Community Cat Conservation in Belize
Belize is home to five species of wild cats: the jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi and margay. In spring 2010 in the New River Lagoon area of northern Belize, several calves were found dead apparently as a result of jaguar attacks. After two jaguars were killed in retaliation, the Lamanai Field Research Center and University of Florida initiated a community conservation program for wild cats. Objectives are to evaluate cat populations, provide economic incentives for landowners to report live cats, and prevent further retaliatory killings. We set up camera traps on the properties of participating landowners, and every two weeks the landowner brings the memory cards to our office where we download the photos and provide payment. Our growing photo bank contains photos of all five species of cats, as well as prey species including peccary, deer, tayra, coatimundi, great curassow, and Belize's national animal, Baird's Tapir. We identify individual cats using spot patterns, scars, and external parasites. We have discovered that all five species of cats occur in the area and that there are more individual cats than expected.
The next phase of the project will involve capturing local cats and attaching radio collars to track their movement patterns through the human-dominated landscape in our study area. These data will provide information to communities about how to coexist with wild cats and increase the conservation value of their lands while minimizing negative impacts to their livelihoods. In addition, we will survey households living in three communities in the New River Lagoon area to gain an understanding of local people's attitudes and experiences with wildlife, socio-economic characteristics, and likelihood of participating in conservation efforts. Survey results will guide development of an education and incentive program for local landowners, and will provide a baseline for future assessments of program effectiveness.