BELIZE NATIONAL PARKS, NATURAL RESERVES, & WILDLIFE SANCTUARIES

COCKSCOMB BASIN WILDLIFE SANCTUARY & JAGUAR PRESERVE

This unique sanctuary in southern Belize covers an area of about 150 square miles of tropical forest, and is the world's only Jaguar Preserve. Declared a Forest Preserve in 1984 and finally a Jaguar Preserve in 1986, the park is the culmination of many years of work and perseverance by individuals and national and international organizations. (An excellent account of the work done on the study of Jaguars prior to the inception of the park is to be found in the book, Jaguar: One Man's Struggle to Establish the World's First Jaguar Preserve, by Alan Rabinowitz, Arbor House, 1986.)




Click for a trail map, or an area map
The park area is rich in beauty, wildlife and even Maya culture; a well concealed minor Maya ceremonial site known as Chucil Baluum is typical of the Classic Period The Cockscomb Mountain Range towers over the basin to the north. The highest mountain in Belize, Victoria Peak at 3,675 feet presides over the range and offers, in its largely unexplored reaches, chances for unrivaled exploration and adventure. The fine and abundant stands of mahogany and cedar have historically been in demand throughout this area and logging here provided a staple of Belize's economy for many years.

Logging and periodic hurricane damage have left their almost indelible marks on the lush but vulnerable forests of southern Belize. Dense secondary growth is interspersed with the more mature stands of trees where the forest floor is relatively clear and the canopy ranges in height from 40 to 120 feet.

Rainfall is from 100 to 180 inches annually here and most of this falls in the rainy season, which occurs from June to January. The soil, as is normal in tropical forests, is extremely poor with all the system's nutrients being contained in the vegetation. It is vital that the lush growth be allowed to remain in order to stabilize the soil and prevent erosion, which can transform a cut rainforest into a useless wasteland in a very short time. The water runoff from the surrounding mountains provides the Cockscomb Basin with a plethora of creeks and streams. These come together to form the headwaters of some of southern Belize's major rivers such as the Swasey, the Sittee and South Stann Creek.

The Jaguar (Panthera onca) is the third largest member of the cat family and endangered in most of its range. Here at Cockscomb, the Jaguar is doing quite well and is by no means the only beneficiary of the safety of the preserve.

Please note that a visit to the Jaguar Preserve may likely provide you with signs of recent Jaguar activity, but it is highly unlikely that an actual Jaguar sighting will occur. These wonderful animals are masters of stealth and their very existence is based on their seeing, but not being seen. Other cats such as the Puma, Ocelot, Jaguarundi and Margay, as well as Peccary, Paca, Brocket Deer, Tayra, Otter and Coatimundi, enjoy a population density difficult to achieve in most locations.

Cockscomb is also renowned for its bird populations and boasts up to 300 recorded species. These include Macaw, the Great Curossow and Keel-billed Toucan. Impressive numbers and variety are also found in the herptofauna and in the flora of the basin.

WHAT TO SEE
No, not jaguars. They are there of course, but the chances of seeing one is about seventeen thousand to one. Having said that, people do occasionally catch glimpses of these stealthy carnivores, but much more likely, especially in the rainy season, is finding the pug marks along the muddier stretches of the trails. Jaguars are in fact found in all of Belize's reserves. The terrain is dense tropical rainforest with well maintained trails, jungle canopy to 120'. Wildlife to see includes jaguar, jaguarundi, peccary, howler monkey, gibnut, agouti, snakes, coatamundi, over 300 bird species.

Click here for an article on hiking in the Cockscomb Basin.

Click here for Self-Guided Nature Walk at Cockscomb.

In Belize, the government has set aside 150 square miles of rain forest in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve, which currently provides a protected environment for around 200 jaguars, the largest concentration of the wild cats species in the world.

The most important feature about Cockscomb though, is its trail network, the most extensive of any reserve in the country. The River Overlook and Warrie Trails are usually the best for wildlife. From the Rubber Tree Trail, there's also the small chance of seeing the secretive Agami Heron on the banks of the South Stann Creek. The Jaguars use the trails too, as an easy way through the forest, so keep an eye out for footprints.

