1997, Michael Kerr, Travel Scholarship, Belize

Biodiversity in Belize

By Michael Kerr

Belize is a comparatively small country of only 8,867 square miles, but what it lacks in scale it makes up in diversity. There is the rain-forested Cayo in the west, scrubby, marshy Orange Walk and Corazol in the north and Placencia and Toledo in the south, regions of palm-fringed beaches, banana plantations and mangrove swamps. Biological diversity is also high with an estimated 4,000 species of flowering plants and over 700 species of trees. However, it was the country’s reputation of having near pristine rainforests which first aroused my interest — over three quarters of the land is reputed to be `untouched’ and botanists are still discovering plant species previously unrecorded in Belize.

First on my list of places to visit was the Community Baboon Sanctuary at Bermudian Landing in the Belize District. The Community Baboon Sanctuary was established in 1985 to protect one of the few healthy black howler monkey populations in Central America. Unlike any other wildlife management project in the world, the sanctuary is a voluntary, grassroots conservation programme dependent upon the co-operation of private landowners within active farm communities. An education centre and museum, sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, is located within the sanctuary with helpful staff and interpretation which is tremendously informative. During my two days spent at the sanctuary I went on several guided walks and learned a great deal about the surrounding flora and spotted two troops of howler monkeys.

From the sanctuary I travelled to caye Caulker to assess damage to mangrove swamps and to visit a private collection of Opuntias. After two days on the caye I set off inland and upland into the Cayo district where work on a new botanical garden is underway. During my time spent there I helped plant a number of trees. It was the start of the rainly season and so the best time for planting. I also planted a number of South-African bulbs in a `prairie’ area close to the river. These have been planted on a sharp slope to avoid bulb rot. Among those we planted were Massonia spp., Clivia miniata, and Lachenalia spp.

I stayed at the Belize Botanic Garden for a week and while I was there I took advantage of its close proximity to some other places I wanted to visit. The first of these was the Ix Chel Medicine Trail which was just a short paddle down the Macal. The medicine trail at Ix Chel is an educational facility where people can come to learn about plants and their healing properties. The trail winds its way through 20 acres of natural forest where 32 species of medicinal plants have been pinpointed. The interpretation is extremely informative and is accompanied by a very helpful, illustrated field guide which explains the uses of these plants.

Another trip I made from duPlooys was to a nearby commercial palm nursery. The palm nursery is run by Louis Thomas of Teakettle Enterprises and is located close to the country’s capital, Belmopan. Louis Thomas was instrumental in organising a shipment of native Belizean plants, including many of his palms, to the Chelsea Flower Show of 1996 as part of the Natural History Museum’s Belizean rainforest display.

My plan was to go from the Belize Botanic Garden to the Las Cuevas Research Centre, which is located in a very isolated spot in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, close to the Maya Mountains. However, due to the appalling weather conditions (weeks of incessant rain) the roads to this site had been closed and so it was impossible to get there. I decided to stay an extra day in the Cayo District and went on a day’s tour of Mountain Pine Ridge, which took me as far as I could go on the road to Las Cuevas and back again. The guide on this tour was, once again, most informative and handed out field guides as an educational tool. The emphasis was on respect for the land and its conservation.

Next on the agenda was the Cockscomb jaguar reserve. The Cockscomb Basin Reserve is a totally protected 100,000 acres of pristine, primary and secondary rainforest, ringed on three sides by high ridges and mountains. I worked for two days while I was at Cockscomb, digging ditches and hacking my way through the forest with a machete. I had arranged to do this before leaving London, not realising that I would be working in temperatures of around 90°C with a punishing extreme of humidity. I thoroughly enjoyed the work and learnt a lot of the common names for the plants I saw and their economic uses.

I returned to Belize city for a couple of meetings with the Belize Audubon Society and Programme for Belize to get an update on their conservation strategies and ongoing work in Belize and then flew from there to New York, where I stayed for a further six days. I had arranged meetings with Mike Balick, the Head of the Institute of Economic Botany and Daniel Atha, a member of his staff at the New York Botanical Gardens. Both men have worked extensively in Belize recently and are working on the compilation of `Flora Mesoamericawhich will incorporate the flora of Belize.

Another place I visited while in New York was The Cloisters, a branch museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, devoted to religious art of the Middle Ages. The religious artefacts, icons and stained glass were all very interesting, but I was there to see gardens of the Saint- Michel-de-Cuxa and the Bonnefont Cloisters. These gardens have been recreated according to designs of those which were tended by French Cistercian monks of the Middle Ages.More than 250 species of medicinal and food plants are grown in the gardens in individual raised planting beds, including many herbs commonly grown in gardens today.


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