International Jaguar Day

Uncertainty for Jaguars and Regional Endemics in the Crown Jewel of Mesoamerica’s Forests

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By John Polisar | November 29, 2019

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) works with our partners to defend jaguar strongholds across more than 400,000 sq. km across 40 degrees of latitude. In Mesoamerica, the largest and most important jaguar habitat is the greater Selva Maya, an inverted arc of forest that stretches through Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize.

Between 2000 and 2015, the forests of this tri-national wilderness decreased by 25%. In most years, uncontrolled fires, often deliberately set, devastate large forest tracts. Several areas remain the lawless domain of narcotraffickers and host to growing populations of cattle and people. In addition, there are plans to construct trainlines that bisect the forests on the Mexican side and penetrate the most intact section in Guatemala. Despite the challenges, though, there is good news in all three countries today.

In Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, a suite of conservation approaches is keeping net forest loss rates close to zero. This effort includes strictly-monitored forest product concessions managed by local communities, giving them incentives to conserve the lands; aerial and terrestrial patrols to prevent land conversions; effective prosecution of environmental law infractions; proactive fire management systems; nature-based tourism as an incentive for conservation; and strict zoning as to where and how to raise domestic livestock.

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©Rocio Silvia

On this International Jaguar Day, the two areas of the Selva Maya of most immediate concern are Belize’s Maya Forest Corridor and Mexico’s Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. Jaguars need vast areas for long-term survival. Their home ranges often span 200–400 square kilometers or more. In addition to strict protection of key jaguar population strongholds is the need to keep those populations connected to keep them genetically healthy.

My first taste of the tropics was in a wildlife-rich section of intact lowland habitat in north central Belize that connected two upland blocks of the Selva Maya. Here, from 1989 to 1991 I studied one of the world’s most unique and endangered turtles, locally known as hicatee. Now, this Maya Forest Corridor has been whittled down to a narrow thread by expanding agriculture, an understandable priority for any country.

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From 1989 to 1991, Polisar studied one of the world’s most unique and endangered turtles, locally known as hicatee. ©John Polisar

Urgent, collaborative efforts are underway to formalize legal and private protection for about 500 square kilometers of this green lowland passage that contains four rivers ripe with crocodiles and hicatee, with tapirs and jaguars prowling the forested banks and roaming between the upland forest blocks.

Mexico’s Montes Azules, the most biologically diverse protected area in that megadiverse country, is also a pressing concern today. Its cathedrals of giant trees in misty valleys are now at risk of being transformed to pasture. Established in 1979 as the first biosphere reserve in Mexico, this area was born as an emblematic contribution to Mexico’s commitment to endangered species.

World-class publications have flowed from the renowned research stations in its lowlands. It is home to jaguars, tapirs, white-lipped peccaries, macaws, and the full suite of regional endemic species — they occur nowhere else in the world! These include the Yucatan spider monkey — one of the world’s most endangered primates — as well as a unique howler monkey, a unique wild turkey, and the hicatee (shared with Guatemala and Belize).

The jaguars of Mexico’s Montes Azules still regularly cross the Usumacinta River to Guatemala’s forests, move between Guatemala and Belize, and north and south in Belize. Scarlet macaws traverse all three countries. Maintaining the magnificent forests of Montes Azules in Mexico intact and ensuring the integrity of the Maya Forest Corridor in Belize are the two highest priorities for the Greater Selva Maya.

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©Rony Garcia

The tri-national region of Guatemala, Mexico and Belize represents by far the largest jaguar stronghold in Mesoamerica. It contains pockets of the highest densities of jaguars in the species’ range, and the region’s largest carbon reserves. It spans three countries, innumerable present-day human cultures, and is dotted with spectacular ancient Maya ruins.

To this day it remains one connected forest unit, bound by biology and shaped by geology, but that connectivity is now at risk. The jaguars, turtles, macaws, monkeys and countless other species in those forests are of global importance and urgently need full protection. The critical time is now for the Maya Forest Corridor and Montes Azules. We must step up and meet the challenges there, our last and best chance to preserve jaguars, their forests, and other species truly found nowhere else on the planet.

John Polisar is the Jaguar Program Coordinator for WCS.

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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