Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

The connectivity of the largest forest block in Mesoamerica is dangling by a thread

  • Written by  Jacob Dykes
  • Published in Forests
A jaguar in a private reserve called Runaway Creek, Belize, caught by a camera trap A jaguar in a private reserve called Runaway Creek, Belize, caught by a camera trap Jamen Percy, Runaway Creek
25 Mar
2022
Walking in the footsteps of jaguars, Jacob Dykes meets the conservationists determined to maintain the connectivity of the largest forest block in Mesoamerica 

The hot breath of the forest rises to the ridgeline of the Maya Mountain Massif in the distance. There, the sun lays lambent on the horizon, ready to drop. ‘When night starts to fall, you can quickly lose your way,’ says the forest ranger, his fingers tightening on the machete. Dressed in camouflage, he blends with the kaleidoscopic green; part of the jungle itself. ‘You got lost here once, right?’ says another voice. All around, the imagination conjures rosettes moving through the trees.

‘It was 11 hours before I found my tracks. I started to think of like, demons or something.’

‘There’s nobody to find you here, but the jaguar.’

The troop of rangers from Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) – the organisation that protects Belize’s Chiquibul Forest – are escorting a team of conservation researchers into a 423,000-acre fortress of moist broadleaf forest.

The crackles of their radios fade as they lose signal from the research station. The bellows of howler monkeys echo through the understory. Strapped to the trunk of a giant mahogany tree is a camera trap – one of more than 250 set up by FCD, Panthera and Virginia Tech University to monitor how the jaguars of Belize move through and between the nation’s forests. Lauren Watine, the biologist, stoops to remove the memory card, the last red rays of sun illuminating a tattoo of a jaguar on her shoulder. ‘Peccary…tapir…puma,’ she says, flicking through the images. Then it’s there: the thick-set jaw, the rosettes, the look that could kill. ‘Bingo’.

BMF Jag 5 nowatermarkImage: David Lugo, Virginia Tech University

SEVERANCE

Like so many species, jaguars have been impacted by deforestation. Once roaming across the plains of the United States to the tip of southern Argentina, they now occupy just 54 per cent of their former territory. Today, 80 per cent of the original forest cover in Central America has either been removed or degraded, and 75 per cent of jaguars inhabit landscapes that have become fragmented through human land-use change. Many jaguar populations have become restricted to refuges, known to biologists and ecologists as Jaguar Conservation Units. They run like a beaded necklace through Central and South America; some are isolated, others connected by thin threads of forest.

The pioneering jaguar biologist Alan Rabinowitz suspected that, if jaguar populations were protected across their range, so too could the largely unexplored forests they inhabit be saved, along with the hundreds of plant and animal species within them. In 2013, he proposed the Jaguar Corridor Initiative – now an ongoing effort led by Panthera to conserve jaguar populations by connecting refuges across their remaining range.

‘Belize in particular has become a crucial stepping stone for the movement of jaguars and other wildlife,’ says Watine, stepping over creeping lianas, which erupt like snares from the forest floor. Belize has largely avoided the civil wars, drug-related violence and much of the land-grabbing that have contributed to deforestation in neighbouring Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Through a National Protected Areas System of more than 103 locations, Belize has maintained more than 61 per cent forest cover. Here in the south-west, the Chiquibul sits within a vast block of intact habitat called the Maya Mountain Massif. In the north, a newly-protected area called the Belize Maya Forest, together with the Rio Bravo, anchors Belize’s forests to a 15 million hectare trinational block known as the Selva Maya. Spanning northern Guatemala, Belize and southern Mexico, it is the largest contiguous tropical block of forest north of the Amazon, and one of the few locations listed by the IUCN where jaguars still have a high chance of survival.

‘Today, it’s getting to the Selva Maya that’s the problem,’ says Watine. Just 30 years ago, jaguars could have crossed from the Chiquibul into the forests of Guatemala, and up into the northern Selva Maya to connect and breed with other populations. But in recent decades, the Chiquibul has begun to detach from the Selva Maya as a hard wall of deforestation has crept forth from the Guatemalan border.

