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  • Writer's pictureMeera Dattani

Conservation, culture and commitment in action in Belize

As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Belize, Meera Dattani sees how community, conservation and cultural preservation go hand-in-hand in this beautiful Central American country.

There’s a bird tower in Belize, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea where there’s a sight that even the least twitchy birdwatcher will be interested in. On Half Moon Caye (also known as Half Moon Caye Natural Monument) in Turneffe Atoll, the island’s famous frigate birds gather and when it’s mating season, which it was, the males puff out their throats so much that they form large red pouches. When they fly, it looks like they’re transporting emergency medical equipment. And it’s not just the frigates. Also resident here (for 10 months of the year) are the caye’s red-footed boobies, the reason this tiny island became a protected area.

red pouch of red-footed booby
Large red pouch of a male red-footed booby at Half Moon Caye. Photo: Richard Hammond

Half Moon Caye is the first marine protected area in Central America, designated a bird sanctuary in 1924 to protect the habitat of the red-footed booby birds. The Belize Audubon Society, a bird and habitat protection organisation, co-manages Half Moon Caye, alongside six other protected areas in Belize including the birdwatching haven of Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary and the jaguar preserve of Cockscombe Basin.

Half Moon Caye is more than the caye’s red-footed boobies and frigates though. Hundreds of hermit crabs scurry about the forest floor, in a Goldilocks-attempt to find the perfect shell and if you’ve a keen eye, you may spot iguanas, and if you’re lucky, hawksbill, green and loggerhead turtles in season too. The nature trail along this tiny, crescent-shaped island leads to a small, sunset-view beach, where the Caribbean unfolds in front of you as you ponder the meaning of life or frigate birds.

Earlier, I’d barefoot-walked the Calabash Caye Nature Trail, an easy walk through the interior of Calabash Caye, another Turneffe Atoll island. I’m guided by Eldon August, a tourism conservation officer from Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association, known as TASA, which works with marine protection organisations BlueWild EcoVentures and Blue Alliance to protect Turneffe and promote the ‘blue economy’. Eldon has been working for TASA for two years and is enthusiastic about his prospects in conservation.

man and woman walking past sign for a nature trail
Meera and Eldon at the entrance to the Calabash Caye Nature Trail. Photo: Richard Hammond

As we walk and talk, he tells me about the importance of the mangrove ecosystem for flood protection and providing a haven for juvenile species, to the seaweed farms offering alternative livelihoods to fishermen with its beauty and health benefits (‘mariculture’). I learn about the gumbo limbo tree - it’s called the ’tourist tree’ because of its peeling skin exterior (a timely reminder to re-apply sun cream) and that it’s an antidote to the sometimes-neighbouring poisonwood tree.

Our walk leads us across the hammock bridge and to the trail’s bird tower. I don’t think I’d ever taken in such a sight. As I turn my head, I’m treated to a 360-degree view of miles of mangroves, broken up only by the blue hues of the Caribbean Sea. Seeing something with your own eyes reinforces what you’ve just learnt, and you realise just how important it is to protect it.

man and woman crouching on boardwalk with signage for mangrove
Eldon explains to Meera about the importance of mangroves for flood protection. Photo: Richard Hammond

Before snorkelling the Calabash Caye Snorkel Trail, we pay an underwater visit to the seaweed farm. That morning, I’d seen the seaweed at a later stage, laid out on drying racks until crunchy; down here, it’s a grid system of nets and poles, frequently checked by TASA. The snorkel trail itself is only around 300 metres long, but as any snorkeller or diver will tell you, time takes on new meaning underwater - before you know it, you’ve been drifting for an hour. A shoal of blue tang swims our way, and corals sway and shimmer below us. I realise we’ve barely seen anyone else during the day. “We’re about high-value, low-impact,” says Eldon. “We never have two groups at the same time. If, say Blackbird Resort has a group going to one dive spot, no-one else goes that day.”

snorkeller swimming over underwater seaweed farm
Snorkelling at the underwater seaweed farm, Calabash Caye. Photo: Richard Hammond

