Tag Archives: Belize

Belize: Bye-bye Mangroves – Viva Vacation!

On a recent trip to Belize, the mermaids – that would be my wife and daughter, sought out any excuse to immerse themselves in the Caribbean Sea; and my daughter’s desire to swim with a whale shark featured prominently on her list of reasons for our visit. It’s a rather hopeful wish on her part, but if you don’t think big there’s not much chance of experiencing anything out of the ordinary.

Alice had booked her place on an organised whale shark trip months in advance, and when the day arrives we all make the road trip to get her to the boat on time. Because our destination is some distance from our coastal base in Hopkins we are obliged to set off early in the morning, in darkness, before breakfast is served; this is a disappointment to me because I also have a list, but mine is of the things I no longer need to do – and missing breakfast isn’t on it.

When in the water with my wife and daughter I have trouble keeping up.
In Belize we spend a fair bit of time in the water – as usual I have trouble keeping up with my wife and daughter.

I have never felt the need to swim alongside any kind of shark even when it is considered safe, and I won’t in any case be going into the water today because it would involve scuba diving – another thing on the list of things I don’t need to do. My wife Jen, can dive but she has been unwell and so it would be unwise for her to scuba; consequently, she will remain land based and keep me company.

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Up at 5.30 a.m. we are soon driving southwards towards our destination – a dock in the village of Placencia, set at the end of a short peninsula that hugs the coastline for about 18 miles; but when we get there this turns out to be a very slow 18 miles – the entire road is plagued by speed humps set at regular intervals. There are various tourist hotel developments along the way, some have impressive gates, but these are mostly the sort of places we avoid because they are so out of keeping with their surroundings.

RIMG7241.©.SMALLAt the bottom end of the Peninsula the village of Placencia is altogether different –  it is far more intimate than the impersonal hotels that we passed on the way; it is busy with local people and has several agreeable places to eat. A huge surprise though to pass an airport just before  we arrive, which initially seems out of place. Until recently this destination must have been close to the back end of nowhere; but the holiday business is rapidly changing that.

The surprise Airport.
The surprise Airport.

I can’t think of a better way for the wealthy to avoid the speed bumps than to fly in; certainly it is the quickest way in. As a wealthy person once said to me, ‘I can always earn more money, but I can’t buy more time’… And I guess that’s fair enough, but above all else, what they are really interested in buying here is real estate… and lots of it.

There are plenty of recent developments along the peninsula but Placencia at the bottom end feels, authentic, relaxed and agreeable.
There are plenty of recent developments along the peninsula on the way down to Placencia, but the village remains relaxed and agreeable despite much of it being bought up by outsiders.

It is a bright sunny morning and we arrive early enough to go for breakfast in a local cafe, although the waitress is quite unhelpful; there’s a lot we can’t have from the menu because it’s too early and she hasn’t had a chance to shop for fruit and vegetables; unfortunately she doesn’t explain this and we waste a lot of time asking for things that are unavailable. It’s as if we are taking part in an unfunny version of ‘The Monty Python’ cheese sketch. ‘Mango this’… No. ‘Banana that’… No. ‘A veggie omelette’…. No. ‘Orange juice”….Ummm… No… We eventually hit on a few things that the kitchen does have, mainly choices that  revolve around cakes and pancakes, unhealthy stuff, but great when your earlier breakfast never happened.

Alice makes her way to the dock for her diving trip.
Alice makes her way to the dock for her diving trip.

Unfortunately, the food takes so long, we are made late by the waiting and should have left by the time it arrives. We gulp it down, and have trouble getting the bill because our waitress seems to be moving through ‘treacle time’. We finally pay up, dash to the nearby dock, and despite the delay make it in time.

Alice will be out at sea for several hours, leaving Jen and I plenty of time to drive back up the peninsula and take a look at the coastal environment. The eastern seaward side is mostly sandy beach of the type popular with holidaymakers – but there are also stretches of mangrove less favoured by tourists; nevertheless, mangrove is an essential habitat that acts as a nursery for creatures that will eventually live out their lives on nearby offshore reefs.

Can't see the view?... What a nuisance!
Mangroves… Can’t see the view!… A natural wonder or an inconvenient nuisance?

We then travel along the western inner arm to search out the mangrove that borders the narrow bay adjacent to the Caribbean. Clearly, the mangroves were once extensive here, but are now intermittent and are being overtaken by development.

Mangrove is and important natural habitat that many people see as a wasteland - sadly, this are is staked out for development.
Mangrove is an important natural habitat, although many see it as little more than wasteland. The reality is somewhat different; these are essential buffers that protect fragile coastlines from storms and soil erosion; they also reduce agricultural by-products entering the sea. Sadly, this picture shows just one of many mangrove areas now staked out for development.

Indifference to mangrove destruction doesn’t make sense, but it is a widespread problem. On October 8th 2001 Hurricane Iris hit this area and levelled around 95% of Placencia – a hurricane can do this almost anywhere, but when the weather is just bad rather than extreme, mangroves offer at least some protection to things that you hope might stay attached to the land when things get rough. 

