Baboon Sanctuary

Les Beletsky

Howler Monkey
Excerpted from Belize and Northern Guatemala: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide

The Community Baboon Sanctuary, near Bermudian Landing is located just 43 km (27 miles) from Belize City, this sanctuary is located along a 33 km (20 mile) length of the Belize River. The Community Baboon Sanctuary is a cooperative venture of private landowners (many of whom are subsistence farmers), conservationists and their organizations, and biological researchers. Their common aim is, by attracting and charging small fees to environmentally-aware visitors, to preserve extensive forest habitat for a large population of wild primates (the so-called "baboons," actually Black Howler Monkeys) and, coincidentally, for all the other wild animals and plants that inhabit the region.

Dr. Robert Horwich, a biologist from the USA, was instrumental in establishing the sanctuary. He arrived in the area in 1981 to study the howler monkeys, and quickly became aware of the shrinking populations of the species (which is limited to Belize, northern Guatemala, and Mexico's Yucatin region). The obvious cause: continued cutting and burning of the forest habitat in which the monkeys lived. In 1984 Horwich and colleagues approached villagers in the area with the idea of forming a cooperative wildlife sanctuary in which all participants might benefit: the local landowners would agree to preserve their remaining forested lands for the benefit of wildlife and to practice farming methods consistent with habitat preservation in return for help with farming, soil erosion control, healthy water management, and participation in ecotourism. Thus, the local people benefit by learning better farming practices, by helping to preserve wildlife and natural habitats, and, for some, by providing paid services (guided tours, restaurants, bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations) to visitors. The animals benefit because their living space is preserved, and researchers and ecotourists benefit because the animals and habitats are available for study and viewing.

Formally established in 1985 with only 11 landowners participating, the Community Baboon Sanctuary now includes lands owned by more than 100 families and involves about 8 villages along about 32 km (20 miles) of the Belize River. Each participating landowner agrees to follow a customized plan for using their lands. The main agreement is to leave enough bits of forest standing, particularly along waterways and between properties, for howler monkeys and other wildlife to survive and prosper. Trees the animals feed in must be left standing and continuous bands of trees must be left intact so that the monkeys can travel in the trees from one place to another. The efforts are paying off: the sanctuary, which held perhaps 800 howler monkeys at its inception, now has an even larger population (more than 2000 individuals during the mid-1990s) - a population so healthy that monkeys are taken from this area for reintroduction to other parts of Belize - most notably, to the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Belize. Sanctuary plans are eventually to extend its brand of habitat self-preservation to enough land to link the sanctuary with other reserves to the north (Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary) and east.

The Baboon Sanctuary has four goals: conservation, education, research, and tourism. Visitors to the sanctuary, including many local school classes and travelling school groups from other countries, as well as tour groups and independent ecotravellers, are given guided tours during which wildlife and vegetation are pointed out and local culture discussed. A small museum describes local ecological communities and shows off some of the animals and plants found in the sanctuary. Researchers use the site to study the howler monkeys, as well as other species. Volunteers from around the world, living with local families, help to staff the sanctuary and assist the researchers. All-in-all, it's a successful - and by now much imitated - example of how mutually-beneficial partnerships between local communities and conservationists, with the crucial ingredient of ecotourism thrown into the mix, can be established to preserve wildlife and habitats.

This is an excerpt from the author's Belize and Northern Guatemala: The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide, (Academic Press, 1998). Contact the author via email at ecotravel8@aol.com.