A decade ago, I was the kind of traveler who sought out cultural experiences, yet didn’t think much about wildlife per se. While I loved nature, I didn’t have an understanding of what it’s like to come face to face with animals and hike in jungles. I also hadn’t yet grasped that wildlife can actually be part of a destination’s culture — until I went to Belize.
With Earth Day approaching — this year’s theme is “Protect our Species”— I started reflecting on my journey as a young African girl who once feared animals of all sizes and shapes.
How did I go from feeling icky about crawling creatures to becoming a traveler who seeks wildlife actively on my trips and contributes any way I can to the environment?
Growing up in an Ethiopian household and raised in West Africa, I was afraid of any creature that moved, aside from my cats. In fact, I don’t remember being around anyone who loved to touch or examine insects. That wasn’t something Africans did.
You didn’t touch or admire the snails, giant worms and millipedes that creeped over the open sliding door from our yard into the house. The immediate reflex was to scream for our yard guy and run.
There were the pesky mosquitoes too, that could give you malaria. But the worst were the flying cockroaches that occasionally taunted and paralyzed me with fear when they buzzed across my bedroom in the dark, after my nanny turned the lights out at 8pm.
It was common in those days to see someone squash an ant, an insect or anything they felt didn’t belong in the house, rather than removing it (provided it was not dangerous) and placing it back in its environment. I’ve seen this in the Caribbean as well.
I remember the two caged parrots my parents had brought home one day as pets, out of a lack of awareness I’m sure. I’d come look at them often, wondering what they’d do if I released the latch. One day, their door flung open while they were being fed and they were gone. We had a pet monkey after that. Perched on the hedges in our large backyard, he seemed cute to us clueless kids until one day, he flung his long, skinny tail around our friend’s arm and pulled her towards him while we pulled back and screamed for all the neighborhood to hear. I’m not sure what happened to the poor creature after that, but we never saw it again.
Perhaps all these things played a part in the fact that for a long time, I didn’t have fond memories of anything remotely resembling an insect, much less larger, potentially aggressive animals.
Belize changed all of these thoughts.
It was my first time in Central America and I was thrown into an environment where nature surrounds daily in sight and sound, and where most people celebrate and value wildlife.
And it’s one thing to see animals on National Geographic documentaries, but it’s quite another to be face to face with them.
I discovered new-to-me species almost every day during my first Belize trip, ten years ago. I felt awe hearing monkeys roar while in the rainforests of Cayo, as if they were right next to me, seeing jaguar tracks and deer while hiking in Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve, and spotting colorful toucans in the rainforests that hug Lamanai Archeological Maya Site.
I came to love looking for crocodiles on river safaris, and spending nights in jungle lodges, falling asleep to the sound of the wild. It felt less scary here because of the country’s ideal small size, fewer tourist crowds and the perfect visitor-guide ratio.
From the hundreds of bird species to underwater critters, wildlife is still one of the best things about Belize. There are approximately 145 mammal species, over 400 bird species, and well over 100 reptile species. A handful of these are now endangered.
According to scientists, we are currently facing the period with the largest species extinction than any other period in the last 60 million years.
The state of our planet is alarming. Now more than ever, we need to learn more about wildlife, conservation and ways to prevent extinction in the places we visit.
In Belize, you can do this by including plenty of outdoors in your itineraries and supporting the conservation groups doing valuable work on the ground.
Whether you’re on honeymoon, traveling with your kids or backpacking through the country, here are just a few of the most popular and endangered wildlife you should see while in Belize, where you can see them, and tips on observing these beautiful animals.
The Baird’s Tapir (Tapirus bairdii)
Seeing Belize’s national animal, the “Baird’s Tapir” at random in the wild is reserved for the lucky few or for nocturnal cameras installed in protected areas. Tapirs or “mountain cows,” as they’re known in Belize, are shy, solitary forest dwellers that like to feed at night.
You can get a solid glimpse of a tapir at the Belize Zoo – not your typical zoo, but a place where rescued animals are given a home as close as possible to the one they had in the wild and where they are rehabilitated.
Tapirs are found in Central and South America, they’re endangered due to poaching and human encroachment on their territory.
