Zoo programme puts students in the thick of nature

If I appear a little bit dishevelled tonight it's because only a few hours ago I was slogging through the jungle south of La Democracia Village. The hike was part of a unique educational programme, run by the Belize Zoo, that teaches young people an appreciation for the wonders of Belize's environment ... by putting them in the thick of it.

Jacqueline Godwin, Reporting
The Runaway Creek Nature Preserve comprises six thousand acres of pristine tropical and pine forest. It’s managed by the organisation Birds without Borders, which has been using the location to do research on the area’s wildlife. The Belize Zoo and Tropical education Centre has also been using the preserve to give students a lesson in sustainable environment and development.

Celso Poot, Education Director, Belize Zoo
“We need for these youths to understand what we are talking about. If we want them to appreciate the environment we need them to experience it. We need to expose them to it.”

“Living in the cities and towns they take it for granted. They don’t know what is going on in the bushes, and it is very interesting.”

Jacqueline Godwin
“The trainers believe if these young men and women learn to appreciate the environment where they live, then they have made a giant leap towards saving the country’s natural resources. But are the campers really interested in what’s being taught?”

Lauren Bailey, Camper
“One thing they taught was that we need to plant more trees and help the environment. Because so many people are cutting down our trees, it is breaking up the environment. It is causing erosion, and we need to be able to plant more trees, so that is probably something I would do. Plant more plants, because there are so many different types of plants in Belize that we learned about this week.”

Celso Poot
“This is the thirteenth annual conservation camp being hosted by the zoo. This year we have twenty-eight youths with us from ages eight all the way to seventeen, so we have wide diverse age group as well as culture.”

Zhawn Poot, Camper
“Spread the word that people shouldn’t pollute, because if we pollute the trees will die. Then it will cause erosion.”

Jacqueline Godwin
“What do you think will happen to the birds that we saw if there are no more trees?”

Zhawn Poot, Camper
“They will move to a different country, and we won’t have any birds living here.”

Celso Poot
“One of the reasons why we are here is because if you look around, everywhere you look, look the same. One of the activities we did with them was to introduce them to map reading and using a compass. In an area like this it is ideal, because you get lost easily if you don’t know how to use your compass and your map.”

Justin Williams, Camper
"A binocular is to help you because it gives you more than twenty-twenty vision, so you can see things that are far away or smaller. The compass is to help you not get lost in trees, without paths and those kinds of stuff.”

The Preserve is teeming with all kinds of animal life including over two hundred different species of birds. Because it is private land and not much is known about the site there are hardly any human activity. One very important activity the campers experience was bird banding, from the time the bird is caught to when it is tagged and released.

Jacqueline Godwin
“A mist nest like this one is used to catch the birds. Because it is so fine, the birds are unable to see it when flying through the air. Once the bird drops into the safety pocket, the researchers are then able to collect the information they need.”

The study is crucial because researchers say they have also been noticing a decline in some of the bird species.

Mario Teul, Coordinator, Project, Birds without Borders
“Now we are finding out that some of the reasons are habitat lost. Because people tend to clear their land, tend to clear trees and birds are left without their proper habitat, so that is one reason for the decline of some bird species.”

The land is also home to a large collection Mahogany trees. The problem is that in addition to young conservationists, the national tree is also drawing illegal loggers. Some of whom were recently caught red handed.

Mario Teul
“We have a lot of illegal stuff going on. It is very hard to control it. That is why our guys are out here almost everyday just to try to maintain a presence here at Runaway Creek. Yes, last year we came across some illegal logging, because we do have a lot of huge Mahogany trees, mature Mahogany trees on the preserve. And these people are out there looking for easy money.”

Other treasures like limestone caves have also been discovered.

Mario Teul
“Recently we found a cave which had paintings in it, as well as a couple of skeletons.”

“Archaeologists have been out here, but they have not been able to give us a full report as yet. They are still working on it, but they think that it was probably a burial site or something like that.”

We decided to take the adventurous trip and trek the rugged trail to reach the cave. Fighting armies of mosquitoes, we carefully made our way through the thick jungle.

Jacqueline Godwin
“It should have been a thirty-five minute walk, but ten minutes into our journey we can no longer proceed. Recent rains have not only flooded the trail but out guides believe that crocodiles are also in the four foot deep murky water, so we have decided to turn back. It has become too risky. What we are now doing is heading towards another cave. The only good news is that this time we only need to walk another ten minutes before reaching the cave referred to as the “Campsite.”

The climb up the steep hill was no easy feat but once we all reached the top, it was worth the journey. Inside the cave we found clay pots and many different kinds of interesting rock formations. The young campers seem to have enjoyed their exploration and it was encouraging to hear that “Birds without Borders” is working on a plan to better manage the preserve.

Mario Teul
“We want to keep it as secured as possible. They will be areas where we may take tourist to or visitors to. For example, caves that may not contain any Maya artefacts, so then we can take people to those caves. But for caves where we have skeletons or where we have artefacts, we want to leave those as there are. We don’t intend to take people.”

The Zoo's conservation camp is sponsored by PACT.