Archive for March, 2009

Ya’axche Apprehends Illegal Xate Harvesters

Yesterday, the pristine Bladen Nature Reserve, the “jewel” in the crown of Belize’s terrestrial protected areas, was the site of a huge illegal xaté bust. Ya’axche forest rangers, in partnership with the Police and Forest Departments, arrested 16 xatéros and confiscated a huge quantity of leaves.

Xatéros with Illegal Xaté

Xatéros with Illegal Xaté

Apprehended in a region called “Matacion” between Trio Village and the Bladen Nature Reserve, the xatéros were quickly brought to the police station in Independence for questioning. Ya’axché rangers were tipped off to the xatéros’ presence when they approached the Bladen Nature Reserve Ranger Base on the morning of Monday, March 23, and presented a license to harvest xaté in surrounding Forest Reserves. The xatéros left after being informed that their license was not valid for Bladen Nature Reserve. However, a routine ranger patrol on Tuesday found signs of xaté collection within the protected area. Several square miles within Bladen Nature Reserve had been stripped of xaté, as well as a large area of the renowned Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. On Wednesday, March 25, two patrols, including a police officer, a Forest Officer and nine staff from Ya’axché set out to find the culprits. Around 1:00 pm they encountered the xatéros with a cache of 26 bales of xaté. Each bale held 70 bundles, totaling approximately 72,800 leaves harvested.

Stripped of All but One Leaf

Decimated Xaté

Healthy Xaté

Healthy Xaté

Although they had been operating under a valid license for extracting xaté within nearby protected areas, they had no right to be extracting within Bladen or Cockscomb. As such, the Forest Department reacted fast by questioning the concessionaire, from Cotton Tree village outside Belmopan, who admitted that some of his Guatemalan employees may have collected xaté outside of their concession.

Over 18,000 Plants Were Destroyed

Over 18,000 Plants Were Destroyed

Camp Along Bladen River Where Xate Was Bundled

Camp Along Bladen River Where Xate Was Bundled

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Proposed Legislation Strengthens Role of Private Protected Areas

The Ya’axché Conservation Trust, with support from the Belize Association of Private Protected Areas (BAPPA) and with the participation of the Association of Private Area Management Organizations (APAMO) and the National Protected Areas Commission (NPAC), finalized two pieces of proposed legislation:

  • National Park Systems (Amendment) Act
  • Conservation Covenant Act

The first bill intends to amend Chapter 215 of the National Park Systems Act (PDF) aims to give legal recognitions to private protected areas (PPAs). The recognition of PPAs in instrumental in filling the gaps within the Belizean national park system. Under this amendment PPAs can be designated either a wildlife sanctuary or a national park with the same rules and restrictions that are place on the public protected areas of the same category (PDF of Protected Area Categories). The designation will be made upon the recommendation of the national authority of protected areas management, and will have to meet strict criteria.

The second piece of proposed legislation, the Conservation Covenant Act, will facilitate private initiatives for land owners to restrict the use of their lands to conservation purposes only, and will provide specific incentives to those individuals with lands along rivers and watersheds.

The campaign for political and legislative support to enact these new laws will be lead by BAPPA.

Ya’axché’s Executive Director, Ms. Lisel Alamilla played a leadership role in coordinating these legislative proposals.

Funding for the development of this proposed legislation was made available via the UNDP/GEF project, Integrating Protected Area and Landscape Management in the Golden Stream Watershed, and is being implemented by Ya’axche’ Conservation Trust and our long-standing partner Fauna & Flora International.

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Jaguar

Jaguar Captured on Motion-Activated Camera

Well-Camouflaged Jaguar Captured on Motion-Activated Camera

No commentary on the animals of Belize can exclude the jaguar.  Likely no other species gets as much press, attention or coverage as Panthera onca.  It’s an apex predator, the subject of myth and legend, the only of the four “big cats” in the Western hemisphere, and a fantastically beautiful animal.

The jaguar has similar coloration to the African leopard, with the jaguar being the bulkier of the two.  Its preference for dense rainforest and affinity for water gives it something in common with the tiger, and makes Belize and the Maya Mountain Massif an ideal habitat.  In fact, the tiny nation of Belize has the highest jaguar population in Central America.

Jaguar Smile (via Wikipedia)

Jaguar Smile (via Wikipedia)

It eats larger herbivores, including deer, tapirs and peccaries.  (However, coordinating in droves of over 70 animals, peccaries have been known to kill jaguars.)  Along riverbanks they eat turtles and fish.  The jaguar’s bite is so powerful it can easily bite through turtle shells.  Jaguars have the strongest bite of any of the big cat species and have capitalized on that with a unique hunting style.  Whereas most felines will attack its prey’s neck in order to suffocate the animal, jaguars are capable of simply biting down on an animal’s head, crushing its prey to death.  Similarly interesting, jaguars have been seen dabbing at the surface of water with their tail.  When eager fish come to investigate, the big cat sweeps them up with their clawed paws!

