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On the prowl for big cats in Belize: Virginia Tech researchers delve into jaguar habits and their prey

Posted: Friday, October 20, 2023. 5:59 am CST.

By Horace Palacio: An expansive camera trapping endeavor in Belize has enabled Virginia Tech researchers to amass vital insights about jaguars and their fellow big cats. Their recent focus: understanding the prey of these majestic felines to bolster conservation measures for numerous animal species.

While adjusting a digital camera in the Belize jungle, David Lugo, a graduate student from Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, had a breathtaking encounter. He found himself locking eyes with a jaguar only 50 yards away. Such experiences are rare, Lugo remarked, underscoring the elusive nature of these cats.

This groundbreaking project, helmed by professors Marcella Kelly and Brett Jesmer from the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, examines jaguars, pumas, and ocelots in Belize. They aim to protect these cats, some of which are classified as “near threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list, and the ecosystems they inhabit.

Kelly pioneered the jaguar camera project in 2000, leveraging remote-triggered cameras to photograph jaguars, pumas, and ocelots through “camera trapping.” This technique identifies cats by analyzing their unique spot patterns, facilitating estimates of population size, sex ratios, and densities. The state-of-the-art camera technology has expanded their Belizean study sites, with 400 cameras currently spread across 800 square miles.

Highlighting the importance of such efforts, Kelly said, “Before remote camera technology, estimating populations of elusive species like jaguars was nearly impossible.”

Concerns about Belize’s logging industry’s impact on jaguar habitats and the significance of jaguars to Belizean culture and tourism prompted this research. Kelly’s team is analyzing jaguar densities in logged and protected zones, including Belize’s 17 national parks. According to their findings, the jaguar population remains steady.

To broaden the project, Kelly teamed up with Jesmer, who possesses expertise in ungulates or hooved mammals. Their goal is to study the behavior, distribution, and abundance of jaguars’ primary prey: white-tailed deer and red brocket deer.

Noting the lack of studies on white-tailed deer in Central America, Kelly said, “Belizeans want more data-driven hunting seasons, similar to the U.S.” Jesmer, along with assistants, is gathering data on deer before expanding to peccaries and tapirs. Their methods include GPS tracking collars on deer, analyzing their movements, and understanding causes of mortality.

Emerging patterns suggest that, unlike North American counterparts, Belizean deer might be more active during the day to avoid night-hunting jaguars and pumas. Jesmer believes that more data could provide a clearer picture.

Students play a pivotal role in this project. Lugo and another graduate student, Darby McPhail, oversee field operations, trail maintenance, and data collection in Belize. This grueling work often involves wielding chainsaws and machetes in sweltering heat. The duo also collaborates with local NGOs, delivers community outreach presentations, and mentors undergraduate students from Virginia Tech and the University of Belize.

Rob Nipko, a Ph.D. student, is utilizing the vast camera trap data for quantitative analysis, while Belize native Johny Tzib focuses on the vital link between jaguars and Belizean culture.

Kelly envisions the project’s expansion across borders, with ongoing discussions with officials from Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico about transborder conservation. She emphasized the dual objectives of wildlife conservation and the development of better density estimation techniques.

Despite the inherent challenges of studying elusive animals, the Virginia Tech team remains committed, innovating their tactics and leading conservation efforts for future generations.


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