Jaguars on the Edge



The ecology of jaguars in a human influenced landscape


Rebecca Foster, PhD student


Supervisor Dr Patrick Doncaster





Jaguar Conservation Issue

Jaguar populations suffered intense persecution from the commercial skin trade throughout the 20th century. Since its inclusion in an international treaty (CITES) which banned trade in wildlife products derived from endangered species, commercial jaguar hunting has declined. Today direct persecution from livestock owners, combined with reductions in habitat and wild prey, pose the main threat to jaguars.

The future of the jaguar is uncertain; their declining numbers are estimated at below fifty thousand individuals throughout their entire range. In order to persist, this species requires space, prey and connectivity between populations. Levels of ranching and arable agriculture are increasing throughout Central and South America, and suitable jaguar habitat is becoming surrounded by a matrix of human development. Their environment is being destroyed and fragmented by deforestation, while hunters deplete stocks of wild prey. The jaguars are forced into human habitation where they may predate on livestock and face direct conflict with people. Farms and villages often have an abundance of livestock, and those that link forest fragments are potentially resource rich corridors for big cats. They are rarely tolerated. Lethal control is common and larger ranches may function as sinks for big cats from the surrounding areas. This depletion is unlikely to be sustainable for jaguar populations in the long-term.


WCS / R. Foster 2004

R. Foster 2004

J. Garcia 2004

R. Foster 2005

Conflict of interests – jaguar walking on cattle ranch, cattle grazing, calf predated by jaguar, jaguar shot & skinned





Study Area



















Belize and its protected areas, showing Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in green


Belize lies below Mexico and to the east of Guatemala. It is approximately 280km x 120km and has a population of just 250,000 people. Despite the country’s small size, the cattle industry is predicted to grow, as beef becomes a major export product to Mexico and Guatemala. 72% of the land is still forested and, although livestock production is common and increasing, it is characterised by many small holdings and few large holdings. Many farms and villages lie in close proximity to the forest and almost every livestock holding is at risk of predation. This can be particularly damaging to the small-scale farmer unless preventative action is taken when depredation begins. Informal hunting of big cats by livestock owners is common, and rarely reported to the Government. In areas with a high proportion of forest cover, such as Belize, research has not yet addressed how jaguars living near the forest edge utilise the boundary between forest and human habitation.





This research focuses on farms and villages surrounding the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (CBWS), a protected area that lies within the Maya mountain range in southeast Belize. It encloses 425km2 of subtropical wet forest and supports prospering populations of both jaguar and puma. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have selected CBWS for the long-term study of jaguar ecology. Supported by WCS, Dr Bart Harmsen, (, recently joined by PhD student Paul Higginbottom and MSc student Allison Devlin, has been using CBWS as a testing ground for non-invasive techniques to monitor populations of big cats. A large-scale, long-term camera-trapping project has been running since 2003 and is providing data on the numbers and movements of individual jaguars within the protected forest. Data from the CBWS complements data collected in the surrounding unprotected forest, farms and villages.



Cockscomb jungle R. Foster 2005






One of the villages neighbouring the sanctuary

M. Gelling 2005

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

R. Foster 2005

Cattle ranches neighbouring the sanctuary

R. Foster 2004




Research Aims

The jaguar has persisted despite intense persecution over the last century, probably thanks both to its elusive nature and rather flexible ecology; however the limits of its adaptability to human pressures remain unknown. This research aims to understand the ecological processes occurring “at the edge”, between protected forests and human habitations. This will be instrumental in predicting the likely impact on the jaguar population of continued lethal control and the inevitable agricultural expansion and intensification that faces Belize.

1) Estimate and compare the density of jaguars inhabiting a protected rainforest with those utilising the neighbouring landscape, a matrix of agriculture, communities and unprotected forest and savannahs.

2) Compare activity, habitat utilisation and spacing patterns within and between jaguars and pumas in an undisturbed protected forest with those of the neighbouring human-influenced landscape.

3) Compare the breadth and overlap of diets of jaguars and pumas utilizing a protected forest with those utilizing the neighbouring human-influenced landscape.

4) Investigate whether and how the spatial configuration of forest and farms influences jaguar encounter rates with human habitation and thus the risk of depredation and lethal control.

5) Identify specific characteristics of jaguars that are associated with livestock predation and thus risk of lethal control.

6) Combine data on levels of lethal control of jaguars in southern Belize, with estimates of jaguar density, habitat utilization, spacing patterns and feeding ecology to assess the population sustainability in the area under alternative management scenarios.





Research Methods

1) Large-scale camera trap surveys sampling ~ 500km2 spanning the CBWS boundary for estimation of jaguar density.

2) Long-term camera traps to monitor jaguar visitation rates to farms and villages.

3) Scat collection from the field for diet analysis and genetic identification to species level.

4) Regular discussions with local people to evaluate the prevailing rate of lethal control of jaguars and to monitor livestock predation on and around farms and villages.




Camera trap R. Foster 2005





Project Funding

This research is jointly funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society (Jaguar Conservation Program Small Grant, Tom Kaplan Scholarship, and the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation) and the Natural Environmental Research Council.

Education and Background




BA Hon Biological Sciences

MSc Integrated Biosciences

Wildlife Conservation Research Unit Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Group

Oxford University

Oxford University

Oxford University

Southampton University










Contact Details


Relevant Links

Wildlife Conservation Society

UK Address

Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

School of Biological Sciences

University of Southampton

Bassett Crescent East

Southampton SO16 7PX

England UK

Phone 0044 (0)7941648239

Field Address

PO Box 77



Central America


WCS Jaguar Conservation Program Panthera (Kaplan Scholarship)

Natural Environment Research Council

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

IUCN Red List


Carnivore Conservation Database

Belize Zoo

Opportunities for jaguar research   













Last updated March 2008.

Photos, text and figures on this page are Copy Right Rebecca Foster 2005. Please contact me before using any information on this page.




R. Foster 2004