Coastal development is closely tied to mangrove loss
Coastal development is closely tied to mangrove loss.

Mangrove destruction is now a common problem in warm coastal areas where holiday developments are becoming widespread and the suggestion that building resorts is good for local economies doesn’t always work out as well as it might. Often the process involves rapid changes to the coastlines, and essentially too much happens too quickly. When multinational companies are involved they often prefer to bring in their own workforce, leaving the locals with only the most poorly paid and menial tasks; and there is often a disinclination to train local people to provide them with better opportunities.

RIMG7256.FIX.SMALLWhen developments are rapid and extensive, habitats that local people have relied upon for generations are often quickly degraded, and it isn’t greatly appreciated when wealthy outsiders (who don’t need the food) arrive to ‘sports’ fish valuable natural resources. When financial gains don’t filter through to people living in the area, resentment grows, and when much of the profit goes offshore there may be no longterm benefits to local communities. Few visitors choose to notice this problem because to do so would mean leaving the hotel to speak to locals who will furnish a broader picture – something almost unthinkable. Certainly there are dangerous places around the world, but it is irrational to be frightened of moving amongst locals in the places we visit – it’s madness to behave like prisoners locked in holiday complexes that provide everything we need but reality.

This one looks a bit like a cell block, but no doubt it will be beautiful when it is finished.
This development looks a bit like a cell block, but no doubt will be beautiful when it’s finished.

It would of course be wrong to imply there are no benefits to previously isolated communities when they are suddenly transformed by tourism, but it is noticeable – if you care to look – that many people remain in poverty while the profits go elsewhere. This results in a very one sided spin on the benefits that tourism can bring to poor communities. Clearly there are advantages when outside money is brought in, but the amount that filters through to local people is often meagre and many will see no benefits at all.

Much of the remaining  coastline appears to be up for sale.
Much of the remaining coastline close to Placencia appears to be up for sale.

What nature provides in far away places is often taken as freely available and without consequences, but as holiday based economies continue to expand, it is increasingly evident that there can be no free lunch; someone local will be losing out to pay for the good fortune of the many visitors arriving from elsewhere, and investors will continue to make big bucks by exploiting environmentally sensitive areas.

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If big hotels and cruise liners continue to feature in fragile environments and during the process they reduce air and water quality, it might be worth asking whether such problems outweight the often one-sided financial gains…

I know! who wants to think about this kind of thing when you’re on holiday, or fortunate enough to be on the right side of what is rapidly becoming a gaping economic divide; nonetheless this is a reality that can’t be ignored forever.

The beauty of a single dragonfly sums up why at least some sandy scrub behind the mangrove is worth preserving.
The beauty of a single dragonfly sums up why at least some sandy scrub and pools behind the mangrove is worth preserving.

We saw the last 5 acre ‘investment opportunity’ (as it was described by one realtor) up for sale on a board in Placencia village. We could find no evidence to suggest that many here thought it necessary to retain the mangroves, and it appears that it won’t be long before most of this peninsula will be developed in one form or another, with this important habitat degraded or perhaps entirely lost… And who will remember once it has gone?

An interesting addition to paradise.
One of many interesting additions to paradise on the road to Placencia.

Much of the development along the coastal area where we are staying and where we started out this morning – in Hopkins – is paid for with American dollars and many who come to visit these newly developed areas are Americans.

Belize money is visually agreeable, but I never saw any that wasn't worn out.
Belize money is visually impressive, but I’ve never seen a bank note that wasn’t worn out.

From an environmental perspective mass development of coastal regions isn’t really a great idea. I love the Americas in particular, but feel as if I need a shower whenever I touch an American dollar. In common with nearly all the paper money you handle in warm countries it is often badly worn and it usually stinks. Perhaps the money itself is trying to tell us something.

Vultures circling over Hopkins in evening night.
Vultures circling over Hopkins in evening night.

Coastal Belize is much favoured by tourists from Texas and the village of Hopkins is about to be turned into a major tourist spot.

Presently the Belize road system is quite variable, with some sections very rough; the drive to Hopkins from Belize City Airport really isn’t much fun because you are always on the look out for potholes and speed humps. The last part of the journey up through the village is especially rough; at the time of writing it is no more than a dusty track peppered with potholes, but this is about to change as a new blacktop road is planned and by the time you are reading this, it might already be in place.

Many of the locals don’t feel comfortable with the new developments as they won’t themselves be seeing much in the way of profit from the upgrades. Despite the sudden influx of money, conditions for many have not, so far, greatly improved and many people’s lives may not change very much despite the fact that a holiday in Belize isn’t a cheap option. This kind of ‘progress’ where money flows in but nothing much changes on the street isn’t in any sense fair… But it is what it is.  

Hopkins may still run along a dusty track, but every child has a place in school which must be good for the future of Belize.

