Nestled in the far reaches of the Belize River Valley is the Rio Bravo Protected Area, a large and lushly forested zone where flora and fauna thrive. But like other protected areas countrywide, there is the need for constant surveillance and on the ground management to ensure that the nation’s natural riches are conserved and even enhanced for generations to come. It’s a full time job and a half, entrusted to the N.G.O., Programme for Belize. Today, that entity officially inaugurated a fire-tower at its conservation post in Hillbank, and our News Five team was there. Mike Rudon has the story.

Mike Rudon, Reporting

About half an hour from Rancho Dolores, over a road that the rains have rendered treacherous, is the Programme for Belize Conservation post at the eastern gate of the Rio Bravo protected area. Rio Bravo is a vast forest reserve, about a quarter million acres. It stretches from Rancho Dolores in the Belize River Valley all the way west to the Belize/Guatemala border. Programme for Belize is the N.G.O. tasked with monitoring, managing and preserving the area known and prized for its high biodiversity.

Edilberto Romero

Edilberto Romero, Executive Director, Programme for Belize

“It has twenty-one ecosystems which include aquatic ecosystems. It has eighty species of mammals including the jaguars, pumas, margays, ocelots, jaguarundis, peccaries, gibnuts, howler monkeys…there’s 15 mammal species of conservation concern. There’s three hundred and ninety species of birds, of which twenty percent are migratory species and twenty are species of conservation concern. It has two hundred species of trees – we’re talking about trees and not herbaceous plants…thirty species of freshwater fish and lots of insects, reptiles, frogs…it’s known for its high bio-diversity in the region, and of course it’s a major node that connects with the biological corridors in Guatemala and Mexico and the central and northern corridors in Belize.”

Apart from the logistical difficulties inherent in patrolling an area so immense, PFB Rangers are challenged by hunters, poachers and illegal loggers who take advantage of the very resources which make the area so naturally valuable.

Edilberto Romero

“The pine savannahs go all the way to the border. Pine savannahs are pretty much open so people could easily come to do hunting or poaching of yellow-head parrots. Those are major challenges for us. The people that come to do illegal logging in our area are people from the communities in our area, which means that we have to be working a lot with the communities. Our new management plan calls for a lot more communication outreach and advocacy so we will be working a lot more with the communities. We find that once we work a lot with the communities and we have our protection program working we keep it under control. But we can’t relax. We have two vehicles dedicated to protection. We have nine to ten rangers dedicated to protection and we have our entry points that have persons protecting it every day, twenty-four hours of the day.” 

Those are man-made challenges which are difficult to contain, and there is another challenge which is just as difficult to deal with. Fires are harder to predict, and have the potential to wreak terrible destruction. For the Rangers of the Rio Bravo, the first pillar of the fire management plan is the monitoring and detection of fires, and that where this sixty feet observation tower comes into play.

Edilberto Romero

“Once you detect a fire there are other steps that come in. We have people that would assess it to see if it could easily be suppressed, or it would naturally die because of where it is going, or whether we need to bring more equipment and people to deal with it. So what we had before is a small fire-tower that is just about forty feet high. That was done in 1990. It’s a single cement column tower which has passed its lifetime. It’s no longer safe, and it’s also low. So with the funding we got from PACT we were able to do this sixty feet, stainless steel fire tower and from there we have a higher view and we can see a larger area, basically the entire pine savannah so we could detect if there’s any fires coming in or starting.”

The tower has actually been in use since the last dry season, and was instrumental in the early detection of ten fires. Mike Rudon for News Five.

Today, Programme for Belize also spoke briefly about its management plan for the next five years where the Rio Bravo Protected Area is concerned.

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All Along The Watchtower

Today a new fire observation tower was inaugurated at the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. This management area is known as the largest private protected area and the best managed in Belize. That status is being maintained with the construction of a new fire observation tower at the management area. While its main purpose is to allow rangers to more effectively detect and control fires in the area –the Executive Director of Program for Belize says it’s serves as more than just a fire watch tower. We traveled to the management area today to find out more.

