Once, Jaguars (Panthera onca) roamed thousands of miles of territory, from Argentina to Arizona and even Colorado. Today, their range is a fraction of what it once was. Over the past few decades, the largest Big Cat in the Americas has become locally extinct in Uruguay, El Salvador, and the southern United States, and remains threatened as other habitats, such as the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil and the Maya Forest of Belize and Mexico, have slowly shrunk. As habitats shrink, many Jaguar populations have become increasingly cut off from others of their species. Living in small, isolated pockets threatened by logging and poaching, these populations also face the danger of population decline via inbreeding brought along by separation from other populations. Without room to spread out, many of these isolated groups of Jaguars may become extinct within the next decade or two.
It is this very problem that has many conservationists proposing the conservation of wildlife corridors to link isolated wildernesses to each other, with one of the most recent success stories being in Belize. Last month, the government of Belize approved the recognition of the Maya Forest Corridor, a thin 5-mile wide stretch of forest that connects the wildernesses of the northern Maya Forest and the southern Maya Mountains, as an area of national significance – in effect, preventing private or public development that could further destroy the corridor. The effort couldn’t have come at a timelier moment. Once part of the same vast Central American rainforest, Belize’s two great wilderness habitats have for decades been divided by the Western Highway, a Belizean road that connects the capital of Belmopan to Belize City on the Atlantic coast. As development and farming has increased along this road, the Maya Forest Corridor has quickly shrunk, having been reduced by nearly 65% of its total areas in the past decade. This trend has only accelerated in recent years: since 2011, the corridor has faced deforestation rates at more than four times the national average. [
Without official government protection of the corridor, jaguar populations in both wildernesses would be completely cut off from each other within a few years, an event that would prove catastrophic for the smaller – and thus more prone to inbreeding – Maya Mountains population. And the corridor’s benefits aren’t only limited to Belize. By connecting the Maya Forest shared with Mexico with the Maya Mountains that border Guatemala, the corridor also serves as a vital link for jaguars and other fauna to move freely between southern Mexico and the jungles of Central America, strengthening the diversity of rainforests across the region.
For jaguars, this network is especially vital for future sustainability. As individual jaguars often prowl dozens of square kilometers over a single territory, having room to spread out leads both healthier numbers overall, as young males have room to establish their own territories and find potential mates without the need to constantly compete for the same territory. So too might corridors help prevent confrontation with humans, as jaguars can travel more freely in search of territory without risking crossing into human developments
The preservation of the Maya Forest Corridor, however, is but a step in a much larger conservation effort that spans nations and continents. Organizations such as Panthera are beginning to envision a network of corridors stretching from Mexico to Argentina, which would link core jaguar populations in a single continuous stretch of wilderness across the Americas with the ultimate goal of rebuilding their historic range. It’s an effort that might take decades and buy-in from both private property owners as well as national and local governments, but is one step closer to reality due to the successes such as in Belize.
Overall, wildlife corridors represent a new way of looking at wildlife conservation: not merely as the preservation of several separate and isolated pockets of wilderness, but in the revival and renewal of ecosystems as a connected whole. By approaching conservation as an effort to improve future populations, rather than simply stall the erosion of existing ones, wildlife corridors might pave a new future for our relationship with the natural world: a relationship that allows wildernesses to exist as interconnected systems, in which life can not only survive but thrive beside humans, rather than in spite of them.
The end result isn’t just good for jaguars: it’s good for all forms of life that rely on healthy rainforests, from threatened species such as tapirs and jaguars to us humans, who rely on healthy rainforests to combat climate change, provide for local communities, and support a thriving ecotourism business such as exists in Belize that contributes to national economies. While a five-mile wide stretch of land might, on paper, not seem like much, it is nevertheless an important building block to creating a healthier world for jaguars and humans alike.
article by Devin Windelspecht
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