Hopkins might still run along a dusty track, but every child has a place in school which must bode well for the future of Belize…  if the whole country doesn’t eventually get bought up by outsiders.

Mangroves architecture is delightfully natural.
Mangroves in contrast to many holiday developments are a natural architectural wonder.

All things considered, it isn’t difficult to understand why the money that is flowing into places like Hopkins and Placencia isn’t filtering through to the average person. Everything changes when markets go global and the consequences of such rapid development is the cause of much bad feeling.

An airport is soon to be built close by Hopkins and this along with the road upgrade, explains why land speculation has gone through the roof. It is a huge problem, because as outsiders speculate, local people are priced out of the market and suddenly out of the equation.

As you travel through and out of the village to the south many new developments are underway.
In and around Hopkins village many new developments are underway.

Back around Placencia we wander 

along what remains of the mangrove, much of which is likely to disappear as holiday developments begin to pick up apace; but for the moment what remains of this habitat adds an air of mystery to the coastline, particularly from the seaward side, where you can’t help but wonder what lies beyond them.

The seaward side of dense mangrove.
On the seaward side small sections of dense mangrove still remain, but much of it is now sectioned for development.

It is a hot afternoon as Jen and I walk back to the dock to wait for Alice’s boat to re-appear on the horizon. There was a slight breeze this morning which caused a surface ripple across the water, but all is now still, allowing me to take pictures of seahorses amongst the seagrass just off the dock. In the past I’ve worked with captive seahorses in my studio for the B.B.C. which was much easier. Not so much for Jen though because she was the one looking after them. Keeping seahorses healthy in captivity can be labour intensive and requires considerable skill – so don’t even think about it!

Getting a clear shot in this natural setting is far less easy but it is at least ethical. With so much pressure on seahorse habitat now, and the annual trade (particularly in south-east Asia) in millions of these wonderful animals for their erroneous medicinal value, has pushed many of the 50 plus species that we presently know of into general decline.

One of three or four seahorses anchored amongst the weed by their tails as they feed.
One of three or four seahorses anchored by their tails amongst the seagrass and waterweed. These plants provide relatively stable attachments while they feed by sucking in tiny plant and animal prey as it passes.                                                                                                               

It isn’t long before Alice’s dive group arrives back, but there is an air of gloom hanging over the boat. No whale sharks were seen and further research on our part suggests that there have been no reliable sightings by dive groups in local waters for at least two years. One whale shark diving concern recently changed the description of its outings because of this, while others are still trading as whale shark tours; it maybe that the only sharks around here are tour operators. When you dive in the sea, nothing is guaranteed, but to advertise a tour specifically using an animal’s name when there are no representatives in the area is nothing short of deceitful.

Alice saw and photographed a loggerhead turtle - so the dive wasn't a complete waste of time.
Alice saw and photographed this loggerhead turtle – so the dive wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Alice’s loggerhead turtle pictures turned out rather well, but one in particular stands out because it could prove useful as a future means of identification. I have spent much of my photographic career trying to take pleasing pictures of wildlife and for most of my working life have made a living from it; but in truth, apart from making me feel I’ve achieved something personally… what is the use of it? There are plenty of good pictures of turtles, but one that provides reliable identification rather than just a pretty picture could prove far more consequential.

A simple picture from above shows the pattern of the plates or ‘scutes’ on the turtle’s shell, as well as the scales on top of the head; the number and shape of these can provide a reliable means of species identification and when combined with wear and tear body markings may also indicate particular individuals. Certainly when accompanied by a date and location, a record of these patterns can have considerable scientific value.

This is a pleasant enough picture, bit it also useful for identification.
A pleasant enough picture, but also a useful means of identifying an individual.

In the end, the natural wonders of Belize may prove to be a bit like its plumbing in that there are many things here that are resilient to being flushed away, but as the outside world brings with it greater expectations – and a flush of money besides, it may be that almost anything can be sent swirling down the pan. One must hope for better things for this beautiful place, but only time will tell.

Belize: Mayan Temples and Howler Monkey Business.

P1270069.FRAME.©.SMALLThe 17th May 2017 is another beautiful day in Belize and one that turns out to be rather special. Up for an early breakfast with my wife and daughter I eat scrambled eggs and tropical fruits, heaping both onto the same plate to save time. The view however is altogether more subtle than my inelegant attitude towards the functionality of food, and we gaze out across the smooth metallic expanse of the the Caribbean Sea warming from silver to gold as the sun rises.

Within half an hour, we are moving along an empty road, the sun now throwing the surrounding countryside into an intensity of  colour that is seldom seen outside of the tropics. Driving westward, we move away from the coast into the interior, travelling across the entire country in just a couple of hours from our base in Hopkins to arrive at our destination   – the Mayan ruins of Xuanantunich on the Mopan River, close by the Guatemala border.

My childhood was busy with stories of such places. At ten years of age I regularly imagined myself to be an Indiana Jones, although it could only have been an approximation because the intrepid archaeologist had not then been invented; whoever I thought I was cannot compare with the present reality of finally arriving at an authentic Mayan ruin where the levels of exhilaration are pushed beyond any fiction.