The lower forest and the re-growth around the sanctuary head quarters (the old logging camp) are good for birds. For those who fancy a challenge, there's an over-abundance of very similar flycatchers right around this area. More obvious are Clay-coloured Robins, Social Flycatchers, Collared-seed Eaters, Crimson Collared and Masked Tanagers, and a pair of Bat Falcons. While overhead the most ridiculous sounding Montezuma's Oropendola makes its presence known. As it calls, it goes through the most acrobatic- looking spasms, gripping onto the branch, leaning back, and then throwing its head forward as it screeches, clucks, and pops, sticking its tail in the air at the same time.

Deeper in the forest, there's another strange bird to listen out for. The White- collared Manakin gives a clicking sound like two stones being banged together, and judders along its perch in fits of hyper-activity.

Map of how to get there

If you hear these two, you'll have witnessed some of the strangest bird calls in the world!

Of the plants, the Hot Lips bush can often be seen along the edges of trails, with its special pouting red flower. In the distance, on clearer days, you may also be able to see Belize's second highest mountain. Part of the Cockscomb Range, the Victoria Peak marks the northern boundary of the sanctuary.

The other feature of Cockscomb is that it offers the chance to overnight in the deep isolation of the Basin's forest, surrounded by the calls of Paraque (sounds like 'hoo-yoo'), the Slaty-breasted Tinimou, screeching insects and the gentle wind through the tree tops. It's not everyone's idea of a good night out, but for people who love the outdoors, its a magical experience.

GETTING THERE

House used by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz when establishing the preserve

Traps used by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz

Cockscomb is reached from the Southern Highway down the turn off at the Maya Center village. It's not that clearly signed posted so look out. The bus from Dangriga or Belize will get you this far, which leaves a five mile walk to the reserve headquarters. Taxis and tours also run from Dangriga (25 miles northeast) and many resorts in the area run their own trips (although these are not cheap).

The road in has a lot of wildlife around it. So if you are traveling by car, it's worth a stop or two to see what's about. Not surprisingly, there's a good chance of seeing a Roadside Hawk for instance. This year (1996), there's also a colony of Chestnutheaded Oropendolas right along the roadside.

WHEN TO GO
The most active times for wildlife are in the rainy season, especially at it's beginning (June/July). The best time for migrant birds is around December. On cloudy cooler days, in general animals are more lively.

VISITOR FACILITIES
Cockscomb is run by the Belize Audubon Society. It has the best facilities of any national reserve in the country, and they are still being developed.

There are trails of all kinds, starting with a self-guided walk. Other short tracks of under a mile cut through the different habitats around the main center.

Progressively more demanding paths reach out to swimming areas, waterfalls, and up to the pine forests of the basin's rim. A new trail climbs The Outlier, visible from the sanctuary headquarters, and takes a day.

Ultimately, and only for the extremely fit and determined, there is the 17 miles to Victoria Peak, climbable only in the dry season, with a guide. Be warned, it takes 4 days, and has turned grown men into gibbering wrecks.

You also need a camping permit from the Conservation Unit of the Forest Department (08 22079).



If time allows, the wardens can provide a slide show on the sanctuary for a small fee. Inner tubes can be hired for river trips. There's a visitor center and there are swimming areas and various types of accommodations in the sanctuary. At the time of writing there are a campsite bunkhouse and a two- person cottage around the headquarters area. New outlying campsites are being set up this year (1996) for those wanting to stay deeper in the forest, and more comfortable guest houses are being put up in the headquarters grounds. To fully explore the trail system takes two to three days.

All visitors are reminded of the importance of the reserve, the need to respect its facilities and wildlife, to quietly enjoy the area and to take out all garbage. If you are camping you are advised to treat river water all year round before drinking, and not to light camp fires. Belizeans pay an entrance fee to Cockscomb of $2.50 and foreigners $10. Over-nighting is extra.