Did you know that despite their size and appearance, they can actually swim fast and climb steep terrain? Tapirs are also one of the jaguar’s favorite preys.
The jaguar, the puma and the ocelot
There’s nothing like looking at a jaguar up close — it’s a stunning animal.
Belize has one of the healthiest jaguar populations in the world. They’re found in the country’s lowland forests and near coastlines. Increased human activity in the jaguar’s natural habitat have caused conflict between jaguar and farmer, and conservationists have been working in Belize to reduce such confrontations, and educate the population on reducing instances of illegal poaching and persecution.
It’s extremely rare to see a jag in the wild in the daytime, though some visitors have had that luck, because the jaguar roams and feeds at night.
The most I’ve seen in the wild are fresh jaguar tracks while hiking inside Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, managed by the Belize Audubon Society, where there are approximately 80 jaguars. Cockscomb is their primary breeding ground.
Check out the footage below from Panthera Belize.
Head to the Belize Zoo for a guaranteed sighting of one of five wild cats in Belize, aside from the jaguar: the jagarundi, the ocelot, the puma and the margay.
Banana Bank Horseback Jungle Lodge is lucky to have a license for its own resident jaguar on site — a rescued female named Tikatoo; that’s her in the first image below. Tikatoo has her own fenced but large green space to roam, a pond for water and plenty of branches to rest on.
Did you know Jaguars are strong swimmers? They will leap into water to catch their prey and drag it back to shore. Another interesting fact is that each jaguar’s black spots are of distinct shape and size.
In the image below are the ocelot, at left, and the puma or mountain lion on the right.
The black howler monkey (Alouatta caraya)
The howler monkey, or “baboon” as they call it in Belizean Kriol, captures the heart of every first-time visitor. Their impressive roar and tendency to move around in troops makes them fun to observe.
They usually sit high in trees but you might luck out sometimes and see them closer. For example, I was having breakfast on the outdoor verandah at Hickatee Lodge in the Toledo District, when an isolated howler monkey showed up in the surrounding forest, high enough but not too high so that I could get a solid glimpse.
You’re also guaranteed to spot howler monkeys on a hike at the Community Baboon Sanctuary, just outside of Belize City. Howler monkeys are also present along the rivers and waterways, like the Belize River, the New River on the way to Lamanai, or Monkey River near Placencia. You can see them in the Crooked Tree Widlife Sanctuary, on a briding boat ride. If you’re staying at a jungle lodge, whether in Cayo or in the Toledo District, for example, you’re sure to hear them. I love their echo filling my treehouse at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch. I get that “I’m in Belize” feeling every time.
The Hicatee river turtle
This cute Central American turtle below greeted our boat as we made our way down Monkey River.
Belize’s hicatee turtle is on the verge of extinction – listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. These precious creatures are targeted by poachers for their eggs, shells and meat. Read here about Belize’s Hicatee center and efforts to save this species.
Marine Life: Leatherback turtles to sea horses
While there’s a lot more to do than explore the Belize Barrier Reef, there’s no coming to Belize and not getting in the water to see its beautiful, wide array of marine life, including corals. From stingrays to nurse sharks, whale sharks (in season) and various species of turtles across the country’s protected marine reserves, there are hundreds of species to discover and identify.
I learned a lot about Belize’s marine life when I had to write an underwater guide from scratch a few years ago for Moon Belize Cayes, as well as when I became dive certified.
The green iguana
The green iguana is an endangered and protected species in Belize. I captured these images while visiting the Iguana Conservation Project, based at the San Ignacio Resort. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re in town, to learn about this species at risk due to overhunting. You can also Adopt an Iguana – reared from egg to juvenile stage, and eventually released into its natural habitat.
The keel-billed toucan and the scarlet macaw
Of the over 300 bird species in Belize, favorites include the vibrant scarlet macaw — see its beautiful feathers at left — and the toucan, easy to spot in the forests surrounding Maya archaeological sites.
The scarlet macaw is endangered as well — fewer than 200 remain — and protected by various conservation groups in Belize from illegal pet trade and nest poaching. You can see them in the wild in the southern village of Red Bank in March. For more information, get in touch with the Belize Bird Conservancy’s Scarlet Macaw Project and read this story on the Scarlet Six Biomonitoring Team.