We cross the river by means of a ferry that is hand cranked - you tip pay the ferryman whatever you feelis appropriate and he literally drags you across.
We cross the Mopan River by means of a ferry that is hand cranked – you tip the ferryman whatever you feel is appropriate and he literally drags you across the water.

The archaeological site is only a few hundred metres from the ferry and there are a few people, mostly young backpackers, walking in along the road from the nearby town of San Ignacio. A few commercial outlets run along one side of the car park including a little gift shop selling Indian made items. It’s all pretty low key, but on our arrival there is a hell of a racket going on; my wife Jen, and daughter Alice are ignoring it as they lube up with insect repellant and sunscreen; I’m just keen to get moving because it is pushing towards mid-morning and getting hotter by the minute. The din is coming from close by the little shop, and I at once assume this to be a taped loop of howler monkey calls – it is quite deafening – certainly the loudest noise I’ve ever heard coming out of a monkey, but I don’t record it –  this is so obviously a ploy to drag people in to buy trinkets, small things that will end up hidden away in the backs of a drawers that will be discovered by another generation during future tragic clear outs of the homes of the deceased.

Once on site and standing on the huge an impressive pyramid of stones know as El Castillo, I notice a guide who is taking a young couple around and I ask him about the monkey recordings. He is puzzled, and tells me that he doesn’t know of any recordings, but there are three troops of howlers roaming the area that sometimes kick up a fuss as they did this morning.  At once I regret not recording all that wonderful howling. My wife on the other hand is delighted with my mistake because I really should have known better. She’s likes me to be wrong a couple of times a day and usually I can oblige.

Standing on the steps of pyramid El Castillo - the most prominent structure here - looking down onto the square below.
Standing on the steps of pyramid El Castillo – the most prominent structure here – looking down onto the square below where a ball game was played.

 There are a group of teenagers and a couple egged on by friends are running along the facade and jumping the regular gaps in the stonework. Suddenly one falls heavily, it is a girl – she pretends that it didn’t hurt, but really it must have. My daughter is puzzled by the behaviour – “It seems very disrespectful”, she says, “but they don’t seem to be aware of it”. If this were Stonehenge, they’d have been arrested by now and carried away in a van, but here, where direct access is allowed to the monument, some lose all sense of what is reasonable as they go about expanding their version of personal liberty, this to the irritation of almost everybody around them and it also puts the fabric of the ruin in danger. A great pity, because presently there is enormous freedom on site to wander wherever you want without restriction, but as more people begin behaving as if their brains have dropped out, things will inevitably change to protect both the idiots concerned and the monument. Rules will be imposed – areas will be cordoned off, and the whole place will begin to feel more like a museum than the magical experience that it presently is.

The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are set in sub-tropical forest... or more honestly, they are if you get your camera angles right. What each of us sees in a photograph mirrors our hopes and dreams - photographers are mostly there to fill in the dots of our wishful thinking.
The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are set in sub-tropical forest… or more honestly, they are if you get your camera angles right. What each of us sees in a photograph mirrors our hopes and dreams – photographers are mostly there to fill in the dots of our wishful thinking.

The pyramid El Castillo was probably in use as early as 800 A.D. it was constructed in two phases, and remains to this day very impressive, especially when you get close to the top. “You won’t get up there with all that gear”, my daughter says, which of course is like showing red rag to a bull (even if in the real world bulls don’t see red). Jen has already been defeated by the heat, she is feeling unwell, and has moved off without complaint to sit in the shade. Alice is already at the top; I am making my way there more slowly, taking pictures as I go and during the ascent begin to wonder how many have fallen from this huge pile of stones. In places the climb is steep and there is very little to grab on to, but once you get to the top the view is spectacular and well worth the risk – you can even see Guatemala  – a broad white track indicates the border; and my daughter and I take in the scene as if we are looking down on a huge map.

Alice coming down off the top of El Castillo - it's worth being careful because there's a long way to drop if you miss your footing.
Alice coming down from the top of El Castillo – it’s worth being careful because there’s quite a drop if you miss your footing.

As Alice climbs down. I stay up for a while and continue to take pictures. It isn’t long before I pass a couple of young men who have noticed a large iguana over the edge of the front facade. You really have to lean out to see it – it’s a monster and I imagine that its ancestors were living on these walls when Mayan rulers were making blood sacrifices of their slaves… and perhaps when things weren’t going so well… their local people. Making human sacrifices was considered a real problem solver when negotiating with the gods. According to a guide that I spoke to, a game was played here annually in the square below and the winning team were granted a short celebration before they were executed. This hardly seems fair and I have no idea if it really happened… but it makes a good story. At modern sporting events this custom might still prove popular with the  fans. Any team losing to Manchester United for example, might feel inclined to look on the bright side, but in today’s world this old custom would prove impractical because as entertaining as it might seem, executing a whole team would be far too expensive.