The sanctuary headquarters occupies the site of the old logging camp at Quarn Bank. Facilities in place are dormitory-style lodging for 24 people, a kitchen area, visitor centre and common room for slide shows, a gift shop, campground and equipment rental outlet, and freshwater and toilet facilities. 2 backcountry campsites are also in place. The road to the centre is not paved, although its improvement is imminent and there is parking on site. Approximately 12 miles of nature trails have been cut through a variety of low scrub and forest areas immediately around Qum Bank. The longest trail is to The Outlier (4 miles) and takes a day to walk, although there is a 17 mile (4 day) walk to Victoria Peak, but its use is discouraged because of the potential hazard, lack of emergency facilities and previous abuse by past climbers.

In Belize, the government has set aside 150 square miles of rain forest in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve, which currently provides a protected environment for around 200 jaguars, the largest concentration of the wild cats species in the world.

The Belize Jaguar Reserve is the world's only jaguar Preserve. Located in Cockscomb Basin, it is home to: jaguars, parrots, black howler monkeys, toucans and a host of other species found only in the tropical forests of South America. This natural habitat was set aside by the Belizean government.This preserve is open to the public and is a wonderful stop on the tour.

The Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve Tour
Length: Approx. 7 hours
Degree of Difficulty: Moderate
Terrain: Dense tropical rainforest with well maintained trails, jungle canopy to 120' <
Possible Wildlife: jaguar, jaguarundi, peccary, howler monkey, gibnut, agouti, snakes, coatamundi, over 300 bird species

Tour Description
The whole day will be spent exploring the trails through the Jaguar Preserve in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, an area of tropical, moist forest that lies within the shadows of the Maya Mountains. Waterfalls, rivers, wildlife and plant life abound here. Over 290 species of birdlife have been sighted! (camping)

After a relaxing breakfast we set out from the Lodge in a four- wheel drive vehicle. The first mile of road is through a pristine wetlands rich in birds and amphibians. (Watch for crocodiles on the side of the road!) On most days the air will be clear enough to see the majestic spire of Victoria Peak (3,675 ft.) and the distant Maya Mountain Range. Sedge marsh turns to orange groves, and the settlement of the Sittee River Village.

Within a few minutes we reach the Southern Highway and cross over the Sittee River. We soon arrive at the Maya center and the entrance to the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. We stop briefly to sign in and to view the beautiful hand-carved slate plaques, baskets, clothing and jewelry made in the Village by the local Mayan Indians, who have formed an arts and crafts co-operative.

We then continue our journey deep into the dense tropical rainforest of the Cockscomb Basin, which has a total protected area of over 250,000 acres. The road here is often in poor condition; however, by using four-wheel drive vehicles, the trip becomes an adventure. We park and begin our hikes at the park headquarters.

You'll want to check out the Education Center that details the topography, geology, plant and animal life that make up this incredible rainforest. Your guide will then take you on several established trails, each with its own unique characteristics. As you walk the trails your guide will interpret the flora and fauna which make this park such an amazing and unique place. This preserve is believed to have the world's highest density of jaguar as well as puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarundi.

After your morning walk we will return to the ranger station for lunch and rest up for a hike to a beautiful waterfall; a great place to take a cooling swim. By late afternoon you will be ready to rest and reflect upon all the incredible sights you've seen, and we will begin our journey back to the Lodge. Although Cockscomb is famous for its cat species, it is also a good place to see other mammals. Black howler monkeys have recently been reintroduced to the preserve and are sighted regularly by our guests along the forest trails. Large groups (up to 40) of white-lipped peccary are sometimes heard and sighted here feeding on cahune nuts.

Don't forget to bring: bug repellent, hat, water bottle, swimsuit, towel, hiking shoes, camera, binoculars, rain jacket, bird identification book and a zest for adventure!

