On September 3—one month after Hurricane Earl struck Belize—we departed the Belize Audubon Society’s Cockscomb headquarters at 6:00 and headed into the forest to check our cameras, look for cat footprints or scrape markings, and make a general assessment of the storm’s damage.
The lack of canopy was noticeable almost immediately—the sun bore down on us, sweat seeped through our clothes and we had to drink large quantities of water. Until now, Cockscomb was one of those magical places where you can drink cool, crystal clear water directly from the streams. I have been drinking Cockscomb water for 13 years without a problem… but this time was different. Many of the streams were stagnant and murky, blocked up with debris from the storm.
Thanks to the tireless work of the Belize Audubon Society staff, who had cleared logs and debris from the existing trail system, we were able to cover more ground and move faster than last time. The cleared trails also enabled us to check more easily for footprints—we saw prints of adult jaguars and pumas, but none belonging to the mother and two small cubs we’d seen on our camera traps before the storm.
As we trooped through the forest and downloaded data from cameras or changed their SD cards, we hoped these cameras had captured things we hadn’t seen ourselves: the mother and her cubs, of course, but also Ben, a large adult male jaguar we collared in February 2015. Though we knew Ben had made it through the storm, he hadn’t appeared in any camera trap photos in several weeks, so we didn’t know how he was doing or whether his GPS collar had dropped off weeks before, as it was supposed to.
We typically see Ben on our cameras at least once a week, so his absence was worrisome. Some of the jaguar footprints likely belonged to large males, but we couldn’t tell for sure if they were Ben’s or not until we saw him on camera and could identify his flank’s intricate rosette pattern.
It was 14:00 as we neared the last batch of cameras on the trail. It was incredibly hot and humid, and the lack of canopy only made it worse. With little energy left, we stopped talking amongst ourselves, silently looking for footprints, scratch marks and damage.
At one point, I walked slightly ahead of the group. I looked at the trail in front of me and there, where nothing had been seconds before, were two jaguars. I hadn’t heard them, because you never hear jaguars—they are stealthy hunters who move through the forest without a sound.
It had been a long time since I‘d seen a jaguar in the wild, and I’d seen two jaguars together only once before—and that time, I was in a car, and it was night. But these two jaguars were standing right in front of me in broad daylight. We all stared at each other, trying to figure out what to do next.
I ran through the scenarios in my mind. Were they a male and a female, ready to mate? Or perhaps they were a mother and a cub; sometimes a male cub is bigger than his mum, even though he’s still completely dependent on her.
After a few seconds I noticed one of them was very big and had to be an adult male. I could see his large muscular head moving around to get a better look at me. Only full grown males have heads that big—I remember being in awe of this when putting the collar on Ben last year.
The other jaguar looked smaller and more slender. It had to be a female, since most males would not associate with other males. After deciding I was no longer of interest, the jaguars turned around to trot off from the direction they came. But before they disappeared from view, they turned and looked at us once more.
The silence in our group was broken.
“Who was that?!”
“That was an adult male, right?!”
“They must have passed our cameras…”
“So we’ll know who they are once we see the videos and photos!”
Our group suddenly reinvigorated, we quickly finished the camera checks and headed back to the BAS headquarters, reliving our magical encounter the whole way.
When we arrived at our homes later that night, I went to put away equipment and take care of our dogs when I heard shouting in the street. I went to see what the commotion was about, and saw Becky running towards my house. She was shouting: “It was Ben and F11-9, it was Ben and F11-9!” Too excited to wait, she had already reviewed the footage of the last camera traps, hoping to identify the two jaguars we’d seen. I couldn’t believe it—I had been face to face with Ben!
In my 13 years working in Cockscomb, I’ve had more than 25+ jaguar sightings… but this was the first time I’d seen a jaguar I actually “knew”. It was amazing to know—with my own eyes—that Ben was doing fine. His collar had dropped off just like it was supposed to, and Ben was back to being a proper wild Cockscomb jaguar.