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

  • With nearly 40% of its land under protection, Belize is already making a significant contribution to IUCN’s post-2020 biodiversity framework of conserving 30% of the planet by 2030.
  • Now, conservationists hope to create the Mayan Forest Corridor, connecting the immense Mayan Forest of Belize in the northwest of the country to the network of protected areas of the Mayan Mountain Range in southern Belize.
  • It would also connect these areas of Belize with the adjacent protected areas of La Selva Maya in Guatemala and Mexico, and would become the largest rainforest reserve north of the Amazon, a haven for threatened and endangered species, including the jaguar, the Central American river turtle and the spider. monkey and Baird’s tapir.
  • “I hope the corridor will be approved and a large expanse of Central American rainforest amalgamated,” writes a Northern Arizona University research professor in this comment. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Belize is poised to protect the key component of the largest rainforest reserve north of the Amazon. In April 2021, the Nature Conservancy and a consortium of conservation organizations purchased 368.75 mi2 in the northwestern expanse of the country, which is now the Mayan Forest of Belize. This zone connects the protected areas of Belize and the adjacent protected areas of La Selva Maya in Guatemala and Mexico. In southern Belize, the Maya Mountains range contains a network of protected areas.

Between laying ~ 124 mi2 uncertainty, which environmentalists hope will soon become the Mayan Forest Corridor (MFC).

Sadly, Belize, like many other countries that rely primarily on tourism, has been plunged into economic hardship due to travel restrictions due to the pandemic. As a result, the Belizean government has to make some tough choices that would have been a daily occurrence just over a year ago. Decisions such as the approval of protected areas with associated tax deferrals were regularly taken. Today, government officials are forced to consider other unsustainable land use alternatives that come with a guaranteed tax revenue stream.

With almost 40% of its land under protection, Belize is already making a significant contribution to post-2020 biodiversity framework to preserve 30% of the planet by 2030. According to Elma Kay, scientific director of the Environmental research institute, University of Belize (ERI), “For a small country with a tiny population, having all of this land under protection is truly an accomplishment.”

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

Map showing the extent of the largest proposed rainforest preserve in Central America, including the Maya Forest Corridor, Runaway Creek Nature Preserve, and the Coastal Road. Image provided by ERI and NAU.

However, much of the region’s protected areas appear as a patchwork of the landscape. Approval of the MFC project would consolidate the 59,375 mi2 in the three-country zone, resulting in the largest contiguous protected area in Central America. The move would transform 93% of Belize’s terrestrial protected areas into a contiguous reserve and put the country in the spotlight as a world leader in protected area management.

Currently, the MFC Coalition has secured financial support to acquire ~ 47 mi2 of the highest priority lands within the boundaries of the CFM. By purchasing this land, the coalition believes it will generate the inertia necessary to secure and purchase the remaining land, said Gliselle Marin, ERI’s Mayan Forest Corridor manager.

This project is extremely 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 that protected areas provided clear benefits for the community and most recognized the importance of conserving natural resources and wildlife. Additionally, 81% still harvest medicinal plants, palm kernels for cooking oil, cohune fronds for roofing material, and firewood for cooking – and 70% said they hunt regularly wild game – which can be done in a sustainable way.

Before construction of the coastal road (left) and under construction (right). Prior to construction, several sections along the 37-mile highway were almost overgrown. In this state, the road was not dangerous for 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, Central American river turtle, Central American spider monkey, and Baird’s tapir. As jaguars have been documented moving between protected areas to the north and south, the hallway would ensure their unimpeded dispersal throughout Belize.

The paving of the coastal road, the last major unpaved artery in the country, poses an additional challenge for current politics. In about a year, the 37-mile Brigadoon Jungle Road will become a paved thoroughfare.

Runaway Creek Nature Preserve, considered the crown jewel of MFC, is flanked by this road. Supporting an astonishing biodiversity comprising 315 species of birds, 35 species of reptiles and amphibians, 40 species of butterflies, 15 species of fish, the five species of wild cats known in Belize and an array of mammal species, the route tarmac will raise challenges in their management. Resources. Short-term impacts in and / or around the reserve include increased poaching of wildlife, collisions between animals and vehicles, new developments, expansion of agriculture and illegal exploitation.

While this paved road will inevitably affect the movements of the jaguar and tapir, underpasses for wildlife will be installed. Kayla Hartwell, director of Runaway Creek Nature Reserve, said she and her staff are working closely with the Department of Infrastructure Development. They will install underpasses where the jaguar and tapir are known to cross. However, it remains to be seen whether these animals will actually use the underground passages.

In 2019, I worked with biologists from Runaway Creek to characterize the biodiversity of the caves of the reserve. Our overarching goal was to acquire the information necessary to imbue the importance of cave living resources in MFC planning, while also highlighting the likely impacts that road paving could have on sensitive cave resources.

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

Jaguar (left) and Morelet crocodile (right) tracks from Runaway Creek caves. Images courtesy of Jut Wynne.

Caves provide roosting habitat for many species of fruit bats. These bats are critically important pollinators and seed dispersers. Their activities can actually regenerate tropical forests. Caves are also animal treasures suitable for undergrounds with often impressive beaches. In other words, some cave-restricted species can be found in a cave, geological formation, or mountain range and nowhere else on earth.

Other cave dwellers included Morelet’s jaguar and crocodile. We found their traces in most of the caves we visited. Humans have known about the jaguar’s propensity for caves for over a thousand years. The ancient Mayans believed that when the sun goes down, it becomes a jaguar and enters a cave. In the morning, the jaguar leaves the cave on the other side of the world and reappears under the sun to complete the cycle.

Our knowledge of the use of the Morelet crocodile caves is much more recent. A crocodile has been reported in a cave in Runaway Creek about 20 years ago. However, it was only during our study that we learned that these animals were common underground residents.

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

There were also many bats. Nursing mother bats abounded – a resounding sign of undisturbed cave ecosystems. For species adapted to undergrounds, we have discovered at least 15 species of invertebrates specialized in caves, new to science.

Runaway Creek is a microcosm of the macrocosm. From the surface to the subsoil, a rich, impressive and largely incalculable biodiversity extends from the region of the three countries of Selva Maya to the Maya mountains.

While the future of the important MFC project remains uncertain, the benefits are not. Creating a vast contiguous network of protected areas spanning all of Belize would provide a plethora of sustainable opportunities for local communities, while preserving some of the region’s most iconic wildlife and their habitats.

With COVID-19 vaccinations increasing around the world, a steady stream of tourists will soon return to marvel at Belize’s biological diversity.

Hopefully the corridor will be approved and a vast expanse of Central American rainforest merged. With him, the sight of jaguars roaming 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 conservation ecologist at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.

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

The references

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

Frick, WF, Kingston, T., Flanders, J. A review of the main threats and challenges to global bat conservation. Ann. NY 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 connectivity of Amazonian Jaguar populations (Panthera onca) provides a baseline for their conservation and monitoring in fragmented landscapes. Biol. Conserv. 242, 108417 (2020).

Comments, conservation, corridors, ecosystems, environment, forests, national parks, parks, protected areas, tropical forests, tropical forests, tropics, fauna, wildlife corridors

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Douglas Mackenzie

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