ESTABLISHMENT HISTORY

The site gained national and international recognition in the 1980s, following NYZS-sponsored research into its jaguar population, initiated after local land owner's concern over cattle predation on adjacent ranches. The investigations identified a high density of Jaguar, and as a result the government were persuaded of the need for some form of protection for the Cockscomb Basin, declaring it a Forest Reserve in December 1984 (SI 93), under the Forest Act. Simultaneously, made a Closed area for hunting under the Wildlife Protection Act (SI 94), these provisions made it the world's first protected area specifically established for Jaguar conservation. Initially, a combination of logging wildlife protection and tourism was envisaged, but following a proposal from the BAS and WWF, a comer (covering the area of an old lease to the Development Finance Corporation) was set aside as the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in March 1986 (SI 32), for nature conservation to take the dominant role. After the success of this site, the sanctuary was greatly expanded in November 1990 (SI 127) with the support of overseas conservation bodies. A draft SI has been produced to extend the sanctuary southwards by redesignating part of the Maya Mountain Forest Reserve.


Previous to these declarations, the area was administered by the FD as a concession leased to private companies at least since the 1940s. Leases were normally for 10 years to exploit primary (cedar and mahogany) and secondary hardwoods, and pine. Companies owning these concessions were obliged to pay rent and stumpage fees and to abide by regulations set out by the FD. In the years leading up to the reserve's designation, logging concessions were held firstly by Minter Naval Store Company (local representative Gilly Canton) then to William Depow (Florida, USA/Canada) (local representative Glenn Godfrey) and more recently Belize Exotic Woods and Veneer Company Limited, an Alabama firm (for 1978-1983), and Belize Estate Company for harvesting of mahogany, cedar, and secondary timbers. There bad however, been very little exploitation during the 1980s.



Immediately adjacent to the Wildlife Sanctuary on its northern border is a 'National Park' whose full origins s have not been traced It was proposed by Waight (1968), under the Crown Land Ordinance, to cover Victoria and Molar Peak. Subsequently, the area of Victoria and Molar Peaks above the 785 yard contour line was proposed as a National Reserve by the FA0 (1978). It still does not appear to have not been legally declared as a National Park.


CURRENT AREA
When calculating the sanctuary area 3 points have to be considered:
  • Its western boundary is defined by the Maya Mountain Divide. This is not clearly defined all the way along its length which causes some imprecision. Part of its southern boundary is also defined by mountain ridges, which again are not precisely known.
  • It does not include the area often labelled on maps as the Victoria Peak National Park, which approximately
  • covers 5104 acres.

    The original SI designating the forest reserve gives an estimated area of 98560 acres. The area subsequently designated as a Wildlife Sanctuary by in the most recent SI is 102400 acres (but is grossly inaccurate). When calculated on GIS, the current wildlife: sanctuary is 86929 acres.

    JUSTIFICATION
    The area was designated to protect an area of high Jaguar density, and also to protect the watersheds of important rivers. It was also promoted on the basis of its educational and eco-tourism potential.

    HABITATS
    Broadleaf forest.

    HOLDRIDGE LIFE ZONE
    Mainly Subtropical Wet with some Subtropical Lower Montane Wet to the west and Tropical Moist to the east.

    WILDLIFE
    There have been numerous studies into sanctuary's wildlife. Information on the forest composition shows characteristic tree species include Banak Waika Swivelstick, Quamwood, Yemeri, Negrito, Santa Maria, and Rosewood.. Because of thin soils and the rugged terrain, and the action of hurricanes, the natural form of the vegetation is a dense, medium height forest. Others have noted a discontinuous canopy of 50-70 feet high. The impact of timber extraction makes it likely that the majority of mature hardwood trees of commercial value (Mahogany, Cedar, Santa Maria and Rosewood) have been removed. Secondary hardwoods, principally Banak have also been exploited. Approximately 111acres of milpa cultivation, in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary abandoned immediately before its declaration, and area's previously cleared for logging operations (including an air strip) have left patches of regenerating secondary forest Some 'elfin' forest grows above 655 yards on Victoria Peak itself (outside the reserve). Various studies into the area's animals have been completed. In particular, the reserve's origin is inter-linked with studies of its Jaguar population . Preliminary research showed a population of 2540 Jaguars living in the Basin with Ocelot, Margay, Jaguarundi, and Puma also. Baird's Tapir were found to occur in good numbers. All these species are included on the CITES red list of seriously endangered mammals.



