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ARTICLE
Year : 2016  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 13-20

Jaguar conservation in southern Belize: Conflicts, perceptions, and prospects among mayan hunters


New College and Department of Geography, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, USA

Correspondence Address:
Michael K Steinberg
Department of Geography, Natural Resources and Conservation Mapping Lab, University of Alabama,
USA
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/0972-4923.182801

Rights and Permissions
Date of Web Publication20-May-2016
 

   Abstract 

Belize has emerged as an international leader in jaguar conservation through the creation of numerous protected areas that contain prime cat habitat and by strengthening conservation laws. For example, in 1984, Belize created the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, the first special jaguar protection area in the Americas. In 1995, the government expanded Cockscomb by creating the adjacent Chiquibul National Park. In 2010, the government continued this commitment to jaguar conservation by creating the Labouring Creek Jaguar Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary in central Belize. As a result of these protected areas, Belize has been rightfully lauded as a leader in nature-based tourism and protected areas creation in Central America. However, outside national parks and communities that directly benefit from ecotourism, it is less clear how supportive rural residents are of cat conservation. It is also not clear if jaguars persist outside protected areas in locations such as southern Belize, where the environment has been significantly altered by human activities. Through interviews with Mayan hunters, this paper investigates the attitudes towards jaguars, human-jaguar conflicts, and potential community-based jaguar conservation in two Mayan villages in the Toledo District in southern Belize. Also, using indirect methods, the paper documents the presence/absence and other temporal/spatial aspects of jaguars in a heavily altered landscape in southern Belize.

Keywords: jaguars, Mayan villagers, human-jaguar conflicts, ecotourism, Belize


How to cite this article:
Steinberg MK. Jaguar conservation in southern Belize: Conflicts, perceptions, and prospects among mayan hunters. Conservat Soc 2016;14:13-20

How to cite this URL:
Steinberg MK. Jaguar conservation in southern Belize: Conflicts, perceptions, and prospects among mayan hunters. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2016 [cited 2018 Sep 24];14:13-20. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2016/14/1/13/182801


   Introduction Top


Researchers have concluded that the jaguar's (Felix onca) overall range has declined by more than half since 1900 (Sanderson et al. 2002; Zeller 2007). Although the reasons behind this dramatic decline vary from region to region, habitat destruction caused by agricultural expansion, logging, and/or cattle ranching are significant factors throughout (Rosas-Rosas et al. 2008; Rosas-Rosas and Valdez 2010). Development pressures that lead to this range contraction will continue into the foreseeable future, further degrading habitat, creating great challenges for conservationists (Sanderson et al. 2002; Naughton-Treves et al. 2005; Barraclough 2013; Pimm and Brooks 2013; Waldron et al. 2013; Rabinowitz 2014). So, while it is important to design sustainable protected areas in the remaining undisturbed habitat, it is also critical to better understand how and where jaguars use degraded habitat and how local people perceive and interact with jaguars. It is also critical to develop a bottom up, community-based conservation approach where people interact with cats (West et al. 2006; Kassam 2009; Foster et al. 2010; Maffi and Woodley 2010; Kothari et al. 2013; Camacho-Benavides et al. 2013).

The Toledo District in southern Belize is one such landscape where people and jaguars appear to live in close proximity in a highly altered landscape, presenting a unique conservation challenge (Primack et al. 1997). While the district's northern protected areas such as the Bladen Nature Reserve contain mature tropical forests and secure jaguar populations, the southern two-thirds of the Toledo District is an anthropogenic landscape containing recently cleared agricultural fields (swidden), tropical forests in various stages of succession, cacao groves, riparian forests, and more limited mature, broadleaf tropical forest islands ([Figure 1]). The cultural landscape is made up of more than thirty Mopan and Kekchi Mayan villages, whose residents are the primary drivers of environmental change ([Figure 2]) (Steinberg 1998; Levasseur and Olivier 2000; Van Ausdal 2001; Emch et al. 2005; Wainwright et al. 2014).
Figure 1 Southern Belize Landscape

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Figure 2 Southern Belize Mayan Villages and Protected Areas

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As has been documented in other tropical landscapes, forest fragmentation can lead to the local extinction of certain species given the impact of edge effects and the inability to cross open/degraded areas (Terborgh 1992; Gibson et al. 2013; Hanski et al 2013). However, other studies in semi-modified tropical environments such as forest gardens have documented the presence of a diverse array of animal species (Smith 2005; Gavin 2007; Parry et al. 2009; Dunn et al. 2012) This appears to be the case in southern Belize as well, where, although most of the district's environment is modified, the principal investigator's fieldwork in two Mayan villages (San Jose and Santa Cruz) found that jaguars continue to reside around villages. Jaguar tracks were found around the study villages, and a female jaguar was shot just outside, near Blue Creek village in December 2013 (a photo was shown to the author). Mayan residents described in great detail recent encounters with jaguars, and easily differentiated between jaguars and other cats when presented images. Recent research conducted by a graduate student in the author's lab documented multiple jaguars using camera traps (Dobbins 2014).

