The Five Species of Big Cats in Belize

by Larry Waight
belize wild cat big jaguar zoo

Besides being known for having the second largest barrier reef in the world, Belize is also known for its thriving wildlife.  Notably, many travelers who visit Belize are interested in spotting a jaguar in the wild, but a jaguar is not the only big cat that lies hidden in Belize’s pristine jungles. Interested in sighting one of Belize’s five fabulous felines in the wild? Keep reading to learn all about them!  

Margay (Leopardus wiedii)

Belize wild cat margay big

Rich the Margay. Photo by The Belize Zoo

Starting from the smallest, the Margay is also Belize’s best climber of all five. Sometimes called the Long Tailed Spotted Cat, this small, nimble wild cat has specially adapted claws and limbs, allowing the Margay to climb up and down trees at a breathtaking rate. Not to mention, they can even climb upside down and rotate 180 degrees! Margays spend much of their lives in the high branches of the jungle. Similarly, they are nocturnal hunters who feed on birds, small mammals and frogs.

Jaguar (Panthera onca)

Revered as “king” by the ancient Maya, the jaguar still rules the jungles of Belize. Jaguars are the largest living cats in the Americas, best known for their shy, solitary nature and gorgeous, spotted pelt. However, jaguar populations are under threat from human-wildlife conflicts, habitat loss, and overhunting (of their prey). Because of this, Belize created the world-famous Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary as the world’s first jaguar preserve in 1990 in its entirety. Today, the Sanctuary protects 128,000 acres for critical flora, fauna, and watersheds. In 2019, Belize established a second jaguar preserve – the Laboring Creek Jaguar Corridor Wildlife Sanctuary. While it is rare to see jaguars in the daytime, visitors to these sanctuaries have occasionally spotted the elusive beasts at dawn, dusk, and night.

Puma (Puma concolor)

Puma. Photo Courtesy Belizing

Commonly known as puma, mountain lion or even ‘red tiger’, most Belizeans will know it is the sleek, tan-colored cat that can weigh up to 200 pounds. Pumas primarily feed on deer, but they will also eat foxes, raccoons and other smaller mammals. They are excellent climbers and can leap 60 feet into the air. You can spot cougar tracks in Belize’s many forest preserves. Fun fact: the Puma is the biggest wild cat that purrs and meows, rather than growling. 

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis)

Ocelot. Photo by Dreamstime

This elegant cat has a gorgeous dappled coat, small head and sleek body. Their range extends throughout South America, Central America and the southern US. Unfortunately, that beautiful coat once made ocelots a prized fur animal. However, global conservation efforts have allowed their populations to make a comeback. Most countries, including Belize and the United States, have laws protecting ocelots. Unlike many cats, ocelots are excellent swimmers. They also feed on small mammals, birds and fish.

Jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi)

Jaguarundi. Photo by Natália Machado

With an average weight of only 16 pounds, the jaguarundi is one of the smaller wild cats of Belize. This cat has a long body, long tail and small head. Its fur is usually a solid dark brown or reddish brown. But, Jaguarundis prefer dense scrubland close to natural water sources. In Belize, they primarily live on the edges of forests where their prey can’t spot them in the thickets. Jaguarundis hunt birds, mice, rats and squirrels for food. Some reports say they can swim.

Where To Find These Fabulous Felines

The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Thanks to conservation efforts, Belize proudly houses one of the healthiest populations of jaguars in Mesoamerica. Although sighting any wild cat in Belize is no guarantee, your odds of finding scat or fresh tracks on the trail are excellent. Increase your chances by visiting a protected area and directly contribute to conservation, like Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the Rio Bravo Conservation Area with Programme for Belize, St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park and the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Preserve. 

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