David MacDonald, founder of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University, explains that, ‘how a single jaguar moves through its range to reach other dispersing populations is just as much a question of geopolitics as it is ecology.’ In 1991, Guatemala claimed roughly half of Belize’s territory. Tensions have long simmered between the two nations, but in 2003 an adjacency zone was established along the border to build peace. Since then, poverty levels on the Guatemalan side have reached 60 per cent, and deforestation has soared. A larger country of more than 18.5 million people, Guatemala has now lost 20 per cent of its forest cover since 2001. Terra-I, a deforestation watchdog, reports that 75 per cent of Guatemala’s forest loss between 2004 and 2010 happened in the Pet n region, which abuts Belize’s western border.

As we reach the edge of the Macal River, the environment becomes hostile. Giant treetrunks have been conquered by a riot of epiphytes, strangling figs, lichens and lianas. Rafael Manzanero, director of FCD, points through a clearing in the canopy. ‘We’re close to the border now.’ To the east, clouds of vapour stand like cotton buds on the surface of the treetops, but to the west, the forest withers. ‘Jaguars know nothing of borders. But they have found a hard one constructed in front of them. There’s now just one route they can take to get to the Selva Maya – that’s a perilous journey north through the heart of central Belize.’

Priority Cruz Keme FCD Ranger R1 06878 0019Cruz Keme, ranger at Friends for Conservation and Development, in the Caracol Archaelogical Reserve. Behind are ‘Mayan mounds’ – ancient deposits of soil and leaf fall that cover the ruins of Mayan settlements. Image: Jacob Dykes

THREADS OF FOREST

Diesel engines roar to life the next morning as a convoy of FCD’s pick-up trucks head north out of the Chiquibul. On the backseat, Elma Kay of the Belize Maya Forest Trust is examining a map of Belize’s protected areas. She points to two blocks of green. ‘Because we’ve lost that forested connection through Guatemala, it’s vital for jaguars and the health of Central America’s forests that Belize’s southern and northern forest blocks maintain their connectivity.’ But her finger traces a belt of yellow, which cuts like a scar between them. ‘This is what we’re up against.’

In recent decades, a belt of deforestation has developed in central Belize. The country’s main arterial road, the Western Highway, bisects the northern and southern forest blocks, providing a route to the coast where raw agricultural goods are exported. Today, agricultural expansion is acute in an area known as the Maya Forest Corridor. Just 90,000 acres, it has become a choke-point, now holding the last threads of forest connecting Belize’s Maya Mountain Massif – where the Chiquibul sits – with the rest of the Selva Maya to the north. The forests within the corridor are being sought out by the sugarcane industry, and other mechanised crop producers and cattle farmers. Already, the deforestation rate here has risen to four times the national average; 65 per cent of the connecting forests have already fallen, and in parts are now just five kilometres wide.

Heading from the Chiquibul, walls of forest yield to steel and cement factories, timber sawmills, poultry farms and plantations of corn and soybean. ‘With these industries expanding rapidly, there is only one viable option to protect the corridor forests before they fall,’ says Kay. ‘Direct purchase.’

In 2020, the Maya Forest Corridor Trust was established. The goal is for donors to pool funds, purchase and link up the 90,000 acres of forests that maintain wildlife connectivity to the Selva Maya. The Trust has so far purchased 30,000 acres, with 10,000 already under management by private conservation entities. But they are now seeking philanthropic support to secure protection for the remaining 50,000 acres of at-risk forest. ‘It’s not a perfect solution because we would much prefer individual owners to protect their own land, but we are nearly out of time,’ says Kay.

remainingMFC gap to connect NPAS and Belize forests to Selva Maya Nov28 2021The Maya Forest Corridor is the last remaining forested connection between the Northern Selva Maya and the Maya Mountain Massif. Map: University of Belize

The threads of forest in the corridor are symbolic of a dichotomy that countries with the remaining tropical forests will face: preserve the health of forest assets, or pursue the historic model of deforesting for productivity gains? The way of the jaguar through Belize is caught in this question, and as such, Rabinowitz’s vision for connected jaguar populations has leapfrogged beyond ecology, into the realm of geopolitics, economics and national development.

With the perils of Covid-19 exposing frailties in global supply chains, farming communities in Belize are advocating for in-country production to be increased. But here in the Maya Forest Corridor, the issue is not so black and white as conservation versus production; it is about minimising the impact of mechanised farming on an ecologically sensitive area. ‘This is about showing there is an alternative way to develop that does not impact forest connectivity,’ says Kay. Like many others, she sees the warning signs from other Central and South American countries, where agricultural productivity has been pursued at the expense of forest connectivity. ‘In Belize, large-scale mechanised agriculture is largely to export raw products: we have little processing capacity with little value added to the economy. We will never have the economies of scale that Brazil and Mexico have; so, if the corridor area is opened up for industry, we are squandering our natural assets and their connectivity for little value added,’ she says.

