitats is causing population fragmentation, which could lead to extinctions across the region.
In an attempt to avert this catastrophe, a number of conservation organizations – including Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, Panthera, Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize Zoo, Wildlife Conservation Society and re:wild – have come together to secure a vital piece of land to protect within the The geographic range of the jaguar: the Maya forest corridor. The relatively small territory — less than six miles wide and 90,000 acres — has outsized implications for South America’s largest feline.
“It’s literally the connecting thread between Belize’s two largest blocks of forest,” says Elma Kay, biologist and executive director of the Belize Maya Forest Trust. Jaguars, unable to cross between southern Belize and Guatemala due to deforestation and urban development, use the corridor when heading north to Mexico or south to the rest of Central or South America, she explains. It is quickly becoming a crucial link in the entire jaguar range, spanning millions of square miles and including breeding populations from Mexico to Argentina.
But the “little patch of earth” threatens to shrink even further, warns Kay. In the past 10 years, deforestation to make way for large-scale agriculture such as sugarcane and ranching has reduced the size of the Maya Forest Corridor by more than 65%, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
This creates a barrier for the big cats, which require large tracts of land to survive, explains Emma Sanchez, coordinator of Panthera’s Belize Jaguar program. “If an area is deforested, jaguars won’t cross because … they can be killed, there’s probably no prey for them, or they have limited water,” she says.
Cutting off the jaguar’s range has huge consequences, she adds, as all populations are linked through migration and breeding. If a small population becomes isolated, it will lack genetic diversity and eventually become extinct. “There are many instances where the species go extinct locally in different areas,” she says.
And the loss of the jaguar would have an impact on the surrounding area. As apex predators, they balance the ecosystem and limit the number of species in the food chain below them. “Protecting and conserving jaguars also protects a larger landscape where we have diverse habitats and many other species,” says Sanchez.
Protect jaguar habitat
As deforestation rates kept ticking, conservation groups decided that the quickest and most effective way to protect the Mayan forest corridor was to buy the land within it.
Late last year they secured 30,000 acres for protection using funds raised by several global nature organizations. Along with nearby wildlife sanctuaries like Runaway Creek, Monkey Bay, and land managed by the Belize Zoo, this brings the total protected area to 42,000 acres, about the size of Washington DC.
The Maya Forest Corridor lies between two of the largest wilderness areas in Central America. In recent years, people have developed the area and built highways over it.
“We need to buy another 50,000 acres to complete the corridor connection,” Kay says, “and the truth is, there’s not much else to buy in the area.”
Some land is privately owned, and rapid urban and agricultural expansion in the area means it’s expensive, she explains. But there is hope. The government approved the project in 2019, and local communities recognize the benefits of conservation, Kay says, as it will help create sustainable livelihoods, water security and healthy soils.
While the Maya Forest Corridor Initiative has drawn international efforts, Kay says local conservation has been led by a grassroots movement from Belize. As a Belizean, “it makes me very proud,” she adds.
Respect for jaguars lives on in local communities, Cal agrees. He just hopes the jaguars survive so younger generations can appreciate them.
“These are magnificent animals,” he says. “They are very shy, it is difficult to see them. But if you see tracks, at least you know a jaguar is nearby.”