The spiny-tailed iguana is often seen on rocky outcrops - this then a perfect place to see it. The common green iguana will more likely to be seen up a tree or in vegetation.
The black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis) is often seen on rocky outcrops – and the ruin is a perfect place to discover them. Only parts of this lizard are black. It’s cousin, the more common green iguana prefers to take refuge in trees or amongst vegetation – this  a species more inclined to avoid open areas.

A woman is passing and I tell her about the impressive lizard. I’ve already tempted fate by setting my tripod up on the edge of the ledge and leant out for a series of pictures, my balance is not as good as it once was and now I’m generally more careful incase things go wrong. Anyway, this pleasant middle aged lady also seems interested in getting a shot, and so after a brief discussion on the safest way to achieve this, I take her full weight by holding onto her left arm as she leans out to take her picture. And all I can think as I do this is, ‘If I let go she’s a goner’ – but I don’t do that… Why would anybody trust a complete stranger like this? “Trust me I’m a wildlife photographer…. That’s just like being a doctor isn’t it? – You know, a really reliable sort?… Maybe not.”

A view looking down from the top of El Castillo.
A view looking down from the top of El Castillo.

It’s very hot, but the day just goes on warming up, and by afternoon we pretty much have the place to ourselves – there are no mad dogs here just three English people out long past the mid-day. Noel Coward makes no mention of the extreme heat of afternoon in his song, probably because it doesn’t scan and would make no sense unless you experienced it, as we are doing today.

Late in the afternoon our wander around this wonderful square mile is complete and we begin to make our way back to the car. As we walk I check for the car keys that are no longer in my pocket. This is unusual. Sure, I lose my keys around the house, but never in a place like this, miles from anywhere. Usually I’m more careful.  The site is now closed and Jen waits in the visitor’s centre while my daughter and I retrace my steps. Alice suggests that I visualise my journey like a child, which really isn’t my sort of thing, but it’s not bad advice; because as I get to the final location I remember upending myself to IMG_4968.SMALL.©get a shot for an old American couple, with the ruins in the background – I’m certain my keys are there. I speed up a little in anticipation as the sun begins to dip over the stone facade. And sure enough there they aren’t… but moving 10 metres on along the terrace, there they are, lying on a step in an almost identical location, sparkling in what remains of the sunlight like Mayan treasure – although presently, they are of greater value to us than Mayan gold.

The lost keys! … my second mistake of the day. after the earlier monkey business I should once again have known better, but Jen doesn’t make a fuss as I might have have done had it been her or Alice who had lost them. Getting ‘it wrong’ twice in a day is enough, better still there is the relief of finding the very thing that starts the vehicle which is absolutely essential if we are to avoid being be stuck out here overnight.

P1270412.FIX.©.SMALLQuite by co-incidence the day after returning home I met somebody who has also visited the Mayan ruin of Xuanantunich, but he also visited another site across the border in Guatemala where things had gone badly wrong and put our recent experience into perspective.

Quite by chance a National Geographic photographer was covering the ruin for a feature in the magazine and asked my acquaintance if he would tag along because he spoke the local language. There was nothing unusual about the visit; rather prosaically it had been organised by a local hotel, but late in the day as the sun was setting, the photographer became increasingly absorbed with his picture taking and neither of them noticed the party moving away to return to the vehicle that would take them away from of the site. The pair were left stranded in the forest with    with only a small torch and a mobile phone to light their way as the light began rapidly fading. They stumbled about in the darkness for some time and my acquaintance eventually found a trail that led to the road. On arriving back at the hotel they were both covered in insect bites and scratched and bruised by their encounters in the forest.

The concern at night in tropical forest is always that you might step on a P1270428.FRAME.FIX.©.SMALLpoisonous snake and this is not a wildly improbable scenario, but what most people worry about is the far less likely possibility of being attacked by a jaguar which can exert perhaps the strongest bite of all of the big cats – with their wide gape they will grab prey by the skull, and quickly pierce it with their impressive incisor teeth, but if this should happen, it would be all over before there was a chance to think much about it, and there’s consequently very little point in dwelling on such an unlikely scenario. Unfortunately, a tropical forest at night is so full of strange sounds, imagination quickly gets the better of you.

The Nat. Geo. photographer was apparently quite shaken up by his experience, which pleased me a little because I would sometimes come across one when filming for the B.B.C. in remote areas of the world. Stills photographers were usually carrying lighter gear than I was obliged to; and Nat Geo. photographers had more time and money to get the job done. The upside was that in some insect infested locations, the buget would limit my available work days and I would leave the Nat  Geo photographer on site for perhaps another month. Sometimes it is just nice to be getting out of an extreme environment. There are many who imagine a job travelling as a wildlife photographer to be their ultimate dream, but when you are actually doing it and being eaten alive by insects, especially as night approaches, it’s a very different story; and if you are unlucky enough to get stuck out over night without being entirely prepared – it’s the ultimate nightmare.

