The first scientist to research the jaguar population in Belize, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, thought it would take several generations to see any ecological or cultural benefits of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary’s  creation—but they occurred much more quickly. This was, he admits, partly due to luck: The formation of a protected area based on the jaguar’s natural habitat (which was the first of its kind in the world) happened at a fortuitous time in Belize’s history, basically at the very beginning of the country’s efforts to attract more tourists. Cockscomb helped set the stage for the local preservation movement, giving a crucial boost to the country’s fledgling ecotourism efforts.
Jaguar research continues in the Cockscomb Basin, only now the animals are tracked using infrared-triggered camera traps. Current data supports original density estimates that were based on radio-telemetry, which necessitated the invasive, sometimes harmful practice of physically capturing and collaring the cats, and then tracking them from dangerous, low-flying airplanes.
“The jaguar’s prey are back,” reports Rabinowitz, from behind a tiny, cluttered desk in his cramped office at New York’s Bronx Zoo, where he is now Director of Science and Exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). “There are peccary all over the place and the jaguars are eating a lot, but their population density has stayed level—it’s maxed out—even after 20 years. Also, we’ve found that the more protected area you give the jaguar, the less complaints there are of jaguars coming out after dogs and cattle—the opposite of what you’d expect.”
Rabinowitz also notes that the Maya of the Cockscomb area now show natural curiosity about the big cats, instead of fear. Whereas before locals never entered the bush without a rifle, today they carry binoculars, pointing out jaguar tracks and exotic birds to groups of tourists. “Now I go back to Cockscomb and I see these young adults—sons of people I worked with—working as tour guides. They’ve known Cockscomb as a protected area since they were children and they realize how important it is, both economically and ecologically. Plus, the women are empowered, with the money from their crafts sales, and you don’t see children walking around with parasites and swollen bellies.”
Rabinowitz tracked the area’s cat population while living in a small clearing of jungle (now the site of the park’s visitors center) for nearly two years in the early 1980s and recounted his story in his fascinating “eco-memoir” Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve (reprinted by Island Press in 2000). He has traveled extensively since then, studying jaguars, clouded leopards, tigers, and other large mammal species in Borneo, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma).
And while he has moved on from Cockscomb, the restless biologist does not see the Belizean park as a mere thing of the past. Quite the contrary. His ambitious goal now is to save jaguars throughout their entire range—from Mexico to Argentina —by creating and securing a natural, unbroken corridor of wildland on both public and private lands where jaguars can thrive into the future. “We’ve already made tremendous strides toward that objective,” he says, “with jaguar surveys and rancher outreach programs.”
The Save the Jaguar project is dependent on private and corporate donations (Jaguar Cars has been extremely supportive). You can learn more about current studies and projects—and about how to help—by visiting www.savethejaguar.com  and also by checking out WCS’s Adopt-a-Jaguar Project at www.wcs.org .