“If you want to avoid monkey poop, don’t stand under this strangler fig,” cautions Geraldine Fermin.
My daughters and I are standing in a forest clearing 90 minutes north of Belize City, gazing at a troop of eight black howler monkeys that stretch lazily in the branches of the tree directly above us. The 50 square kilometres they share with some 3,500 other monkeys is loosely known as the Community Baboon Sanctuary, an area comprising seven villages in which more than 200 villagers own land.
Its name can be confusing, since baboon is the creole word for monkey. But in 1985 the area was identified as containing one of the largest populations of black howler monkeys in North Central America. Somehow, a group of concerned citizens persuaded the villagers to refrain from the slash-and-burn practices that were previously destroying the monkeys’ habitat. With this loose promise the black howler monkeys’ longevity has been safeguarded - for now, at least.
The vegetarian primates stare down at us, showing little interest until Fermin, our guide, heads into the forest and returns with one of their favourite foods: the leaves of a trumpeter plant. With some encouragement an adult black howler hangs low enough from her branch to retrieve the offering, munching thoughtfully on the leaves before returning to the safety of higher branches.
The howler monkeys got their name from their howl, a loud, guttural sound that rips through the quiet and can be heard from over a mile away. Usually they roar at the start and end of each day in order to space themselves from other troops, or to warn other troops that they are nearby and don’t necessarily appreciate company. Troops have their own boundaries and territory, with little tolerance for other troops in their immediate areas. But Fermin is somewhat of a howler monkey specialist.
Cupping her hands together she emits a throaty roar that sounds more like a predatory bear than anything else. After a few minutes a monkey purses his lips and howls back, his roar infinitely more resonant and powerful. It’s a primeval sound that catches your attention instantly.
The monkeys’ delicate, jet-black features are so intelligent and human-like that my daughters are in awe. “They look so much like us,” says one, as she watches a three-month-old primate play with its mother, seeking attention by touching her face. A protective one-year-old nearby tries to play mom by enfolding the infant in its embrace, but the baby moves away, determined to claim adult attention instead. “Can we touch them?” my daughter asks longingly.
“We can get close to them but we don’t ever pet them,” Fermin answers firmly.
It’s early afternoon on a searing hot day in Belize and the humidity has left the monkeys as robbed of energy as their human spectators. Content to lounge in the strangler fig, they will move later in the day into the middle and higher canopies of the forest. The troops eat, sleep and travel together, older females often tending to other infants besides their own in the troop.
It’s women that oversee the Community Baboon Sanctuary as well. Female representatives from the seven villages manage and run the operation, and with funding from a Belize conservation trust they’ve created initiatives to bring income to the villagers and thereby discourage them from resorting to destructive slash-and-burn practices.
“Seven families so far have received tilapia ponds where they can raise and sell tilapia,” says Fermin. Another six families have received funding to make home improvements so they can rent out a room as a bed and breakfast. Guiding visitors to see the black howler monkeys is another way villagers can earn an income, and one Fermin relies on.
For the 45-minutes she spends teaching us about the monkeys, their behavior and their habitat, she confesses she’ll make $1.25 per person. I reach into my pocket for a $10 bill to offer as a tip, suddenly embarrassed at our comparative affluence and deeply appreciative of her heartfelt concern for the monkeys’ safety, given her own precarious financial existence.
We’d been glad to escape the bustling town Fort George in Belize City that day, as four cruise ships converged on the city of 70,000 and disgorged somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 passengers and crew for several hours of exploration. Avoiding the heavily booked cruise ship excursions, we’d instead hired a private guide to take us north into the countryside, past Belizean fast food stands offering hazelnut wine and cold coconuts, and past large iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks.
“The iguanas are safe until they start laying eggs,” explained Lascelle Tillet, our guide and director of S&L Travel Tours, as we barreled north. “At that point they become meatier, and locals like to catch and eat them.”
Our destination was Crooked Tree, the country’s first wildlife sanctuary, an inland island that spans 16,400 acres and is a birdwatcher’s heaven. Parking at the lagoon-side hotel we hopped into a boat and headed out on the shallow lagoon. We’d come at a good time for birding, Tillet said, for the lagoon was only four feet deep in February, but swells in depth at other times of the year.
A snail kite watched us warily from a tree while four varieties of egrets picked their way along the shoreline. The trees were a mass of great and snowy white egrets interspersed with black cormorants, a polka-dotted background against the green foliage. Brown jacana nested on the waterlilies and a roseate spoonbill flashed its exquisite pink feathers as it crossed the lagoon. Home to Morlett crocodiles up to 14 feet long at maturity, the lagoon is more sanctuary than swimming hole. But the crocs didn’t worry village cattle, who waded into the middle of the lagoon to escape the heat and feed on the water lilies. On the bank, a few meters from our boat, a massive black hawk ripped a fish apart. The breeze in our hair, we were surrounded by Belizean wildlife, returning to the cruise ship humbled by its sheer beauty and careful conservation.