Snakes (not endangered, but also useful)
There’s nothing like facing your fear of snakes than standing literally less than three feet from a venomous fer-de-lance. Of course, it’s rare to see one; I’d signed up for an adventurous rainforest night walk and was getting what I was risking.
The fer de lance is not endangered, but I snuck it into this post because it’s important to know about the presence of snakes in Belize and learn about them rather than fear or be in shock.
Not to worry: snakes usually come out at night and remain tucked in forest areas; they also are more frequently seen in the summertime when it’s mating season. They don’t attack or go after people unless they feel attacked (stepped on or near by mistake or trapped).
Snakes play an important role in the ecosystem, maintaining a balance in the number of species harmful to humans, including rats and insects.
The basic rule is to always look at where you place your feet when hiking or walking around your jungle lodge. Wear long hiking pants and socks. It’s their habitat, after all.
The spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi)
Playful, fast, and curious, the spider monkey also swings in the forests of Belize. I captured this image at Lamanai.
They play an important role in Belize’s forest ecosystem because they disperse the seeds of fruits, their primary diet.
Spider monkeys are also endangered, often at risk after being taken in as illegal pets but later abandoned when they get too big and aggressive, which is their nature. Their numbers also declined due to deforestation.
Morelet’s crododile (Crocodylus moreletii)
One of two crocodile species in Belize, the Morelet’s crocodile loves fresh water rivers, creeks, lagoons and canals, and roams around mangrove ecosytems. You can spot one on a Monkey River tour in southern Belize, where I captured this image, or along the New River in Northern Belize, and the Old Belize River banks.
But crocs are also present in the cayes’ lagoons and protected reserves, including on Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker.
If you love crocodiles or want to learn more about them, get in touch with ACES — the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary — for an educational tour on Belize’s crocodiles. Your funds go directly to conservation funds to maintain ACES’ valuable educational work in the community.
The West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus)
I’ll never forget the afternoon my friend Stacy and I were snorkeling off Caye Caulker and unexpectedly came face to face with two manatees. One was directly below me, and slowly rising to the surface. You can imagine how quickly I swam out of its way. I hadn’t realized how big manatees are and had no idea what they were at first. Panic was soon replaced with admiration and awe.
Belize is considered the last remaining, primary stronghold of manatees in the Caribbean and Central America.
You can’t actually plan to go swim beside these endangered species as they’re protected, but you can spot them from your boat, at a safe distance.
Pre-arrange a manatee tour from Caye Caulker to Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary. You can also see them on a boat trip from Placencia. Please keep an eye out on any boats that you see speeding through manatee zones and report them, even if it’s your tour company. Manatees have been turning up wounded and dead over the years due to negligent human activity.
The woolly opossum (Caluromys derbianus)
This little creature surprised us one night after dinner at the Macal River Camp. No one could figure out what species this was at first, not even our Belizean camp site host. We researched it the next day and discovered its name: the woolly opossum.
Once upon a time, the woolly opossum was hunted for its fur, but now it suffers from habitat loss and deforestation.
That’s the beauty of Belize: there’s always wildlife to discover, and there’s always a creature watching you even if you don’t see it.
Tips for protecting Belize’s wildlife
You can do your part in helping conserve wildlife in Belize. Aside from visiting protected areas, keep these tips in mind:
*Don’t touch any creatures and maintain a respectful distance (do not hound or chase just to get a photo).
*Do not post images with captive, indigenous wildlife.
*Don’t purchase any goods made from animal hides, teeth or any other body part. It’s also prohibited to buy anything made out of sea turtles.
*Inform your hosts so they can contact the Forest Department if you saw any endangered animals or souvenirs made from them being offered for sale.
*Do participate in any environmental activities and events while there, like beach clean ups and Reef Week.
It takes all of us to protect and preserve wildlife!
For more details on Belize’s spectacular flora and fauna, as well as protected areas, educational volunteer opportunities or expert-crafted itineraries, consult the current edition of Moon Belize or stay tuned for the 2019 edition scheduled for release this October.
Do you seek out wildlife when you travel?