A Cougar Tracks Jaguars In Belize

An adventure traveler ditches her worries about the economy and seizes the moment to search for the elusive cat in Belize.

By Katherine Lanpher
Katherine Lanpher and Rudy Ramirez, a naturalist from Belize, track jaguars.
Photograph: Photo by: Jessica Antola

See photos from the trip.

If you are on a quest to track jaguars in the jungles of Belize, you could do worse than to contemplate your mission while sitting on top of the Jaguar Temple in the Mayan ruins of Lamanai, on the northern side of this Central American country.

Dawn is a particularly fine hour up here. The sun starts to play on the broken limestone steps below, and if you crane your head to the east, you can spy the lagoon of the New River. Listen to the birds: The chachalacas are always the first up in the jungle, but the brown jays are the land’s guardians and they are cawing, alerting everyone and everything to your presence.

If you’ve already made your assault on the nearby High Temple and its almost 110 feet of steeply raked stairs, skipping up the Jaguar Temple is like climbing a Mayan wedding cake decorated with lichen and moss and two distinctive stone jaguar faces.

Some guides titillate tourists by telling them the temple was used as a site for bloodletting ceremonies, but on this particular March morning, it is the site for a midlife woman to lean back in her sweat-stained clothes, study the robin’s egg blue sky and wonder:

When in the hell is that cat going to show up?

I am not normally a cat person. Then again, the jaguar isn’t a normal cat. To the early Mayans, the jaguar connoted power, and the rosettes on its pelt symbolized the night stars. Sleek, mysterious, beautiful, the jaguar eludes the very species that once worshipped it.

Smart cat. While still sometimes hunted, jaguars face an even bigger threat in loss of habitat, a decline conservationists hope to reverse by establishing a jaguar corridor to stretch from Mexico to Argentina. Giving the cat the room it needs to roam and reproduce helps the whole cycle of life in the forest, right down to the leafcutter ant. Save the jaguar and you save the planet.

When I started the research for this trip, I was in need of a little salvation myself, surrounded by people who felt just as I did: that, somehow, when we weren’t looking, our own lives had slipped onto an endangered list. Perhaps the only good thing about an economy that looks like a big-cat scratching post is that you start thinking about what really matters: time, love, life, travel.

I knew I needed my own midcourse correction, something to shake me out of the panic-tinged view I had of the future, a way to concentrate on the beauty of what was actually in front of me. I needed a quest. That’s when I decided to find a jaguar in the jungle.

Most people visit Belize for its coral reef and its blue waters, but I’d start my eight-day trip inland at the world’s first jaguar preserve, 200 square miles of trop-ical forest known as the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. From there I’d head to points north: Lamanai, the expanse of the Rio Bravo conservation area, and the Belize Zoo, where I’d be guaranteed a jaguar sighting, even of a tame one.

At Cockscomb, in south-central Belize, the allure of jaguars outweighed the Spartan accommodations—a ramshackle cabin replete with kerosene lamps, tepid water and a refrigerator-fed lake on the kitchen floor. On my first day, my guide, Ernesto Saqui, picks me up before dawn so we can start on the 12 miles of trails. When the sun is high, we pause at a small lagoon to watch a Morelet’s crocodile spin lazy eights in the water. I’m mesmerized by its languid motion, its glistening hide, the ridges that notch its tail. Boatbilled herons guard their nests in the trees above, and I assume they’re the croc’s usual prey. Then Saqui details his safety plan: If attacked, we’ll stand behind a wooden bench near the water and let those massive jaws clamp onto the seat instead of us.

Time to move on.

Saqui, once the sanctuary’s director, points out the flora and fauna along the trail. Here is a give-and-take palm tree, so called because relief from the sting of its thorns can be found in the tree’s sap. Over there, a tourist tree, named for its peeling red bark, which strikes locals as a facsimile of the sunburned skin of a gringa. And there, the palo de hombre, a second-chance tree. Its bark is boiled into a tea that’s said to cure infertility and impotence.

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