Recent studies in central Belize indicate that jaguars can inhabit disturbed areas (Foster 2008; Foster et al. 2010; Zeller et al. 2011; Dobbins 2014), which means, the Toledo District could represent an important piece of the conservation puzzle for jaguar conservation in Belize given that the Mayan landscape lies between protected areas that are known to contain breeding jaguar populations. Although jaguars have been studied in and around Cockscomb, Mountain Pine Ridge, and Chiqibul, all found north of the study area, the Mayan interior in the heart of the Toledo District has not been the focus of any cat conservation efforts or studies to date (see Rabinowitz 1986, 1992, 2014; Kelly 2003; Miller 2006; Harmsen et al. 2009, Harmsen et al. 2010; Davis et al. 2011, for jaguar studies in other areas in Belize). Thus, a potentially important blank spot exists in the overall Belizean jaguar conservation map. The international cat conservation group, 'Panthera', has identified the southern and eastern edges of the Toledo District as part of a jaguar corridor, but again, the status and numbers of jaguars and issues surrounding human-jaguar conflicts in the central part of the district remain largely unknown (Salom-Perez et al. 2010).

It stands to reason however, that if the spatial dynamics of jaguar populations in the heart of the Toledo District are better understood, populations in core conservation areas found both to the north and south will be less isolated and more secure as well. Similarly, understanding human-jaguar conflicts is essential for any long-term, effective jaguar conservation planning (Haenn 1999; Haag et al. 2010; Espinosa and Jacobson 2012). Jaguar conservation in southern Belize is also important because it is more than creating another national park or legislating new environmental laws. Jaguar conservation, broadly speaking, touches on numerous local cultural ecological issues such as environmental perceptions, conservation planning and local decision-making, power relations between locals and national authorities, and ecotourism opportunities (Figel et al. 2011; Caruso and Pérez 2013). All of these issues contribute to the success or failure of larger conservation not just in Belize, but in many other landscapes.

Belize, overall, represents a critical location for jaguar conservation in northern Central America and southern Mexico because of the pace of habitat change in surrounding countries. In much of lowland Guatemala, for example, high deforestation rates in and out of protected areas has led to greater forest fragmentation (Monzón-Alvarado et al. 2012; Barraclough 2013). As more people have resettled in the lowlands, more conflicts with jaguars have also occurred, including poaching and retribution killings in response to cattle predation ([Figure 3]) (Novack 2003; De Lara 2008; Soto-Shoender and Main 2013). So, Belize, although geographically small, represents an important conservation landscape given its extensive protected areas system and conservation efforts focused on the jaguar specifically. For example, in addition to the creation of the world's first jaguar preserve, the Belize Zoo has assisted with both jaguar research and environmental education through its many programs (Jacobson 1991; Coc et al. 2013; Mesa-Cruz et al. 2014). Jaguars as a species and the larger idea of jaguar conservation are both widely known and understood in Belize.
Figure 3 Jaguars killed in the neighboring Ixcan Region in Guatemala – photo by Matthew Taylor

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   Methods Top


Given habitat change around the study villages, the study hypothesised that jaguars would be extirpated around Mayan villages and sightings would be minimal. To test this hypothesis, interviews and surveys with 65 Mayan villagers took place in June 2011, May 2013, and follow up surveys in spring 2014. Interviewees came from San Jose and Santa Cruz ([Figure 1]), and the interviews were administered with the help of a local, Mopan and Kekchi speaking resident from San Jose. Informed consent was obtained before questions were asked, and interviews were conducted in both Mayan and English. Villagers were not randomly selected. Instead, male villagers who farmed and hunted were selected, using the Snowball sampling method. Snowball sampling is a non-probability sampling technique where subjects initially selected for interviews assist or identify future subjects. This method was selected because interaction with the forest and wildlife is not evenly distributed among Mayan villagers, instead, they are largely limited to males who farm and hunt. Ages of informants ranged from 21 to 65 years old. Gender roles remain fairly rigid in Mayan villages, with females participating in limited activities outside the village. For example, women rarely, if ever, participate in hunting activities; therefore, women were excluded from this study.