    Following initial work on the Jaguars, Kamstra completed a more wide ranging but detailed ecological study, distinguishing 7 different vegetation types in the Basm, and contributing to data on various different species groups. The western basin was investigated by Meadows (1990), during a 7 day study. Their casual bird observations amounted to 83 species, including Scarlet Macaw, Agami Heron and Great Currasow. Typical lowland forest mammals were encountered, except Spider and Black Howler Monkeys. An estimated 80 species (70%) of the country's herpetofauna was considered likely to inhabit the reserve by the team's herpetologist (P. Walker). During the study 14 species of amphibian, 12 lizards, 9 snakes and 2 terrapins were identified. One of the frogs Smilisca cyonostica (formerly S phaeota) had not previously been recorded for Belize (now recorded in Columbia Forest Reserve, Cockscomb and Chiquibul National Park), and Gastrophyrne elegans, for which there are very few records in Belize, was also recorded. The study coincided with mass breeding activity of several other frogs, enabling the observation of canopy dwelling species. One ephemeral pond contained tens of thousands of frogs, drawn from a large area of forest. "Such an immense breeding aggregation is extremely rare in Belize and ... this pond should not be underestimated in importance." Walker also concluded the western part of the Cockscomb Basin was extremely rich in herpetofauna,, more so than the east, because of its more vaned terrain and greater rainfall. Herpetofauna were also surveyed elsewhere in the Basin by Kamstra (1986) (27 species over 4 months) and by Taylor and Nunez (1990), with considerable overlap in species identified in both cases.

    Studies on the area's avifauna. show a wide variety of species (over 290 recorded according to BAS 1987), including many rarer birds. Scarlet Macaws have been spotted in the sanctuary. Other notable species recorded are the Agami Heron, Solitary Eagle Black and White Hawk Eagle, Currasow and Peregrine Falcon. Migrant birds seasonally constitute at least 18% of the Basin's birds. Mammalian studies were carried out by Konecay et al. (1989) and work on the Basin's Lepidoptera (specifically Rhopaloceraa, Sphirigidae and Saturniidae) and odonata has been completed by Boomsma et al. (1992), comprising a 7 day survey, during which 44 butterfly species were identified. A large proportion of these were considered indicative of undisturbed wet forest Also of note was the presence of Prepona dexamenus, whose main distribution is from Panama to the Amazon. it was of the sub-species medinai, and probably represents an extension to the isolated population of this previously known from Mexico. Of the moths, out of 28 Sphingidae and Saturniidae species recorded, Xylophanes undata was notable because its known range was Peru to Costa Rica. Sampling in this study was on the trails around the Sanctuary head quarters.

    The Black Howler monkey has been introduced into the Basin. Since 1992, 62 monkeys have been translocated from the Community Baboon Sanctuary, 90% of which have survived The new population is breeding, and the programme has been judged a success.

    LOCAL POPULATION
    Maya Center Women's Group Gift Shop Previous to the declaration of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary a small milpa settlement of 9 families was located at Quam Bank. These people moved to villages near the entrance of the Wildlife Sanctuary, including Maya Centre (farming) (population 138) 7.5 miles east of the reserve, adjacent to the Southern Highway. About 80% of households benefit financially from visitors to the sanctuary. Alabama (also known as Maya Mopan) (population 219) is just over 6 miles south southwest The hunting village of Red Bank (population 229) is immediately to the south of the sanctuary, and it seems villagers use it for hunting. The village received roughly 100 Guatemalan squatters who had been re-located from Chiquibul National Park in 1992. The District capital of Dangriga is used as a tourism base from which the sanctuary is reached, with hotels, and an airstrip. It is 21 miles northeast of Maya Centre

