After a 20km hike in Belize’s Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary earlier this month, I was enjoying a soda with my teammate Rebecca outside the visitor center. We were discussing the incredible footage we’d just received from our camera traps: a young jaguar mother with two tiny cubs, in perfect daylight. The cubs were the smallest we’d ever captured on camera.
We knew we had to keep an eye on this family, but we also wanted to maintain monitoring presence throughout the area. We were excitedly discussing potential strategies when someone from the Belize Audobon Society (BAS) walked by and mentioned that a tropical storm was forming and might pass through Belize.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. I’d heard many similar warnings before—usually the storms die out or change direction. But the next day, the warnings became more serious. The storm was large, and it was headed straight toward us.
Our discussion about changing camera locations shifted—now we needed to pull out cameras in flood-prone areas so they wouldn’t be damaged or lost. Apart from the cameras, we also needed to prepare our homes—the storm had been upgraded to a hurricane, and we needed to stockpile drinking water, food, flashlights, batteries, and more.
Hurricane Earl was predicted to make landfall Wednesday night or Thursday morning north of us in Belize City. The storm was only a category 1 hurricane, but it was massive, so the 75-95mph winds would last for a while. Our staff dispersed to be with their families and we stayed in touch by text message as electricity went down throughout the country.
It was a memorable night. It rained hard, fast and sideways—all over our house, water streamed through the windows and down the walls. In the morning, we awoke to bright sun and clear skies. Electricity was down and some houses were damaged, but everyone was okay. By the afternoon, electricity around the country had mostly been restored.
At first, we only heard about the damage to urban areas; the natural wilderness of Belize received very little attention—but it was our primary concern. Where had the hurricane struck? We knew from Hurricane Richard in 2010 that it can take years for landscapes to recover from hurricane damage. Some of the forest in the Central Belize Corridor are still recovering from that storm.
Soon, our worst fears were confirmed. At the last moment, Hurricane Earl had diverted south and crossed completely over Cockscomb Basin and the rest of the Maya Mountains. While trying to repair the damage to our own homes, we anxiously waited to hear from BAS about when we could enter the park.
By the end of the weekend, the entrance road to the sanctuary had been cleared of fallen trees and we were able to enter. Our initial assessment was that the damage was extensive. Just a few days ago, Rebecca and I had walked the trails of the Sanctuary in the shade of a thick canopy of trees. Now, those same trails were in full view of the blazing sun and distant mountain peaks.
Fortunately, our cameras had mostly survived the heavy wind and rain—so we would be able to monitor the effects of the hurricane on wildlife. The initial downloads from the cameras showed that our main resident individuals were still there. Our collared jaguar Ben and Flash the puma were captured walking the trails (or what was left of them), but we were seriously worried about the young mother and her vulnerable cubs. Did they survive? Would the mother still be able to provide for them?
Later in the week when our crews were able to get deeper into the basin, more footage revealed she was alive—and so was at least one of her cubs. Other footage revealed pumas courting and jaguars walking trails as they normally do. An older female was joined by her grown male cub. They hadn’t been seen together in a while, so we suspect he went back for reassurance and will leave again soon.
Even though Hurricane Earl reshaped the forest and the ecosystem, wild cat society seems to have survived—though we will need to keep a close eye on these animals. The long-term consequences of this hurricane are unknown, and certain prey populations may collapse due to lack of food.
Cockscomb and the Maya Mountains are supposed to be a stronghold for jaguars, a source population that supplies the lesser wilderness areas with new recruits. Disasters such as this show the fragility of such populations and that we cannot simply count on the few remaining strongholds—there must be resilience and connectivity across jaguar range.
We can’t be sure what will happen next, but we do know this jaguar paradise could be in trouble—and we need to do everything we can to protect it.