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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Preserving the integrity of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor in Belize

Research by biological scientists at the University of Southampton has helped secure Belize’s first wildlife corridor for jaguars and other endangered cats. The corridor protects a unique link at this latitude of continuous natural habitats connecting south and north Belize, within the Mesoamerican corridor stretching between South and North America.

Fieldwork led by Patrick Doncaster and two of his previous PhD students helped to make the case for the land to be included in the country’s National Protected Areas Plan. The work was funded by a Darwin Initiative grant from the UK Government to Patrick at the University, and by funding from the charity Panthera. The project led to the establishment of a conservation training framework at Belize University.

Research challenge

As demand for the world’s environmental resources damages and fragments natural habitats, conservation projects are increasingly focusing on the science of sustaining fragile ecosystems. Patrick Doncaster, Reader in Population Ecology for Biological Sciences since 1995, has led theoretical and experimental studies on the influences of habitat quality and structure on patterns of movements of individual animals between groups.

University of Southampton graduates Bart Harmsen and Rebecca Foster were recruited for field PhD projects on the ecology of jaguars and pumas occupying fragmented rainforest in Belize within and outside protected areas. In projects funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Wildlife Conservation Society, they tracked the movements of jaguars and pumas and gathered extensive evidence from hidden cameras and faecal remains in a forest reserve and surrounding farmland. These data were used to build computer simulations of their populations, which predicted that the cats were vulnerable to dying out in existing blocks of protected land unless these blocks were joined together by wildlife corridors.

Following the research, Panthera recruited Bart as the Panthera Research Fellow at the University of Belize, and Rebecca as the Director of the Belize Jaguar Program.


All six species of cat in Central America are endangered by habitat loss. Jaguars and pumas need thousands of square kilometres of continuous natural forest in order to sustain their populations. Although 60 per cent of land in Belize is still covered by forest, it is split into northern and southern blocks, converging to a 20-km strip bisected by the Western Highway, the country’s busiest trunk road.

Without a wildlife corridor to protect this narrow strip from encroaching development, Belize’s southern and northern borders will no longer be linked by continuous forest, and the isolated southern forest will not sustain viable jaguar populations.

This would break the integrity of the intercontinental Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, containing 106 critically endangered species, as no other connection exists between northerly and southerly forests at this latitude anywhere from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Our solution

The project mapped the complete mosaic of land ownership in the corridor between protected forests, and created the first database of its unprotected mammals, including jaguars and pumas. Rebecca and Bart assessed populations of the cats’ prey of peccaries, pacas and other species, which are also hunted by local people.

Hidden cameras demonstrated how the Western highway disrupts the cats’ movements across the forest. They also showed how hunting and the setting of deliberate fires also affect the animals’ ranging behaviours. Analysing faecal remains showed the cats hunted different prey within and outside protected areas.

Throughout the project, the Southampton-Panthera team worked with local communities, the University of Belize and the Belize Forestry Department to raise awareness of the problem and to provide the evidence to establish and protect the corridor.

In April 2011, Belize’s National Protected Areas Secretariat heard the case for the Corridor. During the meeting, Rebecca demonstrated the need to link up protected habitats for wildlife populations, based on the project’s monitoring and modelling. Her arguments persuaded the Secretariat to incorporate the 1000-km2 Corridor into the National Protected Areas System Plan.

Our impact

Meeting global demand for over 9 billion people by 2050 will require 50 per cent more energy use, 60 per cent more water uptake and 70 per cent more food consumption. The work of this project informed the 2010 meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity on the value of managing tropical forests sustainably to help achieve this need. The government-level recognition of the Central Belize Corridor that was obtained by the project will ensure its existence in perpetuity in Belizean law, as the gold standard for corridor implementation now starting to be proposed further north and south in the country. The Central Belize Corridor secures for jaguars and other cats the last connection at this latitude of continuous natural habitats connecting South and North America.

The University, through its Darwin grant, was one of the original funders of the Environmental Research Institute in Belize, which trained 89 undergraduates in its first three years, who have gone on to work in government departments or to take further degrees.

The Darwin team also organised school visits, livestock protection workshops and events at Belize Zoo.

University of Belize Environmental Club unpacking billboards to be used at three locations on the Western Highway to advertise the wildlife corridor
Unpacking billboards
A jaguar photographed by a camera trap
Jaguar in Belize

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Key Publications

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Staff MemberPrimary Position
C. Patrick DoncasterProfessor of Ecology, Principal Investigator (Population Ecology)
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