Deforestation has immediate impacts on wildlife and the ecosystem services forests provide. In the corridor, forests help to provide and filter water; many local communities harvest timber at small-scales for building materials, collect medicinal plants and depend on forests for food. The consequences of such fragmentation here in Belize, say the Maya Forest Corridor Trust, will be felt most acutely by the poorest members of society. ‘Who pays the true costs of unsustainable operations?’ says Kay. ‘It will always be those who have the least; those who are still dependent on forests for everything from housing material, to food, to clean water.’

Gallon Jug Intact Forests R1 06882 0054The forested landscapes of Gallon Jug – a private reserve in the north of Belize. Vegetation here is thick and biodiverse. Image: Jacob Dykes

Corridor Agriculture R1 06894 0027Many of the remaining patches of forest in the Maya Forest Corridor are increasingly being sought out by mechanised farming industries. Image: Jacob Dykes

Currently, the primary sector – the agricultural, fishing and logging industries – contribute 13 per cent to Belize’s economy; 40 per cent of GDP is dependent on tourism, and according to Stanford Natural Capital Lab, the nation’s forests alone contribute at least $15 million in direct tourism revenue annually. Today, a nascent voluntary market for forest carbon is emerging, which is starting to offer private landowners alternative means of income for maintaining the forests on their lands. In 2021, The Nature Conservancy struck a deal to purchase the newly protected Belize Maya Forest, now Belize’s anchoring point with the Selva Maya. Under TNC’s agreement, the sale of carbon credits will cover half the cost and fund a $15 million endowment to manage the forests into the future.

The corridor’s future also raises questions of national identity. ‘We are afraid of the deforestation industrialised farming is causing in the corridor, and how our country will look in ten years’ time,’ says Cristina Coc, director of the Julian Cho Society, a group representing Belize’s Indigenous Peoples. For many Belizeans, thriving forests are a symbol of national heritage. She adds that the Indigenous Mayans of the south ‘have an umbilical connection to the forests’.

Many groups across Belize’s society would prefer a future where Belize continues to be defined by its conservation successes. ‘If the corridor is preserved, we’ll maintain that link between the Selva Maya and the Maya Mountain Massif, creating the largest contiguous protected area in Central America. This is important for wildlife populations that are part of our heritage and economy. That sends a message about what Belize values and how it wants to develop,’ says Kay.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

THE CROSSROADS

Forking from the Western Highway, the team spill onto a flattened gravel road called the Coastal Road. Tired faces of construction workers dot the roadside. Either side, verdant walls of green are interrupted by freshly cleared gravel pits, broken and burned branches jutting from parched soils. This year, the road is due for paving, and the Maya Forest Corridor Trust are wary of the ‘fishbone effect’, where cycles of deforestation extend from arterial roads. Emma Sanchez, Belize programme director of Panthera, says ‘if this cycle continues to sever the corridor connection, the amount of forest edges will increase, leading to more human-jaguar conflicts.’ Already, the Belize Zoo harbours an increasing number of injured cats that have come into conflict with humans on agricultural lands.

Priority Coastal Road Paving Construction workers, busy paving the coastal road, where a two meter ditch banks each side. The barrier will be impossible for many species to navigate. Image: Jacob Dykes

Some private landowners have offered the Maya Forest Corridor Trust a helping hand. Pulling from the Coastal Road, the gravel pits yield to savannah-like grasslands dotted with Caribbean pine trees. Beyond is a wall of thriving forest. ‘Welcome to Runaway Creek, the stronghold of the Maya Forest Corridor,’ says Kay.

Cindy Law, the owner of this 6,000-acre reserve, purchased the land with her husband in 2017. On foot, the team are led down a snaking trail that weaves through layered complexes of vegetation. Above, the white flowers of ageing balsa trees have unfurled like open hands. Below, Law halts at a line carved in the leaf fall by leafcutter ants. She pauses, watching as they scurry towards their underground colony, passing through staggered openings of sunlight where orchids and herbs bloom. ‘I always think about what this could have looked like,’ she says. ‘When we bought it, much of the land was due to become a gravel pit for the Coastal Road. My husband and I were no biologists; we handed it over to the researchers and the community here. We just said ‘It’s yours. Do good with it’.’