Blackbird Caye Resort where I’m staying on Turneffe Atoll, has developed a close partnership with TASA. One evening, over Belikin beers, Panty Rippa cocktails and mini pizzas during the daily, convivial pre-dinner bar ritual, Eldon shares more about their work, looking after Belize's largest marine protected area of some 36,000 acres. Many fishermen wanted the atoll to be protected, he says, but because of tourism, it’s difficult to have off-limits areas. Instead, “Enforcement is the backbone of our organisation,” he tells us, with strict rules and high fines for illegal fishing. They have 16 conservation officers and three conservation outposts, and work two-week shifts with six days off. 100% of donations they receive support their wildlife conservation work and community initiatives.

man on jetty at entrance to island
Eldon on the jetty at Calabash Caye. Photo: Richard Hammond

Conservation goes beyond marine areas. On the mainland, one of the most visited national parks is Cockscombe Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world’s first jaguar preserve, stretching from the Maya Mountains to the Caribbean Sea. In 1986, Cockscombe was declared a nature reserve and thanks to conservation efforts, the sanctuary now has some of Belize’s best jungle treks, a lush habitat of towering ferns and palms, a healthy if elusive jaguar population, plenty of birdlife including keel-billed toucans and king vultures, and resident ocelots, tapir, monkeys and more. Co-managed by the Belize Audubon Society, the sanctuary also collaborates with the Maya Centre Village visitor centre and gift shop; the community receives 10% of park revenue. Righting past land ownership wrongs isn’t easy - when Maya residents were first re-located from Cockscombe, many were against it.

At nearby Bocawina Mayflower National Park, there’s a different story where a foreign-owned adventure resort remained, while Indigenous communities had to leave the Cockscombe Basin region. My guide Dirk points out plantain and coconut farms on our drive to Bocawina. “When you see plantain in forest, it's secondary growth forest,” he tells us. “It's regenerating.” In fact, almost 40% of Belize’s land is protected in some way, partly thanks to co-management.

two people walking under signage
Meera and Dirk at the entrance to Bocawina Mayflower National Park. Photo: Richard Hammond

A keen birdwatcher (and member of Dangriga-based band, The Garifuna Collective), multi-talented Dirk is a knowledgeable guide. He spots an orange-billed sparrow, a ‘deep forest’ species, explains that the red ribbons mark a carbon data trail, and points out the cohune palm, the first tree to grow when a forest is cleared, outgrowing others. “It’s a ‘give-and-take-palm’,” he says. “It pricks you, but the sap inside is an antidote.” Obviously, I touch it. He looks down as much as up, and on the forest floor, we spot a train of leaf cutter ants, capable of carrying ten times their own body weight, transporting leaves in a high-level logistics operation. We hear the thunderous sound of howler monkeys in the distance, and after a straightforward but sweaty hike, I cool off in a waterfall pool.

woman in waterfall pool in rainforest
Meera cooling off in the waterfall pool in Bocawina Mayflower National Park. Photo: Richard Hammond

In northern Belize, the majestic Maya temples of Lamanai, right on the New River, highlight another type of conservation, that of cultural heritage. My guide Eduardo Ruano has Maya heritage and comes from a family of former Guatemalan refugees fleeing civil war in the 1980s. He grew up in neighbouring Indian Church village, created in 1990 when communities were moved out of Lamanai. “Indian Church has guesthouses, restaurants, a women’s cooperative, Las Orquideas, and you can eat local Belizean dishes here,” Eduardo says. It’s not on enough itineraries with many tourists whisked to and from the temple complex.

Eduardo explained how Lamanai is also a haven for wildlife. Photo: Richard Hammond

Set deep in the jungle, Lamanai is also a wildlife haven, especially for birds. The howler monkeys are also out as we explore the Jaguar Temple and High Temple in the late afternoon. Revenue from tourism funds preservation, but grassroots community engagement is sometimes missing when it comes to big-ticket sights. Time and time again, you realise why community, conservation and cultural preservation go hand-in-hand and that this holistic approach is crucial, whether a marine reserve or an archaeological treasure.

two people walking towards a Mayan temple
Meera and Eduardo at The High Temple at Lamanai. Photo: Richard Hammond


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