One Baby At A Time
At 11 years old, Jamal Galves knew that manatees would be his life. As a child playing the lawn of his grandparents house, he would watch their hulking figures float by, imitating the researchers who trailed behind them. He saw them tagging the massive gray animals, drawing blood samples and even recording their every exhale. Since then, Galves, now aptly known as "the manatee man," has made manatees his life.
Galves, now the Belize Manatee Project Program Coordinator in his home village of Gales Point Manatee, is still, in his own words, "just that kid trying to save manatees." But now he's got a lot more sway than the teenager who was working for free on the researchers' boat, cleaning and observing until he finally got a chance to participate.
There are several serious threats that have combined to make manatees one of the most threatened marine mammals in the world. Once traditionally hunted by indigenous people, now humans have figured out other ways to harm them. Ship strikes are one of the most common causes of death or injury, because boaters often ignore the wake bans in manatee habitats. Manatees can hear approaching boats, but often move too slowly to get out of the way.
Galves says that while no-wake zones are clearly marked, enforcement is meager and people often don't slow down.
"A lot of it has to do with peoples' lack of understanding or appreciation for manatees," he said. "They have no respect for wake zones or no reason to comply. To me, it seems like a small, easy thing for them to comply and just slow down."
This coupled with pollution, loss of valuable coastal habitat like mangroves, and (still) the threat of poaching have been disastrous for the species in recent years.
Sadly, some of the hardest hit are also the youngest, Galves said.
"If a mother and her calf are feeding and a boat comes, the mother's first instinct is to run. They communicate using chirps at a low volume, and it's very difficult for them to get back together [after they've been separated]."
Shelley Bowen Stonesifer
This is where Galves and his team usually come to the rescue. When they spot an abandoned manatee calf or hear of a report, Galves springs into action, collecting the orphan, who is usually dehydrated and on the brink of death.
He usually has to borrow a truck and a boat to reach the animal, and then brings her to a rehabilitation center. He nurses her back to health with imported bottle milk, preparing her for reintroduction to the wild.
The incidences of these orphans are increasing -- when Galves was younger, there would be about one calf rescue in a year. Now, there are three or four in just one year alone. For manatees, who number at about 1,000 and have low reproductive rates, losing just one of these calves is a tragedy.
But thanks to Galves and his team, the calves -- and the rest of Belize's manatees -- are getting a fighting chance.
"Some people are meant to be manatee conservationists, and thats what I am," he said, explaining that manatees' essential role to the ecosystem is reason enough to want to save them at any cost.
But because the costs of rehabilitation are so high (one bottle of milk -- which a manatee calf needs every two hours -- costs a whopping 14 to 17 U.S. dollars), Galves and his team have set up online fundraising platforms and are imploring people to help save Belize's manatees.
You can donate to get Galves a rescue truck and boat here, and for much-needed rehabilitation infrastructure here.
You can also learn more about how to help Belize's manatees at Protect Our Manatees Belize and the Sea To Shore Alliance.
In his home village of Gales Point Manatee, he has always been, in his words, “just that kid trying to save manatees.” As a child playing in his grandparents’ front yard Galves could watch researchers study and tag manatees, and a lifelong fascination was born. By the time he was a teen Galves was volunteering on the research boats, cleaning up and helping with various tasks.
Now, as the Belize Manatee Project Program Coordinator, he has even greater responsibility for caring for these gentle “sea cows”, taking on the roles of saviour, nurse, advocate and defender of endangered manatees.
“Some people are meant to be manatee conservationists, and that’s what I am,” he says simply. In addition to an obvious love of manatees themselves, he also points to their essential role in the ecosystem as another reason to protect them and ensure their survival.
So Belize’s “Manatee Man” as he is known, spends his days on all things manatee, and can be seen rescuing their babies, who sometimes are separated or orphaned from their slow moving mothers.
“If a mother and her calf are feeding and a boat comes, the mother’s first instinct is to run. They communicate using chirps at a low volume, and it’s very difficult for them to get back together,” he said.
So it’s Jamal and his crew to the rescue, collecting the strays, nursing them back to health, and then reintroducing them back into the wild.
He often needs to borrow a truck and or a boat to get to the calf before taking it to a rehabilitation centre where they use expensive, specially formulated imported milk to nurse the babies back to health. It’s time consuming work, and it’s getting busier all the time. Galves once conducted about one rescue a year, and he’s been out on some four rescues this year alone.
Although people have, for the most part, stopped hunting manatees over the last decades (they once were a valuable source of food in remote seacoast villages), increased boat traffic up and down Belize’s stunning Caribbean coast and cayes has created a new danger – boat strikes.
Yes, unfortunately man is once again a major threat to the manatees, and this time due more to carelessness than intent.
Belize has come a long way in identifying manatee habitats and creating “no wake” zones to protect them, but getting people to comply is another thing.
“A lot of it has to do with peoples’ lack of understanding or appreciation for manatees,” he said. “They have no respect for wake zones or no reason to comply. To me, it seems like a small, easy thing for them to comply and just slow down,” Galves said.
These strikes, combined with pollution, loss of mangroves and other habitat, as well as occasional poaching continue to threaten the manatee’s survival as a species. And when you consider that there are only about 1,000 of these beautiful animals in Belize, the loss of even one adult or calf is serious. And Galves’ role in protecting them is more valuable than ever.
So once again we have a good news/bad news story. The bad news is that manatees are threatened and continue to face increasing dangers such as boating strikes and habitat pressure. The good news is that people like Jamal Galves have risen to the challenge and are working hard to mitigate the effects their fellow humans are having on manatees and other species.
Chaa Creek blog