    PHYSICAL FEATURES & CLIMATE
    2 major watersheds, the South Stann Creek, and the Swaysey Branch of the Monkey River, plus a small portion of Sittee River via Mitchell Creek drain the Basin. The division between the Swaysey and South Stann Creek watersheds is physiographically distinct, the more rugged western basin draining into the Swaysey and the gentler doped eastern side feeding the South Stann Creek. Both areas are on shallow siliceous soils of low fertility and high erodibility formed on primarily granitic rocks. The Basin is bounded on the north by the Cockscomb Range and the Outlier, a quartzite ridge running east/west for a distance of 10 miles. The western boundary is formed by the Main Divide. The Basin's southern ridge is broken where the Swaysey River exits its western portion, and the eastern ridge is cut by the South Stann Creek. From extrapolation, approximate average annual rainfall ranges from 98-118 inches of rain a year fail on the reserve. Other estimates suggest 100 inches on the eastern part of the sanctuary and 110 inches on the western part The wettest months are from June to October (although the rainy season lasts normally to about January), and the hottest months April to Jun. Temperatures range between 11-39 C, with mean daily temperature about 25'. Several hurricanes have affected the Basin, with recent impacts arising from Hattie (1961), Fifi (1972) and Greta (1978). The sanctuary's elevation ranges from less than 330 feet to 1962 feet. To the north, Victoria Peak, the country's second highest point reaches 3675 feet.

    CULTURAL FEATURES
    The Maya occupied Cockscomb Basin and built a medium-sized ceremonial centre in the sanctuary, named Kuchil Baluum.

    SAMPLE TOUR
    Click here for an article on hiking in the Cockscomb Basin.

    After a relaxing breakfast you set out from the Lodge in a four- wheel drive vehicle. The first mile of road is through a pristine wetlands rich in birds and amphibians. (Watch for crocodiles on the side of the road!) On most days the air will be clear enough to see the majestic spire of Victoria Peak (3,675 ft.) and the distant Maya Mountain Range. Sedge marsh turns to orange groves, and the settlement of the Sittee River Village.

    Within a few minutes you reach the Southern Highway and cross over the Sittee River. You soon arrive at the Maya center and the entrance to the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. Stop briefly to sign in and to view the beautiful hand-carved slate plaques, baskets, clothing and jewelry made in the Village by the local Mayan Indians, who have formed an arts and crafts co-operative.

    Then continue your journey deep into the dense tropical rainforest of the Cockscomb Basin, which has a total protected area of over 250,000 acres. The road here is often in poor condition; however, by using four-wheel drive vehicles, the trip becomes an adventure. You park and begin to hike at the park headquarters.

    You'll want to check out the Education Center that details the topography, geology, plant and animal life that make up this incredible rainforest. Your guide will then take you on several established trails, each with its own unique characteristics. As you walk the trails your guide will interpret the flora and fauna which make this park such an amazing and unique place. This preserve is believed to have the world's highest density of jaguar as well as puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarundi.

    After your morning walk you will return to the ranger station for lunch and rest up for a hike to a beautiful waterfall; a great place to take a cooling swim. By late afternoon you will be ready to rest and reflect upon all the incredible sights you've seen, and you will begin the journey back to the Lodge. Although Cockscomb is famous for its cat species, it is also a good place to see other mammals. Black howler monkeys have recently been reintroduced to the preserve and are sighted regularly by our guests along the forest trails. Large groups (up to 40) of white-lipped peccary are sometimes heard and sighted here feeding on cahune nuts.

    Don't forget to bring: bug repellent, hat, water bottle, swimsuit, towel, hiking shoes, camera, binoculars, rain jacket, bird identification book and a zest for adventure!

    BELIZE NATIONAL PARKS, NATURAL RESERVES, & WILDLIFE SANCTUARIES

    Belize Parks Home / Bacalar Chico / Bird Sanctuaries / Burdon Canal Nature Reserve / Blue Hole National Park / Great Blue Hole, Lighthouse Reef / Chiquibul National Park and Caracol / Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary / Columbia River Forest Reserve / Community Baboon Sanctuary / Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary / Five Blues Lake National Park / Glover's Reef Marine Reserve / Guanacaste National Park / Half Moon Caye Natural Monument / Hol Chan Marine Reserve / Laughing Bird Caye / Marco Gonzales / Mexico Rocks / Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve / Payne's Creek National Park / Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area / Shark Ray Alley / Shipstern Nature Reserve / Turneffe Atoll /

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