Looking for Jaguars in Belize
By Marie Carroll
Living on the Cayes of Belize, we often like to take trips to the mainland and visit the jungle. A change, as they say, is as good as a rest, and being spoilt in a calm, relaxing, nature haven is certainly a change from the tourist bustle of Ambergris Caye.
On one such trip we decided to tour around Northern Belize, and knew that if luck was on our side there was the possibility of seeing Jaguars in the wild. Since my first encounter with lions in Kenya many years ago, I had been entranced by big cats and seeing a Jaguar was high on my bucket list. Although the best time for sightings was dawn - not something I often see - the prize would be well worth the loss of a little sleep. So in our hired 4WD truck we traveled to the Rio Bravo area and the field station La Milpa. Situated about two and a half hours from Belize City, La Milpa is one of two field stations set in the largest private reserve and second largest single protected area in the country - the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA). As well as being a research and education centre, they offer accommodation to travelers.
Our cabana was not luxurious, but it was spacious and clean, with a private bathroom and a cute veranda with a couple of hammocks for afternoon siestas. Their electricity is solar, water is from a well and conservation is highly encouraged. All meals are served buffet style in the main dining room and there was certainly no shortage of excellent food. I guess, as most of the people staying there were research students that had been hiking through the jungle for several hours before each meal , that should not have been a surprise. We often saw wild peccaries and oscillated turkeys outside our cabana in the mornings; Howler Monkeys could be heard in the nearby trees; and on a night drive, a Kinkajou roamed the trees for a photo shoot. The area around the field station is full of nature trails, and with my new "jungle shoes" I easily tacked a couple of the easier ones. The field guide, Freddie, was happy to accompany us and point out the various trees and plants, and was incredibly knowledgeably about the way they were used by the ancient Maya for everyday use and medicinal remedies.
However, every morning our hunt for the cats took the form of driving the roads around La Milpa just before dawn. Freddie had told us that several had been seen that way over the recent weeks, or in the area around the Mayan ruins (did I forget to mention that La Milpa is also home to the third largest Maya site in Belize which is currently under excavation by Boston University), so we were full of optimism. After a couple of mornings with no sightings we drove close to the ruin area and set off on foot, but still no jaguars. As we headed back to the truck something flew through the clearing that caught our eye, and on further scouring the trees we saw the most amazing bright blue bird. I'm not really a "twitcher" but this little fellow was beautiful and we spent several minutes watching him before we returned to the field station for breakfast. As we tucked into scrambled eggs, sausages and fried jacks, Freddie asked if we had had any luck seeing jaguars that morning. We said unfortunately not, but that we had seen a really lovely blue bird. Silence fell around the room.
One of the researchers grabbed the "Birds of Belize" book and asked us to see if the bird we had seen was in there. We scanned through the colour plates and pointed to our "little fellow". The questions now came quickly as people grabbed boots, cameras, binoculars and more. "Where exactly was it?" "Could we find it again?" "How long ago?" and "don't just sit there eating, let's GO!".
We all bundled into trucks, vans, jeeps and with us at the front we drove the convoy back to where we had earlier parked our truck. We looked up into the high canopy and ... there he was, just where we had left him. Photos were taken (we didn't have the same fancy cameras as the researchers but were able to get a close-up shot by putting our camera lens right up against a telescope) and details were recorded. So what was so special? The bird we had spotted was the Lovely Cotinga, one, or possibly THE, rarest bird in Belize. As Freddie later told us, in over two years of living at La Milpa he had seen hundreds of Jaguars, but never a Lovely Cotinga before that morning!
It certainly was a beautiful bird, and a highlight of our trip, but we will be back to the Rio Bravo area as I still want to see a Jaguar!
Marie Carroll moved to Belize from London in 2001 and currently lives and works on the island of Ambergris Caye. For more of her experiences in Belize visit The Belize Vacation Guide
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Views expressed in the article are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of CaribbeanChoice, its staff or members.