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Photo by Dance Aoki

It is 6:30 pm and it is completely dark at Ya’axché’s Golden Stream Corridor Preserve Ranger Field Station. This simple station is a two-bedroom house built on tall risers above a laboratory. Local avian wildlife sings from the tops of nearby ya’axché, or cotton trees. Pastor, the ranger on duty this evening, checks his email on the house computer with what remains of the battery. All of the station’s electricity comes from solar power, however, the past few days have been cloudy and there just isn’t any electricity to spare. Under the cover of darkness, this field station’s beauty dims from view and its strict utility comes to the forefront.

I’ve been given the rare opportunity to stay at the field station and join the rangers on an early morning hike along one of their regular routes as they collect data about the health of the preserve’s ecosystems. In the past, the forest was depleted of its precious natural resources faster than it could replenish itself. Now, thanks to conservation organizations like Ya’axché Conservation Trust, the rare flora and fauna of this preserve and also the Bladen Nature Reserve just to the north are flourishing under the stewardship of the rangers. The Golden Stream Corridor Preserve stretches from the Maya Mountains down to the coast and is cut in half by the southern highway that leads to Punta Gorda, Belize’s southernmost city. The ranger station perches alongside this highway, enabling rangers to watch over wildlife species such as the rare and beautiful jaguar that sometimes cross over the highway.

It’s still dark when we rise, but the black is fading to a sweet, deep indigo on the horizon, casting a silhouette of the forest canopy against the morning sky. I check the exposed areas of my skin for bites: all clear! No midnight attacks from mosquitoes anywhere on my person! Pastor heats a pot of water for tea and instant coffee in the kitchen. While it boils, he leans on the banisters of the veranda and points out the different trees and birds on the property.

“That tree right there. That is used by the bush doctors in my village for snake bites,” he tells me.

A dented, green Toyota pickup truck covered in mud rolls up in front of the station. The head ranger, known as Moon, and the third ranger, Vigilio, are dressed in camouflage jackets and rubber boots. Moon drives us along a muddy trail that leads deep into the preserve. We bump along, breathing in the smell of morning dew.

“Today the rangers are going to be monitoring the birds and mammals that pass through this kilometer-long transect,” Moon explains to me, dropping us off at the end of the trail. “They have to cross over part of the river, so you’ll be getting your feet wet.” Feeling confident and up to the challenge, I tug on my rubber Wellington boots and follow Pastor and Vigilio into the bush.

This transect follows the Golden Stream River – a striking gold-flecked turquoise snaking between the dark green shadows of dense foliage on either side. It’s easy to imagine iguanas lounging in the tree branches, or perhaps even a jaguar. We reach our crossing point where the water comes up to my thighs; my feet are certainly wet. I trudge along after the rangers, wondering how I’m going to be able to keep up.

At the first monitoring stop, Vigilio stands and listens to the birdsongs around him for five minutes. Pastor continues along a barely discernable path, taking his time and looking for evidence of pacas, agoutis, armadillos, precious tapirs and jaguars. He shows me a cohune nut that had been nibbled on by a paca, pointing out tiny teeth marks. I appreciate the care with which Pastor and Vigilio are making their observations, because it reflects their dedication to protecting the preserve… and I don’t have to worry about slowing them down at the rate they’re going.

In the middle of our hike, we stop and listen to the faint sound of a howler monkey roaring a mile away. Pastor turns to me and asks me if I heard it. I’m not sure if the odd noise I hear is a howler monkey, but he smiles, knowing that the sound he heard was indeed a howler. This is an exciting find. After a hurricane tore through the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve a few years ago, many species of animals, including the howlers, had to find another place to live because their habitat had been destroyed. Hearing one of them call across the forest could mean that the area is healthy enough for them to make their return.

By 8 am, we’ve completed our day. Pastor and Vigilio pick up the pace returning to the mud trail where Moon dropped us off. We hear the Toyota revving, the bones of the machine heaving along the uneven trail. Moon makes a swift and expert three-point turn, and with the engine running, we climb in to head back the way we came.

The magic of what the rangers do lies in their connection to nature, and the daily possibility of seeing Belize’s most precious creatures living in their natural environment. As stewards of this place, they’re scientist-sheriffs who spent their childhoods exploring the bush and now are in charge of protecting it. I’m honored to have followed in their footsteps this morning. I’ll be able to take home the memory of experiencing something incredibly and increasingly rare.