Questions ranged from very specific, such as, “where have you seen jaguars during the past three years” and “have you hunted a jaguar?” to more open-ended questions such as “are jaguars good or bad?” The intent of this study was not to pinpoint the exact numbers of jaguars and other cats. Instead, questions or indirect methods were employed to shed light on the perception of jaguars by Mayan villagers, whether or not jaguars are found proximate to villages (presence/absence), and the potential impact or influence such attitudes might have on future conservation planning. Questions were also asked about jaguar-ecotourism related issues.


   Results Top


Jaguar sightings during the past three years were reported by 49% of the respondents (this three-year time frame ranged from 2008-20013). The mean age of respondents who sighted jaguars was 41. The youngest individual to view a jaguar was 24, the oldest 61. Twenty six percent of the informants reported multiple sightings during the past three years. Although there was a likelihood of overlap in sightings, it also seems certain that at least several different cats were seen, given the disparate nature of Mayan farms and hunting activities, and the secretive nature of jaguars. Some informants travel several kilometres to their farm, while other farms or milpa are located just outside villages (Levasseaur and Olivier 2000). Informants recognised individual jaguars, with some identifying male, females, young and old. So, while specific numbers remain unclear, it is clear that jaguars are present within the Mayan cultural ecological landscape.

Whether or not these cats resided permanently around villages, or were passing through, is impossible to ascertain at this point given the lack of 'camera trap documentation' in this study. However, given the number of sightings reported, it is unlikely that all cats were simply passing through the region. Even if many of the reports were of transient cats moving between population centres, sightings would indicate the district's importance as a corridor. Also, some informants described seeing cats in certain areas or certain times of the year (i.e. dry season). So, again, it is unlikely that all these cats were transient. Most villagers were also clearly cognisant of the differences between jaguars and other cats found in the region. Informants were asked to describe size and markings of cats and pick cats from a field guide 'lineup' to eliminate mistakes. However, the author acknowledges the possibility of mistaken identification even with precautions taken during interviews. For example, an ocelot could be confused with a small jaguar during a brief glimpse. Again, though, respondents were able to describe in great detail the various cats in the area and were quite certain about most jaguar sightings.


   Temporal/spatial Information Top


Thirty seven percent of the informants reported seeing jaguars at dawn or dusk, often when they were walking to or returning from their milpa. Although highly altered, milpa attract animals that raid fields such as the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and collared peccary (Peccary angulatus), which, in turn, draw predators (Dunn et al. 2012.) All other sightings occurred at night while hunting. Jaguar encounters at night were often the result of dogs treeing or chasing cats while hunting deer or while camped out in a milpa in an attempt to shoot crop-raiding animals.

The environments in which sightings occurred were roughly divided between mature tropical forest, what locals call 'high bush,' milpa and their associated successional forests, locally known as 'low bush.' High bush in southern Belize is found in isolated patches, along rivers, and directly to the north of the study villages in the Columbia Forest Reserve. This environment is most often visited while hunting game or while collecting forest products such as medicinal plants. The presence of jaguars in both mature forests and disturbed landscapes is interesting because the cats exploit different resources in each environment. For example, milpa and other degraded forested areas and edge environments might serve as 'critical hunting territories' given that they attract prey such as the white-tailed deer and domesticated animals. While tracts of mature forest provide opportunities for a different suite of prey items, such as the red brocket deer (Mazama Americana), paca, locally known as gibnut (Agouti paca) and primates such as black howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra), there is some overlap between these two landscapes and the potential prey they house. However, based on this survey, the importance of the milpa and associated regenerating fallow forests should not be underestimated in the overall conservation of jaguars. That is not to say that large tracts of contiguous forest found in strictly protected national parks aren't a critical habitat for jaguars, they are. However, a patchwork landscape may provide opportunities for jaguars that a contiguous forest does not. The ecological value of regenerating and managed forest systems in the tropics is well documented (Putz et al. 2000; Naughton-Treves et al. 2005; Vester and Navarro-Martínez 2005), so, it should come as no surprise that this diversity benefits jaguars and other cats as well. This spatial dynamic has important implications on human-jaguar conflicts.