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I didn’t know at the time the keys went missing that the last ferry was supposed to be going at 4.00 p.m. otherwise I’d have been more concerned. We were now well past that time and would be departing later still because Alice had discovered a troop of howler monkeys (Alouatta) coming through the forest canopy on one side of the site just as we were about to leave.

I set up at the forest edge and although they are not calling, we can certainly hear them coming – gently rustling as they move through the trees stopping here and there to climb out along a branch to munch at the tips on fresh new leaves. It took about 20 minutes before they arrive at the edge of the clearing to reveal themselves from the dense foliage long enough for me to get a few shots. On the limits of exposure with the light now rapidly fading, I grab anything that I can, and what is most noticeable is that each monkey never allows itself to have fewer than three and often four points of contact with the tree; and when they stop to feed their tails invariably remain tightly wrapped around the main branch from which they are hanging.

There are half a dizen monkeys in the troop, including two youngsters - the adults are busy feeding on fresh leaves at the ends of shoots.
There are half a dozen monkeys in this small troop of Yukatan black howlers (Alouatta pigra), including two youngsters – the adults are busy feeding on leaves that are freshly developing at the ends of shoots.

It is a surprise to be getting the best pictures I’ve ever managed of Howler monkeys and Jen, who prefers to look on the positive side when my mood so often swings the other way, points out that if I hadn’t lost the keys we’d probably have left the site before the howlers swung through. Their presence suggests the surrounding forest isn’t as degraded as it initially appeared to be, and a few howler pictures will make it difficult to deny that they were once here should they disappear sometime in the future. It is good once in a while to end on a positive note – and nothing is more positive or interesting than a bit of monkey business.

When we arrive back at the ferry it is on the other side of the river and I’m thinking that it might have stopped running for the day. I wave from the bank in the hope that it is still operating. The ferryman is certainly there and he sets the thing in motion. It’s always a good day when your experiences run against the natural course of entropy, because now and again, things are just bound to go your way.

Belize: The Down Side – Deforestation.

During a recent visit to Belize with my wife and daughter, it was impossible not to appreciate the beauty of the flora and fauna of what many regard as a a sub-tropical paradise. “But, there is something missing”, said my wife, “and I’m not sure what it is”. I thought about this for while and if I had to put it down to one particular thing, then it would have to be a lack of primary forest.

A black-headed trogon in Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.
A black-headed trogon Trogon melanocephalus in Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Figures for deforestation are sketchy for Belize and what we believe sometimes depends on where the figures come from – certainly it would be disappointing if the generally accepted figure for loss really is running at 2% per annum.

There are also stories that give cause for more general concern. It is said, for example, that during the 1990s the Belize government granted unusually low logging concessions to a Malaysian company – rights were purchased for as little as 60 cents an acre… It defies belief that such a story could be true, although such indifference to a valuable national resource seems almost too ridiculous to make up.

When forest depletion figures are presented for tropical regions, the details are sometimes misleading. Many logging concerns are intent on getting into virgin forest where the real value lies in big old hardwood trees, which can now fetch astronomical prices. Companies that are cutting into these diminishing ecosystems are less inclined to bother with the lower value smaller trees growing back in secondary forests,  i.e. places where trees have been logged in the past. The point is that it is essential to know exactly what kind of forest is being logged to truly understand the consequences. Foresters will sometimes say that for every tree they cut two more will be planted (I was told exactly this in relation to mahogany trees during our visit to Belize), but it doesn’t mean anything unless there are exact details on the age and size of the trees being felled. Replacing a 30 year old tree in a secondary forest with two replacement saplings is one thing, but hardly a replacement for a 300 hundred year old tree cut in primary forest? From an ecological perspective and in most other senses there is an enormous difference and we should all be concerned because the loss of forests containing mature old trees will have far reaching consequences. 

When I see logs moving along a road in the tropics I check their size, imagine them still standing quietly in the forest and then wonder if they have been legally logged - if they are it doesn't make me feel any better - I just find it depressing.
When I see cut trees moving along a road in the tropics I check their size; and if they are big,  try to imagine them still standing quietly in the forest; then I start to wonder if they have been legally logged. Even if they have it doesn’t make me feel any better; the removal of a tree in a matter of minutes that has existed as part of a long-standing ecosystem for hundreds of years is depressing. The rate of loss of the world’s remaining primary forests is one of the most serious problems of our time and may eventually come back to bite us.

A positive case is often made for selective logging rather than clearcut felling an area, with only certain trees taken out; but it is difficult to imagine how anybody could make this version of habitat destruction sound like a really good idea.

However, there are people in the conservation ‘game’ who claim that cutting out all of the large mahogany trees in an ecosystem makes no difference to the health of a forest, but how can they possibly suggest that? Maybe they simply take a walk in the forest, have a bit of a look around and decide that if you didn’t know the trees had been felled, then maybe you wouldn’t notice a difference despite the fact that mahogany trees, where they do remain in place, play a consequential part in their ecosystems. It should be obvious that the removal of a single prominent species, which other plants and animals inevitably rely upon, cannot be undertaken without consequences.

