Jaguars Interrupted: Counting Big Cats After A Hurricane

Two months after Earl hit Belize, researchers at the world’s first jaguar reserve are still taking stock.

By Vicki Croke

This past summer, within days of gathering spectacular camera-trap footage of a female jaguar and her two tiny cubs sauntering through the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize, field scientists with Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization, got the news that a tropical storm was forming and might just come their way.

As the predictions quickly grew dire, Dr. Bart Harmsen, Dr. Rebecca Foster, and their team, did what they could to prepare: In the sanctuary, they relocated their cat cameras out of areas that were likely to flood, and outside the park, where the researchers live, they set about securing houses.


Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary–in some ways a paradise for jaguars, who often live into “old age” here. Courtesy: Rebecca Foster/Panthera.

Earl, a massive category 1 hurricane, made landfall in Belize on Thursday, August 4—battering Belize City and causing destruction elsewhere—including the 190-square-mile jaguar reserve. The next day, when the storm had passed, the anxious jaguar researchers were told they wouldn’t be allowed back into the park until debris had been cleared from the entrance.

This left plenty of time to worry about several animals. There was that female and her vulnerable cubs—the tiniest the scientists had ever seen in their footage; a beautiful bruiser named Ben (officially M11-8); and many other jaguars—and pumas too— whose life stories had been written in camera trap footage, in the tracks left on the trails, and in some very rare face-to-face encounters with researchers.



Individual jaguars can be identified by their distinguishing spot patterns. Courtesy: Panthera/UB ERI/Belize Audubon Society.

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