Everyone dreams of seeing a jaguar in the wild. Even though Belize has healthy numbers of the biggest feline in the Western hemisphere (up to 6ft long and 250lb in weight), your best chance of seeing one, as with many other species, is still at the Belize Zoo. They’re widely distributed, living almost anywhere that has large expanses of thick forest. The biggest populations and most frequent reported sightings are in the Chan Chich area and Rio Bravo Conservation & Management Area. You stand a good chance of seeing their tracks and maybe the remains of their meals in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, which was established as a jaguar reserve in the 1980s, when the then highly endangered jaguar became protected in Belize.
Belize has four smaller wildcats, all elusive like the jaguar: the puma (aka mountain lion or cougar), almost as big as the jaguar but a uniform gray or brown color (occasionally black); the ocelot, spotted similarly to the jaguar but a lot smaller; the margay, smaller again and also spotted; and the small, brown or gray jaguarundi.
The endangered black howler monkey exists only in Belize, northern Guatemala and southern Mexico. Its population has made a comeback in several areas, especially in the Community Baboon Sanctuary, set up in the 1980s specifically to protect this noisy animal. The sanctuary is now home to some 3000 individual monkeys. Other places where you stand a good chance of seeing and hearing howlers include: the Lamanai ruins; Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary; Chan Chich Lodge; and the Rio Bravo area. There is also a healthy population in Tikal National Park in Guatemala. The howler’s eerie dawn and evening cries – more roars than howls – can carry two miles across the treetops.
Less common, though you may still spot some in similar areas, are the smaller, long-tailed spider monkeys.
Related to the horse but with shorter legs and tail, a stouter build and small eyes, ears and intellect, the Baird’s tapir (or mountain cow) eats plants, bathes daily and runs like mad when approached. It’s shy and seldom seen in the forest.
You may well see a peccary, a sort of wild pig that weighs 50lb or more; it is active by day and tends to travel in groups. There are two types, whose names – white-lipped peccary and collared peccary – define their differences.
Resembling a large spotted guinea pig, up to 2ft long and weighing up to 22lb, the nocturnal gibnut (or paca) is a rodent that often lives in pairs. The agouti is similar but diurnal and more closely resembles a rabbit, with strong back legs.
The tayra (or tree otter) is a member of the weasel family and has a dark-brown body, yellowish neck and 1ft-long tail. The coatimundi (or quash) is a rather cute-looking, rusty brown, raccoon-like creature with a long nose and striped tail that it often holds upright when walking. You stand a chance of seeing a coatimundi in daylight on the sides of roads or trails. Also in the raccoon family is the nocturnal kinkajou (or nightwalker), mainly a tree-dweller.
The protected green iguana is a dragon-like vegetarian lizard that can grow to 6ft in length and is often spotted in trees along riverbanks. You can also see it in iguana houses at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and the San Ignacio Resort Hotel.
Of Belize’s two crocodile species, the American crocodile can live in both saltwater and freshwater, while the smaller Morelet’s crocodile lives only in freshwater. Both are on the endangered species list. The American usually grows to 13ft, the Morelet’s to 8ft. Belizean crocs tend to stick to prey that’s smaller than the average adult human. Still, it’s best to keep your distance.
Hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles can be seen in the waters of Belize. They live at sea and the females come ashore only to lay their eggs. Sea turtles are victims of poaching and egg hunting, as their eggs are believed by the uninformed to be an aphrodisiac. However, while all sea turtles are endangered, the hawksbill, which was hunted for its shell, is the only one currently protected in Belize. Turtle-viewing trips are organized in the May to October laying season from Gales Point Manatee village.
Up to 60 species of snake inhabit the forests and waters of Belize and, of these, only a handful are dangerous. The nasties include the (sometimes fatally) poisonous fer-de-lance (commonly known as the yellow-jaw tommygoff), which is earth toned and a particular threat to farmers when they’re clearing areas of vegetation; the coral snake, banded with bright red, yellow and black stripes; the tropical rattlesnake; and the boa constrictor, which kills by constriction but can also give you a mean (but venomless) bite.