Where Jaguars Walk

By Bart Harmsen
Edited by Naturalight Productions

Ten years ago when I graduated from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, I came to a crossroad in my life. Before, life had always been clear cut -- elementary to high school to university with part-time jobs to support my childhood dream of seeing the seven big cats in the wild. After graduation it suddenly dawned on me that I would actually have to work to support myself. Though I had enjoyed the study, I could never see myself as a psychologist. To plan my next stop, I invested the last of my savings into a trip to a place I had never before heard of.

With pumas and jaguars as the targets on my life list, I arrived in Belize. I had chosen this country after reading the inspiring book, "Jaguars," written by Alan Rabinowitz about an area called Cockscomb Basin. I knew my chances of actually seeing one of these elusive mysterious cats in their thick jungle environment was very slim, but the trip would give me some much needed time to think about my future so I caught a bus to Dangriga where I stocked up on food and water supplies -- few of which are sold in the sanctuary. A bus on its way to the southern town of Punta Gorda dropped me off at the village of Maya Centre, thirty minutes down the Southern Highway. With a very large backpack strapped on, a smaller one on my chest, and two plastic bags in my hand, I arrived at the sanctuary late in the afternoon, sweaty and tired after a six mile hike on the unpaved road through the jungle.

Declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1990, the Cockscomb Basin is 128,000 acres of primary and secondary tropical moist forest fenced on three sides by the jagged ridges and peaks of the Maya Mountain's Cockscomb range. Though geologists claim that the granite soils of the area are poor in nutrients, things seem to flourish in Cockscomb. Take, for example, the hardwood vegetation that was once targeted by the timber industry in the area and the Black Howler monkeys that were almost annihilated by yellow fever and a hurricane in the early 1960's. Today, the protected status of the world's first jaguar preserve supports healthy populations of howlers; 290 different species of birds including scarlet macaws, crested guans, and great curassows; gray foxes; peccaries; red brocket deer; five wild cats; and several hardwood species. Complementing this community are several creeks and two rivers, the Swasey and the South Stann Creek, whose sources are safely lodged within the borders of the sanctuary.

For the next week I woke up just before sunrise or sometimes hours earlier to acquaint myself with this intriguing new environment and to maximize my chances of spotting the cats. I saw many tracks during the day, but my efforts to locate their owners went unrewarded. One evening around seven o'clock, I sought the quiet of a river trail and waited patiently, hoping a cat would come to drink. Then the beam of my flashlight captured a light brown body with a long tail. To avoid my bright light, it walked away silently, at an easy, unhurried pace, with a dignity only cats seem to posses. Even though it wasn't a brilliant sighting, I marked the puma off my list.

A week later anxiety threatened to consume me. I had walked the trails day and night until I had come to know them well. I had experienced many fascinating nature encounters with the Jaguarundi, the Ocelot, and the Margay but the shy jaguar still eluded me, taunted me even. With only a few days left in Cockscomb, I requested special permission to camp further into the jungle.

Following the advice of one of the wardens, I started a four-hour hike on a small trail on the path to Victoria Peak, which at 3,675 feet is one of the country's highest points. I arrived late afternoon, drenched by a cold front that had caught up with me. Choosing a spot by a river, I quickly put up my tent and listened to the lonesome rain while eating crackers and cheese. The next day brought gorgeous sun which I enjoyed while watching kingfishers forage for food and macaws fly over. The jungle environment was fabulous. I was ready to continue my quest a day later but Mother Nature did not cooperate and before long a second front brought curtains of rain that continued for the entire day.

Not in the mood for an involuntary shower, I remained inside the tent marinating in frustration. My whole day had been lost and now I had one measly night left. Mumbling bitterly to myself, I crossed the river and followed a small trail around a bend only to come to a sudden stop. Right in front of me, less than three meters away, stood a live jaguar. Mixed emotions overcame me: I was totally excited to be in the presence of the magical spotted cat and I was scared at being so close to a top-of-the-food chain predator. Although there have been no reports of jaguars attacking humans in Belize, it occurred to me that these animals can kill full-grown bulls, so in theory my scanty five feet six inch frame would be easy meat. All these thoughts rushed through my head as the cat studied my every move.

I mentally thumbed through my possible reactions: I knew for sure that flight is a trigger for any predator and opted not to run or turn my back on him. I remembered the grace with which the puma had excused itself from my flashlight's glare and backed away slowly, hoping this would do the trick. The jaguar crouched down, his ears flat against his head and started to stalk my every step, his advance matching my retreat step for step. My half-thrill half-fear turned to full-blown terror. There was no way I could outrun or out power this cat; I had to bluff my way out of this one.

I backed myself toward a nearby tree, easing my body down to sit it out, and carefully averted my eyes from his magnetic stare. He stopped and looked around uncertain how to react to my position. After what seemed like a lifetime, my prize decided I was no longer a threat. He stepped away from the path and disappeared into the thick undergrowth. In the sigh of relief that heaved through my body came the certainty of what I wanted to do with my life.

Now a doctoral candidate researching the conservation of jaguars for the University of Southhampton, I have spent the last two years in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Using specialized cameras fitted with heat and motion detectors, I have identified roughly 35 jaguars distinguishable by the rosette patterns on their coats from over 600 pictures. In this sanctuary that has become home, I read paw prints on a daily basis and have had ten live jaguar sightings. None of these, however, can ever come close to the wild fiery eyes that pierced my soul and changed the course of my life.


Images Courtesy of:

  • Tony Rath Photography
  • Cindy Blount
  • JC Cuellar

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