Priority Cindy Law R1 06895 0036Cindy Law, the owner of a private reserve in the Maya Forest Corridor, watches reintroduced howler monkeys in the forested canopy above. Image: Jacob Dykes

As agricultural activity closes in, areas in the corridor that have maintained forests are becoming bottlenecks for jaguar and wildlife movement. In 2013, Omar Figueroa, then Belize’s minister of forestry and sustainable development, conducted his PhD research here. Through telemetry tracking of jaguars, he showed that they were using the entire Maya Forest Corridor area to move between the Maya Mountains and the northern Selva Maya. In particular, Runaway Creek supported 24 jaguars – an unusually high density for a 6,000-acre area. ‘Jaguars have always moved through this area to reach the north,’ explains Wilber Martinez, biologist at Runaway Creek. ‘But all around they are losing habitat. You saw it as you came in. To the West is a citrus farm; to the south, an industrial cash-crop farm.’

From the granite hilltops of Runaway Creek, Kay gazes out across the expanse of trees, which vanishes into soybean. ‘My sons tell me they can’t imagine a Belize without the healthy ecosystems. There’s a global issue at stake in this corridor: If we can’t preserve connectivity here, in a nation of 400,000 people, then where can we?’

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

THE PERSIAN RUG

Back in the dry heat of the truck’s cabin the team are heading to the protected areas in the north. On her phone, Kay flicks left and right through satellite images of the Maya Forest Corridor; one from 1975, then 1995, onwards to 2020. Much of the forested areas in the corridor now exist as thin threads or fragmented islands – a pattern that has swept across the world’s forests. Ninety-one per cent have experienced fragmentation, and satellite data shows that, what were contiguous blocks of tropical forests have been converted into 50 million separate pieces. The Atlantic Forest of Brazil is now made up of patches under 1,000 hectares in size, and today, 19 per cent of all tropical forest trees lie within 100 metres of a forest edge. Though Belize has retained 61 per cent forest cover, the same patterns are establishing. Across Belize, agriculture has expanded by nearly 20 per cent in just 10 years.

‘Without connectivity between Belize’s protected areas, we’ll create hostile areas for wildlife between forest patches, leading to isolated populations and a decline in the genetic health of wildlife like the jaguar,’ says Martinez. ‘Once the Mayan Mountains Massif becomes disconnected from the Selva Maya, local extinctions – particularly of large mammals – will follow. It will be a matter of time.’

Jaguars have so far avoided segregation into subspecies, but they are becoming divided into four genetic clusters, with bottlenecks stunting the mixing of populations in the Selva Maya with those in Honduras, El Salvador and beyond. Though jaguars may sometimes cross human-dominated landscapes, the same cannot be said for tapirs, for amphibians, for many pollinators and seed distributors. Two roads already bisect the Maya Forest Corridor: the Western Highway, and the Coastal Road. The latter is steeped by two deep ditches either side that many wildlife populations, such as tapirs and peccaries, are unable to cross.

So pervasive is the problem of fragmentation that the conservation biologists Bruce Wilcox and Dennis Murphy wrote in the journal Conservation Biology: ‘habitat fragmentation is the most serious threat to biological diversity and is the primary cause of the present extinction crisis.’ As forests are disconnected, species are less able to disperse, less able to find new breeding populations, and less able to bring their genes to new areas.

Across the world, the same pattern has reduced wildlife connectivity. MacDonald’s research on the clouded leopard populations of Myanmar shows that proposed developments from China’s Belt & Road Initiative will result in a 36 per cent decrease in landscape connectivity, and a predicted population reduction size of 64 per cent. Almost all of the 36,500 kilometres of roads planned in the Brazilian Amazon will be built inside the distribution range of the jaguar. In Belize, demographic imbalances between jaguar populations are more likely as the Coastal Road develops: In one 2021 study of jaguar movements across the Western Highway, all jaguars that managed to cross were males; no females ventured past. ‘As forests are shorn into fragments by roads and agriculture, we are tampering with the very processes that have shaped the great diversity of life,’ says MacDonald.

While corridors are not perfect replacements for blocks of natural habitat, they are becoming increasingly important during climate change. Central America is ranked among the Global Climate Change Hotspots, with projected increased mean temperatures, more frequent extreme temperatures, and higher rainfall variability. Throughout past periods of heating, species have dispersed through intact habitats to find suitable conditions as their environment changes.

