In the heart of Belize, where the beautiful pristine waters of the Caribbean Sea meet the sandy shores, lies an incredible story of resilience, passion, and innovation. It’s a tale of manatees and how a dedicated organization, Wildtracks, is not only working with the Belize Fisheries Department and other partners to save these gentle giants but also helping Belize become a shining example of marine conservation.
Nestled along the coast, Wildtracks is more than just a rehabilitation centre. It provides a haven for Belize’s diverse marine and terrestrial wildlife, a place where hope is nurtured, and second chances can be given. Zoe Walker, one of the Founders of Wildtracks, champions this spirit of unwavering determination to protect Belize’s coastal treasures.
Rescue and Rehabilitation: Twiggy’s Tale
At the heart of Wildtracks’ mission is the rescue and rehabilitation of injured or orphaned manatees. These graceful sea cows are not only charismatic but also vital to the health of Belize’s coastal ecosystems. One rescue stands out, the story of Twiggy, a name reminiscent of a famous supermodel, but her journey was far from glamorous.
In 2009, Twiggy was found stranded off the Drowned Cayes, near Belize City, a fragile shadow of what a manatee should be.
“She refused to feed,” recalled Zoe, “We had to feed her using a tube into the stomach to keep her going.”
She had scars where she had been attacked by dolphins, and her future was grim. Yet, through tireless dedication and the right blend of care, Twiggy’s story is one of transformation. As one of Wildtracks’ first female released manatee, she defied the odds, blossoming into a magnificent 10-foot adult manatee, now about 12 years old. She still has a large scar on her nose which makes her instantly recognizable.
“Just three weeks ago, she turned up and gave birth to a calf right in the lagoon in front of the Manatee Rehabilitation Centre,” Zoe excitedly shared. “One of the benchmarks of success in any rehabilitation program is to see that animals that come into rehabilitation can thrive after being released and are able to then contribute to the next generation and bolster the national population.”
Twiggy symbolizes the resilience of not only manatees but also the plethora of marine and terrestrial wildlife that must be conserved and protected in their natural habitats.
The Blue Bond and the Belize Fund: Creating Ripples of Hope
Twiggy’s tale is just one of many success stories at Wildtracks. An interesting study states that Belize is the stronghold in the Mesoamerican region for this Antillean manatee species, with a population estimated at around 700 individuals. But there has been a concerning surge in manatee strandings, a distressing phenomenon that has resulted in an increasing number of these gentle creatures either dying, being injured, or orphaned. In addition to dedication, Wildtracks needs resources to continue protecting and rehabilitating these manatees.
The Belize Blue Loan Agreement, a restructured, innovative financing mechanism, created ripples of hope for marine conservation in the country.
Zoe Walker recalls, “It was definitely an initial thought – wow, this could be a great funding opportunity because wildlife conservation, manatee rehabilitation, it sounds really exciting, but it can be challenging to find the finances to support it.”
The Belize Fund for a Sustainable Future (Belize Fund), a private Belizean non-profit conservation trust fund, was established as an integral part of the Blue Loan and Conservation Funding Agreements. The Belize Fund provides grant funding that is much needed for transformative change to bolster marine protection efforts. And Wildtracks seized the opportunity. The grant they received demonstrates how innovative financing can directly benefit conservation projects.
Infrastructure, Capacity, and Long-Term Impact
The BZD 150,000 grant was excellent timing for Wildtracks. It will primarily focus on improving infrastructure, particularly the manatee rehabilitation centre, the heart of their operations. The existing facility was far from ideal, but with the funding, this new purpose-built centre will not only ensure improved support facilities for the care of manatees but also guarantee long-term support for their mission.
The impact extends beyond infrastructure and creates a lasting legacy for wildlife and marine conservation in Belize. Over the last 30 years, for example, Wildtracks has worked with the Fisheries Department to develop the marine protected areas atlas for government decision-makers, tour guides, and fishers to improve awareness; the Forest Department to develop guides for recognition of wildlife crime, and the National Biodiversity Office for the management effectiveness of terrestrial and marine protected areas.
The success of manatee conservation lies in effective partnerships and collaboration. Wildtracks is a member of the Belize Marine Mammal Stranding Network, coordinated by Clearwater. Clearwater rescues manatees along Belize’s coastline and subsequently sends them to Wildtracks for rehabilitation.
Most recently, Wildtracks has partnered with a UK-based conservation skills training organization, WildTeam, to provide opportunities for conservation practitioners to build their skills in project planning, project management, and grant writing for wildlife conservation, addressing some of the identified capacity development needs of the conservation community. The grant funds are supporting the training and certification of thirty conservation practitioners involved in manatee conservation in Belize.
Wildtracks’ vision for the future encompasses not just rescue and rehabilitation but also conservation planning and outreach. Connecting schools with wildlife and nature, interpreting the importance of marine life through community engagement, strengthening national management strategies for protected areas and species, and the capacity of conservation practitioners are all part of the plan.
A Brighter Future for Belize
In a world where coastal and marine ecosystems face unprecedented challenges, including the climate crisis’ unabating impacts, Belize is leading by example, showing that innovative financing mechanisms can pave the way for brighter, more sustainable futures.
The story of Wildtracks and the manatees they rehabilitate and reintroduce into Belize’s coastal waters is a small-scale version of Belize’s larger journey. It’s about protection, revival, and the invaluable role of sustained finance for marine conservation. Twiggy, once a fragile orphan, now stands as a beacon of hope for Belize’s coastal and marine treasures.
In Belize, the waves don’t just lap against the shore; they carry with them the promise of a brighter future for marine life and the coastal communities that depend on it. Over the next 20 years, through the commitment of long-term funding for coastal and marine conservation, this promise can become a reality.