The Cat's Cradle: The Jaguars and Birds of Belize

A baby jaguar in Belize  (Ghetty Images)

In the 1980s, the jaguar saw a rise in its popularity—but not among future Outdoor Planet enthusiasts; the feline's highly valued spotted pelt fetched a mean dollar on the poaching circuit, and jaguars soon found themselves perched perilously close to extinction. Once scattered throughout the Americas, the largest concentration of the world's third-biggest species of cat can now be found within the 8,867-square-mile country of Belize. Very much part of the country's national identity, the jaguar's image adorns stamps, currency, souvenirs, travel brochures, and postcards—the actual animal itself, however, is far more elusive, lurking in the shadows and prowling for food after dark.

The Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve was established in 1986 in an effort to save the species from extinction, and now shelters about 50 of Belize's 500 jaguars within its 102,000 acres. Nestled in the Cockscomb Basin and surrounded by mountains that the Mayas once called home, the park is composed of undeveloped tropical forest that is rich with waterfalls and swimming holes. With a permit to enter, budget camping and lodging is available within the park, which includes a visitor's centers and ever-expanding network of trails. Overnight stays are the way to go; most of the park's wildlife is nocturnal and there are several hiking trails best experienced under the cool light of the moon, including the three-day route to Victoria Peak, the highest mountain in Belize. And jaguars won't be the only animals you'll see—boa constrictors, pumas, peccaries, ocelots, tapir, iguanas, deer, and almost 300 bird species, including macaws and toucans, roam this section of jungle.

Whether or not you're lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the jaguars, you should also head north to Belize's prime bird-watching spot at the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, famous for its diverse residential and migrant bird population. Created in 1984, Crooked Tree is an ever-changing landscape of marshy land and winding water, best seen by canoe or kayak. The jabiru stork, the largest bird in the Western Hemisphere with a wingspan that can exceed ten feet, co-habits with a laundry list of other prime avian attractions. These include black-collared hawks, snail kites, red-footed boobies, snowy egrets, red-winged blackbirds, as well as many species of kingfisher, flycatcher, heron, and sandpiper.

Published: 28 Aug 2002 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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