Biologists at the Lamanai Field Research Center in Belize run the Morelet’s crocodile research project.
The tiny Morelet’s crocodile moved furiously as it was pulled from the water, hissing like a cat and thrashing its scaly, armoured tail. Our field guide, Ruben Arévalo, stroked it under the chin and the reptile gurgled. Then, quick as flash, the guide slipped rubber bands around its snout.
“Crocodiles have very strong jaws,” Arévalo said, “but only when they bite down. The muscles for opening their mouths are weak. So you can keep a crocodile’s mouth shut with just a tiny bit of pressure.”
He turned the croc over unceremoniously and it lay transfixed, as if in a trance. Its hazel-green eyes glistened in the flashlight beam. Its belly was white as an egg, soft, dry and shiny like polished leather and undulating with breaths.
“‘It’s a girl”, Arévalo said, pointing to what were not obviously genitals. “Just a baby too – they get up to three metres.” The crocodile was only as long as his leg, but its teeth looked like needles. He weighed the reptile on a hand scale, pulled out a clipboard -- protected with plastic against the drizzling rain -- and made a series of notes. Then he took the rubber bands off and gently lowered the croc into the water. As soon as it hit the surface, it shot away in a splash into the warm tropical night.
Tourism to the Lamanai Outpost jungle lodge, in the wild heart of Belize, helps fund the Lamanai Field Research Center (LFRC) -- a not-for-profit venture established in 1992 to promote sustainable land use and tourism in the Central American country. The research centre works on a handful of conservational ventures, including ground-breaking research on the Americas’ biggest cat – the jaguar. Biologists at the LFRC run the Morelet’s crocodile research project, and thanks to field workers like Arévalo, the species’ population is growing in Belize.
The Morelet’s crocodile project is great fun for travellers too. Crocodile-tagging safaris, where researchers measure and label the crocs as part of a monitoring program, are night-time affairs, taken after a candlelit three-course meal of delicious reef fish washed down with chilled Chilean sauvignon blanc. On a recent trip, guests at the lodge shuffled down the path, through the scented tropical garden and onto the river bank, where they clambered into launches and headed off into the shallows of the New River.
There are few experiences more thrilling than tracking and capturing a wild crocodile in the dead of night, on a river in the heart of the Central American jungle. After only a few minutes, the lights of the Lamanai Outpost faded into velvety darkness and the only light was a brilliant shaft from the halogen lamp at the front of the boat. It flitted to and fro as the guide searched for the shine of a crocodile’s eye. The air was alive with moths and the chirrups of frogs and cicadas. And every now and again, there was a squawk and a splash as a heron or egret rushed startled into the night.
Then the guide spotted a pair of bright red lights in the weeds near the riverbank: crocodile eyes reflected in the lamp light. He cut the boat engine and drifted into the bank, hands over the edge of the boat, poised to grab the reptile from the water. Everyone sat on the edge of their seats and waited with bated breath.
Boats can find as many as half a dozen crocs in an hour-long trip, so it is hard to believe that just 50 years ago, Morelet’s crocodiles had been hunted to the brink of extinction; their gorgeous, satin-soft, olive-brown skin a favourite for bags and shoes. Today, there are thought to be some 10,000 in the wild, most of them in Belize.
But their survival is not assured. Morelet’s remain a threatened species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list, and as such, are conservation dependent.
“The survival of the Morelet's crocodile in Belize is threatened because of the development of their wetland habitat”, explained LFRC biologist Venetia Briggs. “We are collecting data on the growth and distribution of these species as part of a long-term monitoring project.”
Responsible tourism, she emphasised, is vital for the project and for the crocodile’s survival. Visitors to a place like the Lamanai Outpost put increased pressure on the need to preserve wildlife habitats, thus combining an unforgettable holiday experience with the opportunity to secure the future of a rare and beautiful wild animal.
After the sweaty, mosquito-filled safari, travellers can retire to the rustic-chic Lamanai Outpost lodge, where mood-lit rooms lie nestled on the riverbank near the vast and crumbling pre-Columbian Maya city of Lamanai. Most visits to the area include a wander around the ruins and perhaps a visit to a nearby Mennonite community. For a tiny country, Belize packs in astonishing diversity.