To log an area successfully requires the cutting through of logging roads and once they are in place they quickly become a magnet for illegal loggers. In particular, I  have noticed (from the air), how quickly Malaysian rainforest disappears once it has been made accessible.

Much of the Malaysian rainforest I flew over in 1983 looked like this. A couple of years later some areas on the same route were criss crossed with logging roads and the trees were beginning to disappear.
Much of the Malaysian rainforest I flew over in 1983 looked like this, but a couple of years later some areas along the same route were criss-crossed with logging roads and trees were rapidly beginning to disappear.

Felled trees can only leave a forest efficiently when tracks are extensively cut in. The felling process, no matter how selective, is always destructive; and the idea that taking out only the commercially valuable older trees can be achieved without changing the optimum natural functions of a forest is difficult to argue.

This is an older tree in the Coxcomb Reserve, it crtainly isn't an ancient tree, but it clearly demonstartes what happens to a tree in the rainforest as it ages - there's a whole new world developing in the upper part of the tree and in extensive areas on primary forest there are many plant and animal species that are dependent on the mid and upper storey and never come to the forest floor - this region is almost impossible to find in youg secondary forest.
This older tree in the Coxcomb Reserve, isn’t an ancient tree, but it clearly demonstrates what happens to a tree in a rainforest as it ages – there’s a whole new world developing in the canopy. In areas where primary forest remains there are many plant and animal species that are dependent on these mid to upper-storey levels and some of which will never come down to the forest floor – these habitat zones are non-existent in young secondary forest in areas that have previously been clear felled.

Visiting Coxcomb Wildlife Sanctuary in the Stann Creek District of south-central Belize was nothing short of delightful, even though logging would have been a feature here from the late 1930s through to 1988, when buildings previously owned by the logging company were taken over to form the park’s visitor centre. This should be a clue as to why so much of the surrounding forest is secondary and only recently regenerated. In fairness to any logging concern The Stan Creek District was seriously hit by Hurricane Hattie on October 31st 1961. Hattie is said to have taken out as much as 70% of the mahogany trees in the area and this is probably the main reason that logging came to an end – it is likely that there just weren’t enough big trees left standing to keep a commercial concern in business.

There are occasional trees that were left in the Coxcomb Reserve during the earlier logging period. Older tropical rainforst trees typically have butress roots because the soil is shallow; roots do not go deep and thes butresses are the means of support to secure them in shallow soil.
There are occasional trees that were left in the Coxcomb Reserve during the earlier logging period. Older tropical rainforest trees typically have buttress roots because the soil is shallow; the roots do not go deep and the butresses that are formed support the trees in shallow soil.

Whatever the reason for the loss, there were no extensive stands of original lowland forest apparent in any part of the park that we visited. But, this doesn’t mean the reserve isn’t an extremely important conservation area, in particular for the preservation of jaguar, essentially the reason that the park was set up in 1984. The regenerating forest still has enormous ecological value even if the surrounding habitat is a shadow of its former self, brought about by extensive logging and then almost complete destruction by Hurricane Hattie.

This mahogany tree was planted close by the visitors centre by The Duke of Edinburgh in 1988 when he was President of The World Wildlife Fund. At the time it was a good deal smaller than the duke and it is atonishing how quickly it has grown. At 25 years it is regarded as a mature tree, but in an old forest a mahogany might live for 350 years which puts things into perspective.
This mahogany tree was planted close by the visitors centre by The Duke of Edinburgh in 1988, at the time he was President of The World Wildlife Fund; the tree was then a good deal shorter than the Duke – it is astonishing how quickly it has grown. At 25 years it is regarded as a mature tree, but to put things into perspective a mahogany tree in undisturbed forest might live for 350 years or more.

I must admit to being concerned when I see quotes about a secondary forest that has been around for perhaps only 30 years, when claims are made that the area has now completely regrown. This demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of tropical forest regeneration. Virgin forest that has been felled in recent time will not be just dandy again after the passing of a few decades and might never carry the same biodiversity again.

Not my best picture, but the only one I managed of this tricky bird.
A male white-collared manakin: not my best picture, but the only one I managed of this tricky little bird that mostly refused to sit anywhere long enough to be photographed.

This white-collared manakin photographed in the bird heaven that is Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary likes to hang out in dense forest. It pings around like a pinball and will suddenly judder to a halt in display. This bird is completely nuts – it makes a loud noise exactly like marbles being bashed heavily together and remarkably it does this using its wings.

 IMG_5401.FRAME.©.SMALLDuring our trip my daughter Alice was looking for adventure and could not resist the opportunity to zip line through tropical forest and rappel down a tumbling waterfall. She’d done her research and discovered in Mayflower Bocawina Park an adventure centre that could provide such opportunities only a short distance from our coastal base in Hopkins. While she was doing that, Jen and I took the opportunity to wander through the park’s secondary forest.

