An endangered Geoffroy’s spider monkey housed in Wildtracks’ Primate Rehabilitation Centre. When ready, this monkey will be reintroduced to the wild with a troop of other monkeys. Photo by Levi Novey/USFWS
While Belize might be better known by travelers for its gorgeous coastline and beaches, the small Central American country also possesses an impressive array of wild forest landscapes and wildlife. Given the country’s unique history and blend of cultures, as well as its low population of less than half a million people compared to many other Central American countries, its forests and abundance of wildlife are still somewhat intact. There is increasing pressure, however, from within the country and outside of it.
Inside of the country, taking and selling wildlife for pets and to traffickers can help individuals, families and organized crime groups make money, especially when other economic possibilities are not readily available. Trafficking in Belize threatens endangered parrots, monkeys and turtles. Trees, too, in particular a precious hardwood species called Honduran rosewood, are being illegally cut for timber and shipped to China and other destinations, where they are in demand to make luxury furniture and musical instruments. Rosewood grows slowly and takes approximately 80 years to reach a harvestable size.
On Belize’s border, the burgeoning population in neighboring Guatemala has created an increased level of tension. Guatemala is believed to now have around 17 million people, so roughly 42.5 times the amount of people in Belize, living within a country roughly the size of Tennessee. Pressure has mounted as impoverished Guatemalans are building communities near the border that lack state-provided services. These communities sometimes have few options other than to go across the border into Belize to extract resources and grow crops to sustain their families.
Given these factors and others, the Service is supporting two separate but complementary projects this year to simultaneously take on the issues of wildlife and rosewood trafficking in Belize. While trafficking is a global phenomenon, the Western Hemisphere has not received as much attention as other parts of the world where species like rhinos, elephants, pangolins and sharks have been severely threatened by illegal trade and have provided cause for deep concern. Animals including sea turtles, primates, parrots, songbirds, insects, amphibians and reptiles are some of the most threatened by trafficking in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Given our continuing support this year of national level projects in Peru to combat wildlife trafficking, we are excited to have Belize serve as a second anchor point for taking on the challenge in Latin America. Its small geographic size, when combined with the collaboration of key partners in the government and in the nonprofit community, make it a fascinating case study of how big of an impact two national-level projects can have to protect wildlife.
Here’s an overview of what each of the two projects aim to achieve:
In January, as part of the effort to develop a new traceability system for timber, the Belize Forest Department tagged some felled trees and was able to subsequently track the movement of the illegal rosewood (shown above) and make an arrest in connection to the illegal activity. Photo by Wildlife Conservation Society
Wildlife Conservation Society Takes on the Illegal Rosewood Trade
We are supporting the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Belize Forest Department to develop new systems and databases to trace exported rosewood timber, enabling the identification of source locations of illegal activity and common transport routes to facilitate investigations and prosecutions of organized criminal networks. WCS plans to train government law enforcement officials on how to better patrol, accurately identify species and collect data about rosewood extraction to facilitate more arrests. WCS will also work with the government to develop national regulations that implement recently passed Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) protections for rosewood species. Finally, a national awareness campaign that educates Belizeans about the economic, ecological and societal losses posed by the illegal trade of timber and other species is planned using television, radio, presentations and social media.
An endangered Yucatan black howler monkey at Wildtracks gradually returns to a more independent foraging lifestyle in the final stage of rehabilitation before being released back into the wild with a cohort. Related content: Learn 5 Fun Facts about Howler Monkeys. Photo by Levi Novey/USFWS
Wildtracks Combats Wildlife Crime and Aims for Improved Wildlife Security
While WCS aims to tackle rosewood trafficking, we are pleased to support Wildtracks and the Belize Forest Department in their efforts to combat the illegal wildlife trade. They plan to do many of the same kinds of activities as WCS, but with a focus on animals. They will train 50 wildlife officers across law enforcement agencies in Belize on how to identify critical species and better enforce wildlife protection laws, particularly for species like monkeys, which are illegal to keep as pets in Belize. The goal is to create a multi-agency enforcement network that can share information, lessons learned, and success stories. They will also develop a database to store more data about illegal trade and work with the government to finalize and implement a National Wildlife Awareness Strategy. As part of that goal, they will implement a national campaign that aims to better inform Belizeans about the value of protecting wildlife and the laws that are in place to do so. It will target children in schools, hunters, and the general public at events, through television and radio.
One of Wildtracks’ chief strengths as an organization is the operation of their manatee and primate rehabilitation centre. Wildtracks has worked with the Belize Forest Department for the past six years to rehabilitate confiscated pet monkeys and other animals, before releasing and reintroducing them again to the wild. This work will continue in tandem with the new project and campaign, but provides a hopeful element in that an effective mechanism is already in place for some illegal pets to return to the wild. In fact, Wildtracks believes that the number of captive monkeys known to be kept illegally in Belize has dropped by 90 percent since they began working with the Belize Forest Department. They are also working with the Forest Department and additional partners to develop a permit system (i.e. a grandfather clause) for pet parrots, and implement a no-tolerance campaign for new pet parrots starting in June this year.
Wildtracks, the Belize Forest Department and WCS plan to collaborate on messaging for their respective campaigns and projects so that messages are complementary and consistent as appropriate. We look forward to seeing how their projects make an impact in Belize and help protect their wildlife and forests for generations to come.