Jungle and Jaguars

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is one of Belize’s largest and most famous protected areas.  It’s also the world’s only Jaguar preserve, established in 1986 to protect these threatened animals.  Besides being home to the iconic cats, Cockscomb contains miles of hiking trails, the headwaters of several rivers, and the country’s highest mountain range, all contained in over 500 square kilometres of tropical jungle.  And with adjoining nature reserves to the south and west, the animals have a continuous natural corridor twice as large.

I was there for only two days, so I didn’t have time to do the 40 km, two-day hike to the top of Victoria Peak, Belize’s second-highest mountain (it’s only 1,120 metres though, we’re not in the Andes! [The highest, Doyle’s Delight, is only four metres taller, and, although in the same mountain range, it’s not inside the park’s boundaries]).

So instead I opt for two one-day hikes around the park, one on my own and one with a guide.  A short hike up to Ben’s Bluff affords fantastic views of the park’s jungle stretching out towards the Maya Mountains in the distance.  There’s nothing but trees in every direction for as far as the eye can see.  This unpeopled vista is because the park is a protected area, so no one actually lives in it.  Although this kind of view is not that unusual here – Belize’s low population density means that there’s far more uninhabited space here than in virtually every other Central American country (and with most of the population living within 50 km of the coast, the inland areas consist of huge swathes of untouched forest).

Another hike takes me to the photogenic, two-tiered Tiger Fern waterfall.  This is a fortunate destination, as by this point the exertion and the weather are making my internal organs cook inside my skin in a manner reminiscent of a packet of Uncle Ben’s boil-in-the-bag rice.  With two powerful waterfalls to shower under and two deep clear pools to swim in afterwards, all surrounded by tropical jungle, it’s the perfect place to cool off.  And there’s no one else around, which is lucky, as I’ve neglected to bring my swimming trunks and so have to clamber around in my waterlogged boxer shorts, which threaten to slide off my unmentionables at a moment’s notice.

After my cooling dip, it’s one more long walk, this time from the park entrance back to the accommodation, the tongue-twistingly-named Nu’uc Che’il Cottages, located in the nearest village, Maya Centre.  There are three places to stay (unless you have a tent), and the only one of those that’s actually in the park is a building maintained by the park’s rangers – you can sleep there, but you have to bring all your food with you and cook it yourself.  The other two places are guesthouses outside the park, run by local Maya families who used to live in the forest, before it was designated a park and they were compulsorily relocated.  But although my accommodation is technically outside the park, it’s on a dirt road several kilometres away from the highway, so at night the only sounds are the insects and frogs, and the only lights are the stars.

The next day I join my guide for another hike.  As we walk past the strangler figs and ceiba trees and cohune palms, Julio explains how his parents used to live in the park, living in houses made from nearby trees, and farming beans and corn and raising chickens, and how they would often find jaguar pugmarks (pawprints) in the earth outside their hut in the mornings, and occasionally see one if they were travelling at night.  He shows me a tree that jaguars have used as a scratching post to sharpen their claws.  And he tells me that it’s a bad idea to leave your pet dog tied up at night in that kind of environment, as that’s basically a jaguar’s idea of a buffet – as he found out to his (and his puppy’s) detriment!

He also tells me that the park is home to all five of Belize’s wild cat species, that the jaguar is the third-largest cat in the world after the tiger and lion (and the only large cat in the Americas), and that there are over 50 of them living in the park (and several hundred throughout the country [giving Belize the world’s highest jaguar concentration]).  Not that we’re going to see any today, the elusive (and nocturnal) felines are hidden deep in the forest, far away from their most dangerous predator (that’s us).  Plus, their camouflage is so good and the jungle so thick that you could walk within two metres of one and not see it.

But what we don’t see in jaguars we make up for in birds and reptiles – the park is home to over 300 species of birds, including the ridiculously-colourful Scarlet Macaw (a red, blue and yellow parrot), and the enormous-beaked Keel-billed Toucan (the national bird of Belize and avian symbol of Guinness).  We can hear the noisy macaws (but can’t see them), and see the toucans (perched on a branch in the distance).  And in my desire to see the pretty birds I almost step on another of Cockscomb’s residents – a boring-looking grey-brown snake, which Julio immediately informs me is the deadly Fer-de-lance, one of the most venomous snakes in Central America.  Its venom contains both an anti-coagulant and a necrotising agent, which means it rots the flesh of its victims and causes massive internal bleeding at the same time.  Lovely.  Fortunately this one’s a baby, and it quickly slithers off before Julio can poke it with a stick (which he seems disturbingly-intent on doing), or before I accidentally step on it.  Or start screaming and run away.

Julio explains a bit more about the relationship between the park, the government, and the local people.  When the local Maya were relocated, they were moved to the nearby village of Maya Centre.  But they weren’t given any land there, they had to buy it from the government, and if they couldn’t afford to do that, they had to rent their plots – from the same government that had evicted them from their former homes!  Now they make their money from accommodating and guiding tourists, which makes me feel better about staying in the village and employing a guide for one of my days.

Sweating once again, it’s time to take another dip in the water, by finishing off my day with a trip down the river on an inner tube.  As I previously mentioned, I’m sans swimming trunks this weekend, so I float down in my boxer shorts, but Julio’s gone home and there’s no one else around, so it’s only the local wildlife that I scare away.  It’s well into the dry season, so the water level’s very low, and occasionally I get tired of having either the inner tube (or my cotton-covered backside) scraped by the riverbed’s pebbles, and decide to get out and walk.

But still, it’s a perfect way to end the weekend, slowly floating downstream, with the sun shining through the jungle canopy, birds singing above, and dragonflies zipping around me.  Julio and his people may have had to move because of the park, but he seemed pleased that the government were taking steps to protect the country’s natural environment (30% of the land is now protected), and proud that the park and its star felines (the ancient Maya used to revere the jaguar for its god-like spirit) would still be around for the next generation of locals and tourists.

Footnote – if you really want to see a jaguar, go to the Belize Zoo and you’re virtually guaranteed a sighting.  “Junior Buddy” isn’t as camera-shy as his wild relatives…

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