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Belize’s Maya Forest Corridor a ‘missing link’ to giant rainforest reserve (commentary)

Northern boundary of Runaway Creek Nature Reserve (at left of Sibun River) showing approximately three miles of the riparian corridor. Drone image courtesy of Runaway Creek Nature Reserve and Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, Belize.

  • With nearly 40% of its lands under protection, Belize already contributes significantly to the IUCN’s post-2020 biodiversity framework of preserving 30% of the planet by 2030.
  • Now conservationists hope to create the Maya Forest Corridor, connecting the massive Belize Maya Forest in the country’s northwest with the Maya Mountains Massif network of protected areas in southern Belize.
  • It would also connect these areas of Belize with adjacent protected areas of La Selva Maya in Guatemala and Mexico, and become the largest rainforest preserve north of the Amazon, a haven for threatened and endangered species including the jaguar, the Central American river turtle and spider monkey, and Baird’s tapir.
  • “My hope is the corridor will be approved and a massive expanse of Central American rainforest will be fused together,” writes a research professor with Northern Arizona University in this commentary piece. The views expressed are of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Belize sits on the cusp of protecting the key piece of the largest rainforest preserve north of the Amazon. In April 2021, the Nature Conservancy and a consortium of conservation organizations purchased 368.75 mi2 in northwestern extent of the country, which is now the Belize Maya Forest. This area connects protected areas in Belize and adjacent protected areas of La Selva Maya in Guatemala and Mexico. In southern Belize, the Maya Mountains Massif contains a network of protected areas.

In between lay ~124 mi2 of uncertainty, which conservationists hope will soon become the Maya Forest Corridor (MFC).

Unfortunately, Belize, like many other places reliant principally on tourism, has been thrust into economic hardships due to pandemic-driven travel restrictions. As a result, the Belizean government has to make difficult choices that would have been quotidian a little over a year ago. Decisions like approving protected areas with associated tax deferments were routinely made. Today, government officials are forced to consider other unsustainable land use alternatives that come with a guaranteed tax revenue stream.

With nearly 40% of its lands under protection, Belize already contributes significantly to the IUCN’s post-2020 biodiversity framework of preserving 30% of the planet by 2030. According to Elma Kay, Science Director of the Environmental Research Institute, University of Belize (ERI), “For a tiny country with a tiny population to have all this land under protection is truly an accomplishment.”

See Mongabay’s coverage of the MFC when it was originally announced here.

Map depicting the extent of the proposed largest rainforest reserve in Central America including the Maya Forest Corridor, Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, and Coastal Road. Image courtesy of ERI and NAU.

However, much of the region’s protected areas occurs as a patchwork on the landscape. Approval of the MFC project would consolidate the 59,375 mi2 area across the tri-country area, resulting in the largest contiguous protected area in Central America. This decision would transform 93% of Belize’s terrestrial protected areas into a contiguous preserve and cast the country into the spotlight as a global leader in protected area management.

Currently, the MFC Coalition has secured financial support to acquire ~47 mi2 of the highest priority lands within the MFC boundary. By purchasing these lands, the coalition believes it will generate the necessary inertia to secure and purchase the remaining lands, says Gliselle Marin, ERI Maya Forest Corridor Officer.

This project is tremendously important for local communities. In 2020, ERI and the Wildlife Conservation Society conducted a survey of 412 households in 13 villages near the proposed MFC. They found that 77% of respondents believed protected areas provided clear community benefits and most recognized the importance of natural resource and wildlife conservation. Additionally, 81% still harvest medicinal plants, cohune palm nuts for cooking oil, cohune fronds for roofing material, and firewood for cooking–and 70% indicated they regularly hunt wild game–which can all be done sustainably.

Coastal Road pre-construction (left) and under construction (right). Before construction, several sections along the 37 mile road were nearly overtaken by vegetation. In this state, the road was not hazardous to wildlife. Images courtesy of Jut Wynne and Zhawn Poot.

Biologically, MFC would provide genetic connectivity for several IUCN Red-List threatened and endangered species including the jaguar, the Central American river turtle, the Central American spider monkey, and the Baird’s tapir. As jaguars have been documented moving between the protected areas to the north and south, the corridor would ensure their unhindered dispersal throughout Belize.

Further challenging the current polity is the paving of the Coastal Road, the country’s last unpaved major artery. Within the next year or so, the 37 mile brigadoon jungle route will become a paved thoroughfare.

Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, considered the crown gem of MFC, is flanked by this road. Supporting an astonishing biodiversity including 315 species of birds, 35 reptile and amphibian species, 40 butterfly species, 15 species of fishes, all five wild cat species known to Belize, and a panoply of mammal species, the paved road will raise challenges in managing these resources. Near-future impacts in and/or around the reserve include increased wildlife poaching, animal-vehicle collisions, new developments, agricultural expansion, and clandestine logging.

While this paved road will inevitably affect the movements of the jaguar and tapir, wildlife underpasses will be installed. Kayla Hartwell, Director of Runaway Creek Nature Reserve indicated that she and her staff are working closely with the Ministry of Infrastructure Development. They will be installing underpasses at locations where jaguar and tapir are known to cross. However, whether these animals will actually use the underpasses remains to be seen.

In 2019, I worked with Runaway Creek biologists to characterize the reserve’s cave biodiversity. Our overarching goal was to acquire the information to suffuse the significance of cave biological resources into MFC planning, while highlighting the likely impacts that paving the road could have on sensitive cave resources.

See related: A jaguar nicknamed “Short-Tail” the first known to cross between Belize and Guatemala

Tracks of jaguar (left) and Morelet’s crocodile (right) from Runaway Creek caves. Images courtesy of Jut Wynne.

Caves provide roost habitat for many fruit bat species. These bats are critically important pollinators and seed dispersers. Their activities can actually regenerate tropical forests. Caves are also treasure troves of subterranean-adapted animals with often impressively narrow ranges. In other words, some cave-restricted species may occur within one cave, geologic formation, or mountain range and nowhere else on earth.

Other cave inhabitants included jaguar and Morelet’s crocodile. We found their tracks in most of the caves we visited. Humans have known of the jaguar’s proclivity for caves for more than a thousand years. The ancient Maya believed that as the sun sets it becomes a jaguar and enters a cave. Come morning, the jaguar exits the cave on the other side of the world and reemerges as the sun to complete the cycle.

Our knowledge of Morelet’s crocodiles cave use is far more recent. A crocodile was reported in a Runaway Creek cave about 20 years ago. However, it wasn’t until our study that we learned these animals were common underground residents.

Examples of subterranean-adapted invertebrates discovered during 2019 expedition, all believed to be new to science. [A] Harvestman (family Samoidae) with highly reduced eyes. [B] An eyeless Diplura (family Campodeidae) has cerci (or forked tail) nearly 4.5 times the length of the body. [C] This springtail (Family Entomobryidae) is highly subterranean-adapted as it is both eyeless and has antennae nearly 1.5 times the length of its body. [D] A translucent subterranean terrestrial isopod. Images courtesy of Jut Wynne.

There were also numerous bats. Mother bats nursing pups abounded – a resounding sign of undisturbed cave ecosystems. For subterranean-adapted species, we discovered at least 15 cave-specialized invertebrate species new to science.

Runaway Creek is a microcosm of the macrocosm. From surface to subsurface, a rich, impressive and largely untold biodiversity extends from the tri-country Selva Maya region deep into the Maya Mountains.

Although the future of the momentous MFC project remains uncertain, the benefits do not. The creation of a large contiguous network of protected areas spanning across Belize would provide a plethora of sustainable opportunities for local communities, while conserving some of the region’s most iconic wildlife species and their habitats.

With COVID-19 vaccinations rising globally, a steady stream of tourists will soon return to marvel over Belize’s biological diversity.

My hope is the corridor will be approved and a massive expanse of Central American rainforest will be fused together. With it, the sight of jaguars sauntering in and out of caves will continue to inspire Belizeans, and humanity in general, for many generations to come.

Jut Wynne is an Assistant Research Professor and a Conservation Ecologist at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.

Banner image: Northern boundary of Runaway Creek Nature Reserve (at left of Sibun River) showing approximately three miles of the riparian corridor. Drone image courtesy of Runaway Creek Nature Reserve and Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, Belize.

References

Environmental Research Institute. Maya Forest Corridor Household Surveys Summary. University of Belize Environmental Research Institute, Belmopan and Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY, Pp. 28 (2021).

Frick, W.F., Kingston, T., Flanders, J. A review of the major threats and challenges to global bat conservation. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1469, 5–25 (2020).

Lorenzana, G., Heidtmann, L., Haag, T., Ramalho, E., Dias, G., Hrbek, T., Farias, I., Eizirik, E. Large-scale assessment of genetic diversity and population connectivity of Amazonian jaguars (Panthera onca) provides a baseline for their conservation and monitoring in fragmented landscapes. Biol. Conserv. 242, 108417 (2020).