Between the coasts of Mexico and Guatemala lie the tropical waters of Belize, part of the Caribbean Sea and an area harboring the highest known number of Antillean manatees in the world. A sub-species of the West Indian manatee, Antillean manatees are marine mammals which, unusually, are most closely related to elephants. A long-lived, air-breathing herbivore that is believed to live up to 60 years old, Antillean manatees can survive in both marine and brackish waters, but must remain close to land because they depend on fresh water flowing from rivers for drinking. Consequently, the Antillean manatee can be found in both coastal and inland waterways from Central America to the northern coast of South America and the Antilles.
Despite being widespread, the habitat of this slow-moving aquatic mammal is fragmented, and relatively little is known about the species. It is not even known how many of the manatees survive. Historically hunted by local natives and sold to European explorers for food, today manatees are threatened by loss of habitat, poaching, entanglement in fishing gear, and increased boating activity, and may also face other threats such as water pollution from the chemical content of inland river run-off.
Since 1996, local conservation biologist Nicole Auil has worked to conserve the Antillean manatee in Belize. Winner of the 2005 Whitley Award for Rivers and Wetlands, Nicole is spearheading a project that aims to take a multifaceted approach to protected areas management.
Through combining the education of local people with biological research to assist manatee recovery, Nicole aims to safeguard the manatee’s coastal habitat and associated biodiversity. The project’s activities focus on a wildlife sanctuary called Southern Lagoon positioned adjacent to the small village of Gales Point Manatee, a wetland system that supports not only the manatee, but also Morelet crocodile, many species of fish, and coastal birds such as ibises and egrets.
Nicole’s research shows that there are only approximately 1,000 Antillean manatees left in Belize, and little is known about the movements or biology of those that survive. By examining the behaviour, habitat use, and threats facing manatees, in combination with studies that will enhance understanding of the ecology of the lagoon, Nicole hopes to gain vital knowledge about the Antillean manatee and its changing environment in the heart of Belize’s coastal zone.
A key part of this long-term study is community collaboration. Nicole’s goal is to provide the local community with the tools needed to effectively safeguard this critical environment and its wildlife through building capacity and promoting a planned approach to natural resource use. By partnering local organisations, this diverse project is expected to bring rewards that benefit both ecological conservation in Belize, and local stakeholder incomes.