Signs of recovery 13 years after Hurricane Iris

Maarten Hofman, until recently Research Coordinator with Ya’axch� Conservation Trust, now FONASO PhD Candidate, shares his thoughts on a recovering ecosystem. He recalls the joy of witnessing the first signs of a species returning since Hurricane Iris cleared most of its habitat 13 years ago.

In 1998, Ya’axch� Conservation Trust, with the help from Fauna & Flora International, Grassvalley Trust and IUCN, acquired the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve, a 15,000 acre area in southern Belize, mostly consisting of secondary forests.

At that time, the area had been subject to both indiscriminate and selective logging, underbrushing and limited agricultural activities such as slash-and-burn and small scale cattle ranching. The corridor preserve was recovering from these disturbances and in some areas, timber trees were expected to take at least 15 years to reach harvestable size again. Despite the disturbed nature of the forest, several tree dwelling species, including howler and spider monkeys, reportedly inhabited the tree crowns, albeit in low numbers.

Howler monkey. Credit: Erik Hammar

Howler monkey. Credit: Erik Hammar

The objective of the land acquisition was the establishment, safeguarding and recovery of a healthy rainforest corridor along the Golden Stream river that would connect the submontane forests of the Maya Mountain Massif with the lowland forests and mangroves of the Caribbean coast. This connection would help to maintain access to living and foraging habitat for species such as jaguar, Baird’s tapir, peccaries and howler monkeys.

The winds pick up…

However, on 8 October 2001, a destructive category IV hurricane named Iris struck southern Belize, and cleared the preserve and surrounding areas from all standing vegetation, with the exception of some of the most flexible palms and the sturdiest of cotton trees (aka Ceiba tree or Ya’axch�). The affects on the local fauna were not any less. Larger tree dwelling species such as the tamandua, porcupine, Yucatan squirrel and spider and howler monkey were severely affected.

Hurricane Iris wiped out most of the vegetation - and the wildlife - of Ya'axche. Credit: Ya'axche Conservation Trust

Hurricane Iris wiped out most of the vegetation - and the wildlife - of the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve. Credit: Ya'axch� Conservation Trust

Luckily, unlike the areas surrounding the preserve, no major escaped agricultural fires affected the area and left the damaged forest to its own recovery. Nonetheless, the hurricane put the envisioned function of the corridor preserve on the line: what would be the consequences of the loss of habitat for all wildlife populations and specifically the arboreal species? How fast would the forest recover and what would it come to look like?

The forest rises

Just over 13 years after Hurricane Iris, the pictures don't lie.

Ya'axche as it looks today - thirteen years post Hurricane Iris. Credit: Kevin Wells/Ya'axche

The Golden Stream Corridor Preserveas it looks today - 13 years post Hurricane Iris. Credit: Kevin Wells/Ya'axch�

The regenerative power of the forest has proven strong. Several trees have sprouted from their fallen trunks and areas that used to be under cultivation have gained 5-10m high woody vegetation with a dense understorey. Mahogany and guanacaste trees planted in the yard of Ya'axch�'s Golden Stream field centre in the years after the hurricane have grown over 8m tall.

However, in most of the preserve the recovering ecosystem is still in its initial stages and few of the original arboreal inhabitants have made it back. Ya'axch�'s field rangers regularly spot jaguar, tapir and other large mammal tracks during their monthly biodiversity monitoring efforts, and also other more resilient ground-dwelling species such as foxes and jaguarundis are a relatively common sight.

Baird's tapir. Credit: Evan Bowen-Jones

Baird's tapir. Credit: Evan Bowen-Jones

Silent creatures of the night, living up the tree trunks, are harder to spot: margay, tamandua and porcupine might be around, but have not been reported since the hurricane. The same holds true for spider monkeys, but there seems to be hope for the howler monkeys.

Howler monkeys

In 2011, Ya'axch� rangers recorded the first sign of howler monkeys in the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve: the monkeys were heard howling from outside the preserve on the western side. An encouraging observation, and a potential sentinel for the recolonisation of the preserve. But it was not until January 2014 that the first sighting of howler monkeys in the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve since the hurricane was recorded by Ya'axch�'s rangers.

First signs of a returning howler monkey population are providing cause for measured celebration at Ya'axche. Credit: Erik Hammar

First signs of a returning howler monkey population are providing cause for measured celebration at Ya'axch�. Credit: Erik Hammar

This joyful news confirmed the positive environmental impact that Ya'axch�'s work means for the preserve. If we take a look at the rate of clearance of forest on the lands surrounding the corridor preserve, we can safely say that, if it weren't for the protection that Ya'axch� has put in place and maintained, the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve�would have been largely converted to agricultural land over the past 13 years.

A note of caution is in place here though. Everyone knows that ‘one swallow doesn't make a summer’, and thus we cannot assume that the habitat regeneration in the preserve has been sufficient for a guaranteed return of the howlers.

The steady increase of their presence is promising, but does by no means signify the accomplishment of our final goal. No permanent presence has been established, and the monkeys have not reached nearly the same population levels as other similar areas in Toledo.

Therefore, Ya'axch� interprets the first sign of the return of the howlers as an incentive to keep working on the preservation of the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve, and on the sustainable development of the surrounding villages to ensure a long-lasting balance between natural processes and human needs.