   Perceptions and Human-Jaguar Conflicts Top


Based on surveys and indirect methods, jaguars are frequently found within the larger Mayan cultural ecological landscape in southern Belize. As a result, conflicts are bound to occur with a predator that competes with the locals for game animals and preys upon domesticated stock. However, most Mayan villagers in southern Belize keep few or no cattle, so, unlike in other parts of its range such as Mexico, South America, or even central Belize, conflicts with jaguars have little to do with cattle losses (Rabinowitz 1986; Zimmermann et al. 2005; De Azevedo and Murray 2007; Rosas-Rosas et al. 2008; Cavalcanti et al. 2010). Instead, when questioned about conflicts with jaguars, 47% of the informants cited predation of domestic dogs as the most important reason for conflicts, the most common reason listed by respondents. Sixty-seven percent of those who cited 'predation of dogs' as a reason for conflict, claimed to have personally lost a dog or had one or more injured by jaguars.

Conversations revealed that dogs are critical in Mayan hunting activities. The important place of dogs within a variety of cultural landscapes has been documented in many anthropological studies (see White 1972; Dunn 2004; Brown and Emery 2008; Koster 2006, 2008, 2009; Rodríguez et al. 2012). All of these studies point to the same conclusion: when a valued hunting dog disappears or is injured, it can create short-term hardships for a family, because hunting provides a significant portion of meat in many households.

Therefore, among the Mayans in southern Belize, dog predation, not cattle, drives conflict with jaguars. These numbers should be treated with some caution though, because when a dog disappears for any reason, jaguars are often blamed without any real evidence. However, enough actual attacks do occur usually, while hunting game animals at night or on the outskirts of villages that reconfirm the jaguar's reputation as a dog killer and this is firmly cemented in the minds of the villagers.

The second most common reason for conflicts that was cited focused on predation by jaguars of desirable game animals such as deer and paca (listed by 29% of informants). Some informants claimed that game is scarcer today because jaguars are protected. However, several did recognise benefits of jaguars in that they prey upon animals that sometimes destroy crops. These were minority views however.

Overall, 64% of informants described jaguars as 'bad' or in similarly negative terms. Beyond predation on dogs, personal fear of the large cat also plays a role in the development of negative perceptions. Several villagers described situations in which they felt directly threatened by jaguars, where an attack was almost imminent. Others told the author it was dangerous to let pregnant women walk alone in the forest because they were especially susceptible to jaguar attacks. No one could recall a single jaguar attack on a human, ever, but the perception persists. These views are rooted in traditional Mayan cosmology held by many villagers who associate the forest and certain species with the spirit world. The jaguar has figured prominently in traditional Mayan cosmology, especially among shamans, who are in turn feared by many villagers (Benson 2012).

Among the 65 informants, 41% claimed to have hunted jaguars in their lifetime. This did not necessarily mean they all killed cats, but instead were part of a hunting party that sought to take a jaguar. These hunts should not be thought of as highly organised efforts focused solely on jaguars. Usually, they were opportunistic hunts or were in response to village dogs disappearing, as was the case in December 2013, the last time a jaguar was killed by informants in any surrounding village. However, when asked if jaguar hunting was more common in the past (more than 10 years ago), all 65 informants answered “yes.” So, while the majority may still perceive jaguars negatively, fewer people are actively hunting them.


   Discussion and Conservation Implications Top


Although these surveys portray a largely negative perception of jaguars among interviewees, the long-term conservation outlook in southern Belize is positive. There are several interwoven reasons for this optimism. First, there is no organised, persistent effort to eliminate jaguars from around villages. 'Problem' jaguars are occasionally targeted, but again, there isn't a concerted effort by Mayan villagers to eliminate jaguars or other cats. Jaguar hunting is less common today than in the past, likely driven by national environmental laws protecting the cat species. For example, when the jaguar was shot in 2013 for attacking dogs on the outskirts of Blue Creek, the hunter reported the incident to the Forest Department and handed over the skin. National conservation laws are well known, even in remote villages. Ninety five percent of the informants claimed to be aware of laws prohibiting cat hunting, in part, due to environmental education programs created by the Belize Zoo. Also, the illegal skin market is non-existent in southern Belize, and commercial big game hunting for jaguars in Belize is no longer legal. So there is no external, financially driven incentive for jaguar hunting today, as is the case with tigers whose body parts are used in China (Dinerstein et al. 2007).