Courtney Weatherburne Reporting…

This single column 40 foot cement structure was erected in 1990 and served as the fire tower at the East Gate post of the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management area.

But it has over served its purpose and now it has been replaced with a larger, sturdier more modern fire observation tower. The new stainless steel tower has a 20 foot wide base and stands 60 feet high.

This folding stick chair - mouldy and old – rests at the top of the tower overlooking the wide-open landscape of lush shrubs and pine Savannah. It’s a breath taking view in the somber light of an overcast morning

But for the rangers who maintain this green terrain – it’s more than just a scenic view.

Edilberto Romero - Executive Director, Program for Belize

"From 6 o'clock in the morning they come here, they look at the yellow headed parrot nests. They do their patrols in the pine savannah at our borders, check any signs of people entering or hunting or illegal logging - any illegal activities. The ones that are here take a look on the fire tower at least 2 time for the day. In the evening it it's during the dry season they also check for yellow headed parrots or we just patrol hot spots of illegal logging. They also control the access and the gates at night - if there is any signs because I have to be monitoring that. They do night patrols, sometimes we do area patrols at times. If there's anything going on during the night that needs our presence they are always there. Rangers live here in the property for 2 weeks then they take a little break and then they come back again - so we always have rangers presence here 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."

It's quite an extensive management plan but a necessary one and the fire tower will enhance the effectiveness of on site operations.

Edilberto Romero - Executive Director, Program for Belize

"We can have a good look of all the pine savannahs in this area and further in the broad leaves forests, all the way up to hill bank field station. Or we can just have a good bird's eye view of what's going on and any fires in the area can easily be detected - and then the rangers can respond to it. If it's a fire that's big enough then we call in our fire crew which involves rangers, our forestry crew and of course the management staff. To the east of the tower, which is the direction of the rod coming in here, you could see low land broad leaves forests which is where our property starts. To the south we see more low land broad leaves forests and it's basically like the foot of the Rio Bravo going all the way to labouring creek - which is a-tributary to the Belize river. Then west ward is basically the pine savannah which we have here - we call it Rancho Dolores pine savannah. It's one of the best kept and best managed pine savannah in Belize. Coastal savannahs we are talking about which is a great habit for yellow headed parrots."

The yellow headed parrots are just one of the many bird species protected in the management area. There are also about 150 species of mammals that are under constant threat by poachers.

So it's more than just a fire watch, it's an enhancement of the protection plan for these species and the entire area.

Vladimir Rodriguez - Manager, Hill Bank Field Station

"Well the Rio Bravo is a private protected area. It has existed for the past 26 years and it's one of the best protected areas we have in Belize. Within it we practice conservation, we protect over 300 species of birds. At least 150 species of mammals. There's lots of wildlife to see at the Rio Bravo."

Edilberto Romero -Executive Director, Program for Belize

"The fire observation tower will basically help us to detect fires. It's basic function is that - so our rangers during the dry season would climb up the tower 2 to 3 times during the day to observe; minimum of 2 times. To observe signs of smoke or fires and once it's detected then that is communicated down to the rangers and the rangers would - if it looks as a threat to Rio Bravo, or inside the property they would go take a look at it and assess the situation. If it's a fire that needs more work to control it and suppress it then the forestry crew comes in. So basically it helps us detect, control and suppress fires. But beyond that, it's also helping us to control poaching and hunting of wildlife, especially at night. The hunting that goes on at night will this new fire observation tower we can detect people coming in with their flash lights.

Apart from the new Fire Tower, a 5 year management plan has been devised outlining the financial sustainability and other key factors that can contribute to the enhanced protection of the area. The Rio Bravo Conservation and Management area spans about 250,000 acres and is managed by 10 site rangers. The Program for Belize received a grant from PACT for the fire tower.

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