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Expedition to Chiquibul Sinkhole
An historic expedition of a 425’ sinkhole located in the Chiquibul National Park of Belize may prove to reveal rare and possibly never-before-seen plants from the heart of the ancient Mayan civilization. The area’s scientific, historic, and cultural significance makes it a likely candidate for a UNESCO World Heritage site designation.
Selby Gardens’ Director of Botany Bruce Holst joined an international team for the first of several planned descents into the Nohoch Ch’en Sinkhole, one of the most biologically diverse and difficult to access natural environments in Belize.
“This project perfectly aligns with our mission at Selby Gardens to understand, conserve and bring awareness to threatened and endangered wild ecosystems in the tropical world,” said Jennifer O. Rominiecki, president and CEO of Selby Gardens. “We are delighted to play a role in the discoveries that will no doubt be uncovered by this team and pleased that we can help showcase the historical significance of this special place.”
In addition to Holst, the team included staff from Caves Branch Botanical Gardens in Belize, the Belize Forest Department, and a non-governmental agency, the Friends for Conservation Development. The 10-day expedition marked the first step in a year-long process to gather and document botanical specimens. Major logistical planning and funding for the expedition was provided by Eco Tourism outfitters and lodge, Mountain Equestrian Trails Ltd.
The sinkholes in the area sit atop the estimated 540,000 square-foot Chiquibul Cave System, the largest in Belize and the longest in Central America. The entire region is a veritable treasure chest of botanical, geological, and archeological wonders. The area has been a recent source of political tensions and conflict with neighboring Guatemala due to trespassing activity that threatens the region – specifically habitat degradation, fire damage, illegal logging, hunting, and gold extraction.
Of the 10-day expedition in and around the sinkhole Holst explained, “Through gathering scientific information and documenting this unknown region of the world (via living and preserved plant collections, photos, and video), we have acquired the first scientifically documented collection from the sinkhole area which provides a baseline for further studies that will assist in the conservation of the Chiquibul wilderness. We hope to return at different times of the year to continue exploration of this vast area and document plants flowering in other seasons”.
The only other known descent into the hole was by a group of British and Belizean explorers and biologists in 2000. While their trip was of shorter duration and did not yield biological collections, they painted a picture in their report summary of what would be found, including the presence of numerous epiphytic plants, which the current team was able to confirm. Work to study the collections is expected to continue over the course of a year and will result in a final report documenting the team’s findings and recommendations to the government of Belize.