Second, there is a strong desire on the part of many Mayan villagers to participate in the growing ecotourism economy in Belize. For example, 95% of the informants agreed that, “ecotourism can provide economic opportunities for villages.” Also, when asked if they wanted 'fewer', 'the same', or 'more' tourists to visit their village, 93% stated they wanted 'more' tourists. Although tourism has grown in the Toledo District during the past two decades, numbers pale in comparison with coastal locations or near popular national parks such as Cockscomb; and tours of Cockscomb are directly tied to its identity of being a jaguar preserve. Some villagers are attempting to tap into the opportunities provided by ecotourism by establishing rustic guesthouses that largely cater to backpackers, however, the number of tourists who actually stay in villages remains low. Villagers are aware of the booming tourism industry elsewhere in Belize because many young Mayans have left to work in hotels on the coast.

Third, Belize has a tradition of community-based conservation, which traces its origins to the creation of the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS) in central Belize in 1985 (Horwich and Lyon 2007; Wyman and Stein 2010). The CBS, organized by private landowners to protect a large population of black howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra), provides a potential model for other community-initiated conservation and ecotourism programs. The CBS is well known throughout the country, and was, in fact, mentioned specifically as an example of how communities can benefit from conservation. Although its exact blueprint may not be successful in other locations, the CBS has garnered the attention and interest of other communities in Belize. Although community-based conservation isn't without problems, ranging from the realisation of equitable benefits in local communities to paternalistic relationships with conservation organisations that provide funding (Lindberg et al. 1996; Belsky 1999; Alexander 2000; Jones and Horwich 2005; Krüger 2005), a conservation framework that emphasises local knowledge, control, and scale in forestlands outside traditional national parks can potentially avoid some of the pitfalls seen in other areas (Horwich and Lyon 2007; Ramos and Prideaux 2014). It is also important to point out that jaguars are well known around villages, so a level of conservation already exists among locals due to a variety of influences ranging from legal to cultural values (Jones and Young 2004).

Given the presence of jaguars and local knowledge, very little outside assistance is potentially needed by local communities to create a community-based jaguar preserve or perhaps a jaguar 'trail' in southern Belize. In other words, jaguars are present within the current cultural ecological landscape. So, demands on local people to change various activities would be minimal, other than perhaps directly hunting cats. As it has been demonstrated in other successful community-based conservation projects, scale plays a critical role in their success or failure, with local scale and control being more successful (Gibson et al. 2005; Horwich and Lyon 2007). In addition, by developing community conservation projects, the economic control and benefits to be gained from the jaguar as a tourist attraction and conservation symbol shifts from the macro level (national and international) to the micro level (village). The jaguar as a tourist and conservation symbol is valuable given the high level of tourist and research interest (Rabinowitz 2014).

Lastly, as has been shown in many other landscapes, indigenous people have developed a body of local ecological knowledge, beliefs, and practices important for biodiversity conservation (Gómez-Baggethun et al. 2012; Gómez-Baggethun and Reyes-García 2013); Porter-Bolland et al. 2013; Wood et al. 2013; Reyes-García et al. 2014) and southern Belize is no exception. Although the larger Mayan landscape has witnessed a great deal of economic, political, and social changes, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) remains resilient, especially among those who hunt. The participation of local communities and TEK has been increasingly recognised as indispensable in international conservation planning (Camacho-Benavides et al. 2013; Ruiz-Mallén and Corbera-Elizalde 2013). Community-based jaguar conservation will rely on TEK to identify critical jaguar habitat such as corridors that would not be apparent to outside researchers. This knowledge was evident from an informant's knowledge of jaguars, and can be seen in other aspects of Mayan cultural ecology such as knowledge of medicinal plants (Amiguet et al. 2005).

In closing, jaguar tourism could provide the means through which villages participate in an ecotourism economy and community-based conservations, given that traditional conservation strategies (i.e. a national park) and associated compliances are unlikely (see Robbins et al. 2009). Jaguars around villages potentially represent a unique, highly local resource whose presence can remake the conservation landscape in southern Belize. While the vast majority of tourists will never see a jaguar, simply searching for cats in areas where they are known to survive could be a powerful ecotourism marketing tool. This is no small task. However, a framework already exists in the country with the CBS, parts of which could be replicated. Ecotourism rooted in jaguar conservation would help change perceptions of the cat, thereby further reducing the desire for retribution killings by villagers and creating a more sustainable jaguar conservation landscape in southern Belize.


   Acknowledgements Top


The author would like to thanks Justino Peck from San Jose village for his assistance in administering the surveys and general advice in formulating the research.[84]

 
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