Jaguars have a menacing growl.  Follow this link to sound files provided by the Belize Zoo.

Jaguar Print

Jaguar Print

Where their habitat borders against that of humans, jaguars have been reported to attack livestock, though not humans.  In fact, the shy creatures rarely come in contact with humans, making any glimpse of them a rare treat.  On our lands we frequently see jaguar tracks, but even our most experienced rangers will claim no more than one sighting over their many years in the bush.

In Belize, jaguars have been a catalyzing species for conservationists.  Considered a keystone species (one whose health is a determinant for the health of other species), they are the subject of significant study.  In 1986, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary was established for the preservation of key jaguar habitat.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that region is currently at carrying capacity for jaguars, though I cannot find a linkable source for that at this time.  Bordering Cockscomb is our very own Bladen Nature Reserve, whose jaguar population is as yet unknown.  We’re currently seeking funding to research this area, which we suspect to have quite a sizeable population.

Camera Trap Flash Makes Interesting Photo Effect

Camera Trap Flash Makes Interesting Photo Effect

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More on Everything That’s Incorporated under SLM

SLM stands for Sustainable Land Use Management.  As this blog progresses we’ll no doubt start referring to the concept in its acronymed form (as is typical around the office), but for now we’ll continue to introduce the topic slowly.  In short, SLM is the practice of implementing a system that accounts for and monitors every need that anyone can derive from that land.

Now, in some cases for us that has meant we’ve simply said “No.” No hunting, farming or prospecting is allowed on our protected areas.  Research must be conducted with a permit.  There’s no building or development of the lands.  Our lands are to remain as close to their natural state as we can keep them.

Rotational Slash & Burn Yields Fragmented Landscapes and Ecosystems

Rotational Slash & Burn Yields Fragmented Landscapes and Ecosystems

But there’s always pressure.  For thousands of years that land has been used for other purposes and now we’re stopping what had been a natural cycle of interaction with the natural resources.  On one hand, population growth and increased demand for forest products means the natural cycle of yesteryear is not maintainable. The status quo on that laissez faire system would’ve wiped out countless tracks of natural lands.  But on the other hand, how do you replace the livelihood that was once supported by the now-protected lands?

In this area one of our chief tactics is increasing farm productivity.  Milpa, or slash-and-burn-and-move-on farming methods, clear out wide tracts of land over the years, leaving landscapes and ecosystems fragmented and broken.  So we push permaculture, or sustained agriculture in one area, year to year.  This can be difficult for two major reasons:  First, the soil is not as nutrient rich without the constant cascade of leaf litter and other organic materials.  Second, it stands in contrast to strongly-held Mayan farming culture.

Continuous Ecosystems within Maintained Forests

Continuous Ecosystems within Maintained Forests

Using technology to increase productivity is the easy part.  We emphasize composting and agroforestry to maximize yield per acre.  We push organic production and healthy eating to increase community health.  Land management encourages maintained employmentWater maintenance ensures continuity of that resource.  We also gain funding for research on alternative crops and business models that can provide other livelihood for those who would otherwise degrade land to make money.  There is much more to conservation than patroling the land and punishing those who scar it.

Changing the mindsets of local farmers is the tough part.  Those programs I listed do incite consideration on alternative farming methods, but to prove the point we’ve developed a permanent, organic farm to serve as an expample of how well the system can work.  We also emphasize these principles and conservation among school children.

SLM is about the right practice on the right piece of land.  Conservation here, farming there.  After that it’s all about maximizing the return on both.

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Drip Irrigation System Installed in the Medina Bank Organic Farm

Drip irrigation filter and distribution system

Drip irrigation filter and distribution system

As part of its Community Outreach and Livelihood efforts, Ya’axché has installed a drip irrigation system in Medina Bank Village. The system will help the fresh organic seedlings planted just a month ago thrive throughout the upcoming dry season, which lasts through the Belizean spring and early summer. Before the irrigation system was set up, farmers spent large parts of their days transporting water from nearby rivers and streams to their garden plots. They no longer have to do that.

The system installation and associated training was provided by the Agriculture Department in the village of Central Farm in the Cayo District, and was coordinated by our office with the investment capital provided by the farmers themselves. On a day in early March, the team put in a long day setting up the system. They placed the pump in the river, connected about a hundred meters of PVC piping, and installed filtration and distribution systems that culminate in drip emitters at the base of every plant. At full operation, each plant receives approximately on liter of fresh, clean water per hour. Once the pump started working that evening, everyone was very excited!

Installing the pump in the river

Installing the pump in the river

This system maximizes efficient water use while providing each plant the amount of water it needs. Efficient water distribution increases each crop yield in this new organic community farm. With proper maintenance the system should run for about three to five years, with project profitability achieved after only two. Water efficiency, organic produce and increased profitability, another win-win-win!

