By Jeremy Radachowsky

[This is the first blog in a series documenting the 5,000-mile “megaflyover” by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to survey Central America’s extraordinary forests via airplane.]

We are here to fly. Today we begin our 5,000-mile “megaflyover” through Central America to document the state of the region’s great forests, starting in the vast Maya Forest of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico.

“Tiny” cavern in Belize’s Chiquibul Forest Reserve, at the heart of the Maya Mountains. Photo ©WCS.
“Tiny” cavern in Belize’s Chiquibul Forest Reserve, at the heart of the Maya Mountains. Photo ©WCS.

However, the day starts underground. “This is a small cave” says Rafael Manzanero of the Belizean organization Friends for Conservation and Development.

This is small? The gurgle of a stream echoes off the cave ceiling 60 feet above, and the walls spread far enough apart from each other to play a game of tennis. I feel very tiny in this “small” cave.

Megaflyover team outfitting their plane with video equipment prior to departure. Photo ©WCS.
Megaflyover team outfitting their plane with video equipment prior to departure. Photo ©WCS.

Chiquibul National Park, in the heart of Belize’s Maya Mountains, hosts the largest caverns in the western hemisphere. The caves hold the mystique of history, harboring offerings that the ancient Maya left 1,200 years ago, as well as mammal bones from the early Holocene 12,000 years ago.

Fittingly, accompanying me is Ani Cuevas (“Cuevas” means “Caves” in Spanish) of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). We are flying together on the inaugural leg of the Central American flyover and collaborating to support the conservation of Central America’s five largest forest landscapes.

Flying over the pristine heart of the Maya Mountains at Bladen Nature Reserve, Belize. Photo ©WCS.
Flying over the pristine heart of the Maya Mountains at Bladen Nature Reserve, Belize. Photo ©WCS.

“How do you explain the importance of this incredible forest to the people of Belize?” asks Ani.

“In one word, water,” says Rafael. The headwaters of Belize’s largest rivers start in the Maya Mountains, run through underground caverns, and provide the water for most of the country.

The forests also help balance the world’s climate and ensure that sedimentation doesn’t smother the corals of the world’s second largest barrier reef, just off Belize’s shore to the east of us.

Map of Central American Megaflyover. Photo ©WCS.
Map of Central American Megaflyover. Photo ©WCS.

Representing WCS and USFWS, Ani and I are interested in preserving these forests not only for the vital services they provide to humanity, but also because they provide habitat for some of the world’s most impressive wildlife, including the jaguar, Baird’s tapir, and scarlet macaw. We are here to evaluate this great forest from above.

We drive out of the forest on a dirt road to the airstrip at Central Farm. After an hour mounting our sophisticated camera equipment on the Cessna 172 in the hangar, we are finally in the air. Our downward-facing SLR camera starts snapping high resolution images every five seconds. We use a Bluetooth-connected tablet in the cabin to check our strut-mounted video cameras. Everything seems to be working properly.

Agricultural plots within Belize’s protected areas near the Guatemalan border. Photo ©WCS.
Agricultural plots within Belize’s protected areas near the Guatemalan border. Photo ©WCS.

We start off flying south along the disputed frontier between Guatemala and Belize. There is no mistaking the border – on the Belizean side is forest as far as the eye can see. In stark contrast, the Guatemalan side is almost completely denuded.

As we fly over the pristine heart of the Maya Mountains at Belize’s Bladen Nature Reserve, it is evident where colonists have made incursions into Belize. Rectangular plots have been cleared for agriculture amidst the intact forest, increasing tensions between the two countries. Some plots are extremely fresh, with still-green trees lying flat against the earth.

Scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera) at Las Cuevas Research Station, Chiquibul Forest Reserve, Belize. Photo ©WCS.
Scarlet macaw (Ara macao cyanoptera) at Las Cuevas Research Station, Chiquibul Forest Reserve, Belize. Photo ©WCS.

We next fly over the deeper, more intact parts of Chiquibul National Park, Bladen Nature Reserve, and Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, where sharp, mist-enshrouded limestone peaks poke out of the forest. The Cessna climbs to pass over the mountains and the air temperature drops. Since we are flying with the door of the plane removed, we shiver as the cold, damp wind flutters through our light, tropically-appropriate clothes.

We cannot see them from above, but even in these more remote parts of the forest, prospectors take advantage of the craggy limestone terrain to avoid detection while illegally panning for gold, extracting timber, hunting, and poaching wildlife.

View from the plane during the Central American Megaflyover. Photo ©WCS.
A camera mounted to the expedition’s Cessna 172 takes high resolution images every five seconds.  Photo ©WCS.

In fact, sightings of the white-lipped peccary, the “canary in the coal mine” of Central America’s forests, have become extremely rare. According to Rafael, there has only been one sighting of white-lips in the Chiquibul in the past two years and the remaining herd is very small, a clear sign of hunting pressure.

Despite the threats, government officials and valiant rangers from both countries are protecting these forests. The Belizean Forest Department is reviewing key legislation and developing a national compliance strategy for its protected areas. Community forest managers in Guatemala protect vast tracts of forest through sustainable use.

Passengers on the inaugural flight of the Central American Megaflyover: Victor Hugo Ramos of WCS; Ani Cuevas of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and Jeremy Radachowsky of WCS. Photo ©WCS.
Passengers on the inaugural flight of the Central American Megaflyover: Victor Hugo Ramos of WCS; Ani Cuevas of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and Jeremy Radachowsky of WCS. Photo ©WCS.

Other groups, such as the Ya’axche Conservation Trust in Belize and Asociacion Balam in Guatemala, are working to improve local livelihoods through agroforestry systems like cacao. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is providing much-needed funding to these local partners to ensure enduring solutions for this important landscape.  And binational collaboration around natural resource protection is leading the charge for diplomatic discussions between the two countries.

The Maya Forest – Central America’s largest forest – is biologically magnificent, and its protection is vital for our planet and its people. We must do everything in our power to make sure this great forest continues to thrive.

Now, off to Central America’s next great forest – the Moskitia of Honduras and Nicaragua.

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Dr. Jeremy Radachowsky is Director of the Mesoamerica and Western Caribbean region at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

National Geographic