With over half the country covered in rainforest, and stretched along the coast of the Caribbean Sea, there are numerous endangered species in Belize, taking advantage of its lush, wild landscape. Since becoming independent in 1981, Belize has taken measures to preserve its natural resources. About 26% of Belize is protected within 95 reserves covering both land and sea. This post explores some of the endangered species in Belize that these reserves aim to protect.
During the 1960s and 70s, the jaguar was hunted for its spectacular coat. In 1973, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) named the species as one in need of protection, outlawing the international trade of jaguar fur, and prohibiting jaguar hunting in many countries. They suffer from habitat loss through deforestation and a lack of prey through over-hunting by humans. Belize’s vast rainforest is the perfect habitat for jaguars, and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary was set up in 1990 as the only jaguar preserve in the world.
The Cockscomb Mountains surround over 128,000 acres of Belizean rainforest and, along with Pumas, Ocelots, Margays and Jaguarundis, there are around 80 jaguars in the sanctuary, enjoying the dense, well-covered forest and swamps. Up to 6 ½ feet long from nose to tail, adult males can weigh 200 pounds. Their diet varies greatly, encompassing more than 87 species, including horses, turtles and birds. Although they kill other animals to survive, their preservation will help to increase numbers of other species. They are known as an umbrella species because they require large areas of protected land, which also benefits other animals. Some groups of ancient Maya had the right idea about jaguars. Believing that their kings were reincarnated as the jaguars in the area, killing one was punishable by death.
The Baird’s Tapir
Another endangered species in Belize is the country’s national animal, and the largest land mammal in Central America. While the Lacandon people of Mexico refer to it as the jungle horse, the Belizeans call it the mountain cow. Like jaguars, they are affected by deforestation, and were classified as “vulnerable” in 1996. Although it is illegal to hunt the Baird’s tapir, this law is unfortunately unenforced, meaning that they still hunted by humans. Baird’s tapirs are a dark, grayish brown with a cream coloured marking on the neck, and a dark spot on each cheek. Larger than other species of American tapirs, they can be up to 7ft long, and weigh from 300 to 900 pounds.
As forest animals who enjoy swimming, the Belizean rainforest is a great habitat for these tapirs. Babies can swim from three weeks, and the species commonly lives by water. They forage for fallen fruit and leaves on the forest floor, often at night. The slow reproductive cycle of Baird’s Tapirs makes it difficult to quickly increase population size, and any deaths have a large impact. Pregnancy lasts for about 400 days, and only one baby is born, and so it is important for humans to help protect the species as much as possible.
The Mesoamerican River Turtle
Locally known as the “hickatee”, or as the white turtle, these are nocturnal turtles living in rivers and lakes in Central America. The only species left in its family, its closest relatives are known only from fossils. They are larger than most other turtles, up to 25 inches long, and weighing up to 50 pounds. Their breeding season takes place from September to November. During these months, they lay up to 20 eggs on river banks that are reached by seasonal flooding. These turtles are harvested for their meat, eggs and shells, and are in high demand. Because of their dwindling numbers, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified the animal as critically endangered, and CITES has also recognised the species as endangered.
In 2010, members of the scientific community, government officials, and other interested groups came together at the University of Belize to discuss conserving the species. As a result, the Turtle Survival Alliance began a program in 2011 that focused on breeding the turtles. The research is taking place across 1,200 acres of rainforest, within four reserves. The program aims to produce more hatchlings that can be released into the wild to replenish the population.