In the modern day, the severance of connections like the Maya Forest Corridor may portend a troubling fate: ‘We have a saying in biology: species threatened with climate change can either move, adapt or die,’ says Rebecca Senior, researcher from Durham University. Her research shows that under current warming forecasts, 66.8 per cent of forests in Mesoamerica fail to achieve ‘climate connectivity’ – where species are able to move through habitats to reach suitable climates. Without wildlife corridors to facilitate movement, many relationships between plants and animals – like those of the tapir with the more than 120 plant seeds it distributes – may breakdown. Already, the Chiquibul and adjacent Mountain Pine Ridge areas have seen unusually high fire levels in recent years; and last year, a tapir marooned to Runaway Creek died of dehydration during the nation’s drought.

INTO THE SELVA MAYA

As the grey dusk gives way to darkness, the team pass the last of the soybean plantations into a dense gateway of forest in the north. A full moon hangs in the sky, crystalline stars casting their light upon the treetops. ‘If jaguars make it through the patchwork of agriculture in the centre of Belize, this is what they’ll discover,’ says Malcolm Robinson, manager of Gallon Jug, a private reserve. The guide from Gallon Jug’s Chan Chich Lodge grabs his flashlight, and combs the walls of trees for eyeshine. ‘This area has some of the highest jaguar densities in Central America,’ says Robinson. ‘It’s the anchoring point with the Selva Maya.’ As the light passes over them, the eyes of wolf spiders are diamonds on the forest floor; the silhouettes of curassows and brocket deer are cast against the dark of the trees. Night creeps on, yet still no jaguars.

Night Forest ScapeR1 06897 0058Night descends on the forests of Gallon Jug – a private reserve in the north of Belize. Image: Jacob Dykes

The next morning, a pilot is loading suitcases into a light aircraft, ready to retrace the way of the jaguar back to the southern strongholds. ‘We have the saying here “go slow”,’ he says, as the conservationists board and the engine revs to life. ‘We’ll ignore that.’

The plane blisters down the runway. Airborne, it soars above the forests of Gallon Jug, the Rio Bravo and the Belize Maya Forest. The Selva Maya stretches hundreds of thousands of acres, up into Mexico and Guatemala beyond. As the plane banks, a pair of black hawks divebomb towards each other. Their flight paths trace a bleeding edge of forest, where trees give way to pastures, the criss-cross patterns of soybean and cornfields. A bridge of trees courses through the patchwork – the Maya Forest Corridor. Somewhere in that thread of forest, a jaguar moves unseen through the understory. It knows nothing of borders, of politics, economics, or of the changes we have wrought upon the climate. It knows only the need to hunt, and to move.

Maya Forest Corridor From AboveA section of the Maya Forest Corridor, pictured from above from a light aircraft. Image: Jacob Dykes

The production of this article was supported by The European Nature Trust.

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR MONTHLY PRINT MAGAZINE!
Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Places

An ancient continent, dubbed Balkanatolia, could explain the movement of…

Cities

Attempts to control India’s air pollution are increasingly sophisticated, but…

Mapping

The way maps are created can have a significant impact…

Cities

Heat is a bigger killer than other climate disasters, such as floods…

Water

New maps of the world’s glaciers reveal that they contain…

Forests

Walking in the footsteps of jaguars, Jacob Dykes meets the…

Forests

The UK relies heavily on forest biomass to boost its…

Forests

The world’s largest single organism is unprepared for the changes…

Places

As the year draws to a close, we take a…

Water

A new device, developed at ETH Zurich, could help communities…

Forests

A new initiative to save mangrove forests in the Dominican…

Deserts

The semi-autonomous Russian republic of Kalmykia sits at the forefront…

Cities

In Mogadishu, the troubled capital of Somalia, tentative moves towards…

Mountains

Researchers have predicted the birth of a new mountain range,…

Forests

Archaeological work around Lake Malawi suggests that humans manipulated the…

Water

Maida Bilal risked all to prevent contractors building a dam…

Places

Writer and photographer John Gilbey needed a cheap way of…

Water

An EU project has revealed the extent of river fragmentation…

Mapping

Flattening our spherical planet onto a 2D surface has always…

Water

 Water scarcity is predicted to rise – two experts share…