When we first entered Mayflower Bocawina National Park I noticed a wide track that had been cut along the border of the reserve. On arrival at the ticket office I asked why the trees had been felled in this manner and was told this had been done to mark the park boundary, but I wasn’t convinced, boundaries of national parks rarely involve habitat destruction, in particularly because some tropical forest species prefer not to cross open ground.

Trees cut along the boundary line of the park might have been cleared to provide a logging road to access trees from somewhere deep in the forest. Even if the logging here is above board, there will now be easy access for illegal loggers.
Trees cut along the boundary line of the park looked as if they have been cleared to provide a logging road to access trees from somewhere deep in the forest. Even if the logging here is above board, there will now be easier access for illegal loggers.
Bird humming orchid inMayflower Bocaina National Park.
Myrmecophila orchid flowers photographed in Mayflower Bocawina National Park, so named because this orchid genus usually has an association with ants.

I began looking for somebody who might provide a more likely explanation as to why a swathe of trees had been felled through the forest and eventually came across a man who was clearly knowledgable about the reserve and its wildlife; he worked in the park, but not for the park and told me that this was a government sanctioned forestry project. He said that a logging road was being cut through to the back of the reserve in order to remove valuable teak trees. I do not have a secondary source to confirm this, but it doesn’t sound impossible as I’ve witnessed trees being removed from protected forest habitats before, both in Malaysia and Central America – in some cases with official stamps that falsely claim that the trees have come from a sustainable source. I can’t say for certain that teak trees will be coming out of the forest here and even if they do it probably won’t be illegal. It is just that such a thing is not unusual, which is disturbing, because while many of us obsess over the potential loss of an animal species that we are fond of, we are less inclined to be quite so pro-active about the disappearance of the habitat our favoured animal lives in. The felling of any quality primary tropical or sub-tropical forest, legal or not, is disturbing and already hugely consequential in terms of world weather patterns, soil erosion and the damage it causes local economies, let alone the more obvious problems of habitat and species loss.

Primary forest is essential to the survival of complex ecosystems – it can for example provide a habitat that is a couple of degrees lower than nearby regenerating secondary forest. If all that is left to us by continually opening up the interior is a pale washed out version of the original then we should balance short term economic gain against long-term environmental consequences. Sadly, we may let this pass without fully knowing what has been lost because we are recording so little of the virgin forest’s biodiversity before it is gone. Doing the right thing usually runs second to making a fast buck, which is both shameful and morally unjustifiable.

IMG_3787.SMALL.FIX.©If a species disappears from the forest and we aren’t there to witness it… didn’t even know that it existed… does it really matter? This is not a philosophical question. It of course matters and it also matters that in future people will remain poorly informed as to what has disappeared; more especially because we remain indifferent to many less glamourous species despite their ecological importance. We will be ignorant of what  natural environments were once like – of what has been lost in the same way that few of us have any idea what it was like before the time of manufactured pesticides… ignorance is bliss, but this ‘not knowing’ comes at a price, and for life on Earth that price might be a heavy one. With this ever increasing loss of habitat and by association, loss of species, our own continued success is thrown into question because we are not independent of the system – we are part of it. 

Whilst Alice ‘does her thing’, dipping through waterfalls and zipping through the forest canopy, Jen and I wander through the park. I grab shots of birds and butterflies as we walk towards yet another waterfall – a focal point that motivates us to keep going through the intense heat and high humidity of a muggy afternoon.

Waterfalls appear to be favourite destinations. I guess making it in and out provides a sense of achievement.
Waterfalls are favourite destinations – to make it in and out always provides a sense of achievement.
Fruit trees can be see along the path in regular patterns indicating the land was once agricultural.
Fruit trees can be seen along the path at regular intervals suggesting that this was once agricultural land.

As we move along we see very few old trees, but there are many plants regenerating through scrubland that must once have been farmland; native species are now fighting their way back through cultivated forms such as banana and palm oil which are just about managing to hang on. It is also remarkable how resilient some animals are to living in environments that aren’t quite right for them, but that won’t be the case for every species and a price will have to be paid for the decrease in natural diversity that we have imposed.

A many-banded daggerwing Marpesia chiron feeding from a saltlick on the path.
A many-banded daggerwing Marpesia chiron feeding from a salt lick on the path.

If you ever get to travel through a tropical forest that has never been felled, then take the opportunity to make a photographic record of whatever you see because this might one day prove a useful record of potential losses. Unfortunately, I have returned to some rainforests areas only to discover that they have disappeared altogether. It’s always worth taking pictures of anything that seems interesting, especially if the time and place are carefully recorded. Now and again a good picture might turn out to be more important than it seems at the time… and who knows, one day it might help to save the Planet, or at the very least aid in species reintroduction – when we finally wake up to the dangers caused by the wanton destruction of valuable ecosystems.

Next: MayanTemples and Howler Monkey Business.