Panthera on the Ground: Fighting 'Fire Season' in Belize

Fighting Fire

Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative spans 13 of the 18 jaguar range states in Latin America. One of these being Belize - home of the Central Belize Corridor that serves as the critical link between jaguar populations in Mexico and Guatemala, and all jaguar populations south of Belize. Situated on the Caribbean Sea, Belize experiences a rainy or ‘green’ season, from June to November, and a ‘dry’ season from November to May, which locals have fittingly called the ‘fire season.’

 See a map of Belize and the Central Belize Corridor.

During fire season, illegal fires are frequently and deliberately set on savannas by people looking to clear land for agriculture, and by hunters to stimulate re-growth of young grass shoots that attract grazing animals like white-tailed deer. While these intentional fires are set anually, in the past they normally would die out at the edge where broadleaf forests begin.

Forests burning in the Central Belize Corridor.

However, this year the forests were littered with an abnormally high amount of dead wood left in the wake of Hurricane Richard, which hit Belize last October. This served as fuel enabling the savanna fires to sweep through the forests of the Central Belize Corridor, where local communities live and where Panthera’s field team are conserving jaguars by mitigating human-jaguar conflicts and monitoring their population and those of key prey species.

For several weeks, as the fires burned through this Corridor, Panthera’s jaguar team worked with local residents to prevent the fires from spreading by ‘beating’ them with large palm fronds (left). They also worked diligently to recover field equipment, including camera traps, and assess damage to the Corridor and wildlife in the area.

Photo showing where Panthera’s team and local residents stopped the savanna fire from entering the nearby pine forest and human settlement.

Surveys on the ground revealed extensive fire damage within one third of the Corridor.  Within this region, it was apparent to Panthera’s field team that hunters had used logging roads to access and illegally set fires within the hurricane-damaged broadleaf forest. Doing so improves the hunters’ chances of success by destroying vegetative undergrowth that acts as cover for key game species like peccaries, pacas and deer - all important prey of jaguars and pumas.

An aerial flyover by the team confirmed that nearly one-third of the Central Belize Corridor had been affected by the fires. Because the green canopies disguised where the fires had destroyed understory vegetation, the damage could be more extensive than we know. Damage was also apparent in protected areas bordering the Corridor.

Photos of a logging road system in the Corridor before and after the fires.

Camera traps that survived the fires are revealing a dramatic decrease in the activity of jaguars and their prey within the Corridor.  Due to loss of cover, some of the jaguar’s key prey including peccaries, will now also be more vulnerable to poaching by local hunters. Arboreal species, such as howler monkeys, are known to have perished, along with other less-mobile species such as juvenile mammals, snakes and turtles.

The area has now begun to experience heavy rains, clearing the smoke-filled air and all the fires have now been extinguished. Fortunately, jaguars are extremely mobile animals and it is likely that most of those affected by the fires have moved to undamaged forests, although this could lead to natural conflict with resident jaguars defending their territory.  In addition, the remaining Corridor forests are still connected, which will allow neighboring animal populations to replenish those lost in the fires or killed by hunters. Panthera’s team is now working vigilantly with local partners to mitigate these and other critical threats to jaguars’ survival, and to monitor the recovery of the area.

Click here to learn more about Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor Initiative.

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 See more recent photos from the Central Belize Corridor.