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The Importance of Fresh Water

Ya’axche rangers Victor Bonilla and Anignazio Makin live in Indian Creek Village, near the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve.  In the text below they describe why water is important to their community and explain their work in a ranger-oriented water quality monitoring program implemented by Ya’axche to reduce sedimentary and poor quality run-off to rivers and creeks.

Anignazio Makin measures flow rates in the Golden Stream

Anignazio Makin measures flow rates in the Golden Stream

“Water is very important in our community because it is not abundant. There are not many sources in our village, just a couple of creeks which flow to the Golden Stream. We use water for washing clothes and dishes, washing vehicles, bathing, tilapia ponds, washing homes and swimming. Water is also needed to construct the highway linking northern and southern Belize. All of these things can make the quality of the creeks worse, especially where forest along the riverbanks has been chopped.

“In the wet season people use the creeks so it is important they are of good quality. In the dry season they mostly dry up, so most of the villagers find other ways to get water. One is a new water system which uses electrical power and is expensive after the monthly flat rate is reached. Using only the flat rate is difficult. Families are big, up to 14 children, and not everyone has jobs so water is used sparingly and mainly for drinking, washing and cooking. After the monthly limit is reached most villagers use the Golden Stream for washing clothes.

“Many of us are farmers. We need water for farming. People make their fields ready in the dry season and plant crops in the last month before the rains. Some wait for the first rains before planting. This way the crops get water naturally. After the rains ease, another field is prepared so the crop can get water when the rain starts again. By farming this way, people reduce the amount of water they need to find for their crops.

Victor Bonilla looks for macro-invertebrates in the Golden Stream

Victor Bonilla looks for macro-invertebrates in the Golden Stream

“The Golden Stream Corridor Preserve is managed by Ya’axché which has a program in watershed protection to raise awareness in our community about the need to protect rivers and water quality. Rangers are being trained in water quality assessment where we learn about what water quality really is and how to keep it clean for us and the environment. As part of the program we grow seedlings (e.g. mahogany and cedar) and encourage planting along the stream banks to help protect the creeks where the forest has been chopped. It is easy to take rivers for granted, but we see immediate impacts of activities on the quality of the rivers and creeks and then on our lives. Our water quality is very good now, but we need to appreciate it for all its worth and protect it for our future generations.”

This text was developed in support of World Water Day.

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Meet the Red-Eyed Tree Frog

Welcome to another feature article here on the Ya’axche blog.  Every other Friday (opposite our Ranger Conversations) we’ll use this space to highlight a really neat animal that populates the lands managed by Ya’axche.  There are so many to choose from.  The Maya Mountains are one of the most biologically diverse sections of Central America.  We have jaguars and tapirs, toucans and macaws, coral snakes and boa constrictors, crocodiles and Harpy eagles.

Hello!

Hello!

But in honor of our new status as co-manager of Bladen Nature Reserve where, in the words of our Protected Areas Manager, “if you spent a week out there you would probably discover a new species of amphibian,” I’m going to start this section with a frog.  Meet the Red-Eyed Tree Frog.

This colorful frog is named for its iconic eyes.  The red color helps the nocturnal predator see at night as is part of a natural defense tactic called startle coloration.  During the day this frog will pull its legs in and close its eyes while affixing itself to the bottom of a leaf.  Should a predator happen to come by, the frog will open its eyes and startle the intruder with its oddly-colored eyes.  Next it will move its legs revealing its orange feet and blue patches on its side.  During that moment the predator is confused, the frog can hop away to safety.  Imagine your hamburger suddenly opening up to reveal a neon center.  It’d give you pause too!

A frog that can hang out on the under side of a leaf isn’t too big, and the red-eyed tree frog never gets much larger than about 3″.  Females are larger than males.  They eat the likes of crickets, moths and other insects and they’ve been known to eat smaller frogs.  This National Geographic site is really informative, and will let you download an image of the frog for desktop wallpaper.

Bright side coloration, photo from Wikipedia

Bright side coloration, photo from Wikipedia

We have many red-eyed tree frogs on Ya’axche-managed lands, both in the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve, and Bladen Nature Reserve. The animals can be found throughout Central America and are not considered an endangered or threatened species.  Nonetheless, excessive forestation is leading to significant habitat loss which makes their future more bleak.  They like to live in lowland, tropical rain forests near rivers, which is also prime real estate for slash-and-burn agriculture.  As a result, and due to their iconic appearance, they are often associated with conservation efforts.

Kermit, meet your technicolor cousin!

We’ll be out of the office on Monday as Belize celebrates Baron Bliss Day.  We’ll be back on Tuesday with another installment of What Do We See in This Picture.  Have a great weekend!

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Update (11 March 2009): I recently read an article discussing the agrochemical threat to amphibians in the Maya Mountain Massif.  Our vigilance and action is critical!

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