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The conservation successes of Belize

by Martha Hales

published

Belize is a world leader in conservation initiatives, particularly regarding the protection of its unique reef system and indigenous wildlife. It has also made great progress in the proactive promotion of nature tourism - encouraging a deep appreciation of its dazzling natural resources among visitors, and a profound respect for the environment among local people.

Aerial view of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Belize is regarded internationally as a frontrunner in putting the 'eco' in tourism, and it is one of the most sought-after destinations on the planet for travellers looking to combine beautiful surroundings with some world-class diving, snorkelling or birding.

The Great Blue Hole of Belize

The responsible approach the Belizean government is taking towards the protection of all these natural wonders makes this incredible destination all the more appealing for people who prioritise travelling as sustainably as possible. Here is a brief introduction to some of Belize's most successful conservation projects to date. 

Wildlife corridors

Enabling scattered populations of threatened species to circulate between more than one protected zone can be a crucial tool in the drive for conservation. Belize has established one of the largest wildlife corridors in Central America, joining the tropical forests of the Freshwater Creek Forest Reserve with the coastal forest at Shipstern Nature Reserve and allowing important species such as the puma, tapir and jaguar to circulate more easily between these two biodiverse habitats

Bright pink flowers in the rainforest of Belize

The project was not without its challenges as various private landowners were involved, but the corridor is now protected forest and therefore subject to regulations which should ensure it will remain forested in perpetuity. Estimates by experts in the field state that for long-term survival, populations of big cats such as the jaguar should contain a minimum of 650 adult members. This would be impossible to sustain when groups of cats are isolated, but with the introduction of the biological corridors, separate populations can intermingle giving their chances of long-term success a significant boost.

A puma in the jungle of Belize

Rainforests

Belize has a long history of looking after its forests, and by some estimates it has the highest percentage of forest cover of the Central American nations. For 25 years, Programme for Belize has worked with the help of the World Land Trust to protect and manage a large area of more than 100,000 hectares of forest known as Rio Bravo which they acquired in order to safeguard.

Dense jungle in Belize

The programme has also established two centres for ecotourism, creating a base for visitors to come and enjoy the wildlife and untrammelled nature of the area. Local communities benefit from the tourist income and the eco-lodges provide employment for local guides and so on. The wildlife of the reserve is fascinating, with a few jaguars, almost 400 species of birds, a variety of mammals including monkeys, and a rich insect and plant population.

A scarlet macaw in Belize's rainforest

Reef regeneration

One of the best conservation successes in Belize in recent times is the removal by UNESCO of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve from its World Heritage in Danger list in June 2018. The reef system, the second largest in the world, was first added by UNESCO to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1996, but was designated a World Heritage Site in Danger in 2009 due to oil exploration activities putting the reef at risk, and along with it the 1,400 species that inhabit it. The authorities recognised the economic importance of protecting the reef system because around half of the population of Belize relies on the marine environment for income, either through the tourism it brings or fishing activities. It has been removed from the 'in Danger' list because Belize's government has taken decisive action to halt oil exploration in the area, as well as stepping up measures to conserve its valuable mangrove ecosystems. The reef is an absolutely stunning underwater environment sheltering a huge variety of creatures including rays, turtles, groupers and several species of endangered sharks.

Angel fish swimming in the Belize barrier reef

Birds

Back in 1973, the initial conservation project of the Belize Audubon Society was set up to protect the jabiru stork, a huge bird that stands up to 1.5 metres tall with a wingspan of nearly 2.5 metres. It arrives in the lowlands of Belize from Mexico in November and stays for around seven months until the rains arrive. These majestic birds were in decline but have been monitored and protected and now their numbers are on the rise again. There are six Important Bird Areas established in Belize which each host more than 300 species, some closer to 350. The existence of Important Bird Areas is not itself a conservation measure as the areas are not automatically protected, but they motivate government initiatives and future monitoring programmes. Macaws are particularly threatened as they fetch high prices so poachers are finding ever more inventive ways to capture their targets. A happier story is that of the harpy eagle, which hadn't been known to breed in Belize for 60 years until several individuals hatched at Belize Zoo were released into the wild, and have now established themselves and begun breeding.

A jabiru stork flies through the air

Jaguars

Belize is a trailblazer in jaguar conservation on the global stage. The pioneering protection of several areas of jaguar habitat has been ongoing since 1984 when the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve was created, the first such protected area specifically set up to safeguard jaguars. It covers just under 16,000 hectares of rainforest, a prime habitat for many species not just the jaguar, though recent estimates assert that the jaguar population in Cockscomb is healthy and among the densest on the planet. Jaguars require large forested spaces to roam and a good availability of prey species, which is what Cockscomb allows. That said, jaguars are stealthy animals, and a sighting is unlikely though you may well see evidence that they have recently passed through. But there is plenty to keep you interested at Cockscomb beyond jaguars - the environment is tropical moist forest rich in rivers and streams, and scattered with beautiful waterfalls, as well as a selection of hiking trails that take in mountain views and the undisturbed natural wealth of the area which includes a plethora of flora and fauna and an important population of Neotropical birds.

Two jaguars in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Make it happen 

A great way to show your support for the good work Belize is undertaking in the field of conservation is to visit. Experience for yourself those mesmerising reefs and enchanted forests, and vote with your feet for a country which is taking wildlife protection seriously. Our local experts will create a bespoke itinerary for you, based on your preferences. Get in touch with them directly using our enquiry form, or to speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.

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