Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Sanctuary
Endangered jaguars, largest land predators in Central and South America and the hemisphere’s only cat of the Panthera genus (in which only the tiger and lion are bigger) are found here. These large, spotted cats—males here are typically around 125 pounds (60 kg)—have responded to safe haven in this 155 square miles (403 km2) of wild forest and mountains. Radiant scarlet macaws are among up to 300 bird species, with 62 other mammals, including four other kinds of wild cats, howler and spider monkeys, anteaters, kinkajous, river otters, “four-eyed” opossums, and 43 bat species.
Secretive, wary jaguars are more often heard than seen. Like other large Panthera they have throat cartilage that lets them roar, a startling sound that makes their presence audible for miles. Roars are not in the vocal capability of smaller pumas, spotted ocelets, margays, and dark solitary jaguarundis here which purr like domestic cats. (Purrs may not indicate friendliness; pumas may stand their ground aggressively on encountering humans.) All these cats are efficient predators. They can coexist because each exploits a hunting niche which generally does not overlap others.
The sanctuary, named for the jagged series of Maya Mountain peaks which rise more than 3,000 feet (1,000 m) above lush twin basins, is honeycombed with a maze of creeks and tributaries which merge into the headwaters of two major rivers. Jaguars, good swimmers, vary diets of paca, peccary, and brocket deer to fish here with otters and bright kingfishers. Water-loving Baird’s tapirs, largest land mammals in Central America, weighing up to 600 pounds (270 kg), graze on stream vegetation. Red-eyed tree frogs, boa constrictors, and iguanas are equally at home among giant tree ferns, orchids, and huge climbing vines in ancient forests.
Formidable king vultures take precedence over all their kin at kills and soar over treetops with brilliant orange, yellow, and blue wattles notable even in distant flight. Curly-crested, turkey-sized great curassows scratch about forest floors for insects. Keel-billed toucans delicately employ huge (but hollow and lightweight) rainbow-hued bills to flick small berries down their throats with quick head-tosses. Others noted as common on the impressive bird list include laughing and bat falcons, bare-throated tiger-herons, sungrebes, mottled owls, violet sabrewings, fork-tailed emerald and azure-crowned hummingbirds, as well as many wintering northern songbirds, including orioles and hooded, prothonotary, and magnolia warblers.
The sanctuary is managed by Belize Audubon Society with well-equipped headquarters/visitor center six miles (10 km) west of the village of Maya Center, with self-guided trail literature, picnic area, campgrounds, cabins, tour guides (arranged in advance), and potable water. Accommodations are also available in nearby Dandriga and Hopkins. Swimming in streams and waterfalls is not only permitted but recommended. Dry season is February–May.
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