What is the Royal Rat in Belize?
There is a nocturnal rodent that inhabits the forest floors of Belize. It feeds on fruits that have fallen to the ground, on leaves, buds, flowers and fungi, and on tubers and insects that it digs up. It is often found near water, whether in the river valleys or wetlands or the rain forests of this Central American country.
It is about two feet long, weighs about 13-25 pounds and has reddish-brown fur decorated with horizontal rows of white spots. It tends to be solitary except when breeding.
This animal is the aouti paca, or gibnut. It is also known to Belizeans as the Royal Rat, as it is the most prized game animal of the region. It is unfortunate that people find the flesh of this rodent so delicious, as this has led to it being hunted extensively.
During the day, while the Royal Rats are sleeping, it is easy for dogs to find their dens and sniff them out. Some enterprising hunters will instead use headlamps to find the gibnuts as they feed along the forest floor at night.
While the agouti paca was once common from Mexico to Brazil, thanks to the depredations of hunters, it has now become extinct in many areas of its traditional range. Thankfully the creature is protected in much of Belize, where you may find it swimming, running, or jumping up to three feet in the air. It can easily be heard in these reserves in the evening, as it is rather noisy.
Often it eats cohune nuts, and you’ll hear it loudly chewing through the hard shells. The Royal Rat also makes a lot of noise rustling through the leaves underfoot. If you disturb it, you’ll hear a deep rumbling from its throat or a hoarse bark.
This small native creature can live up to 13 years in the wild.
If you’d like to taste the meat – you may only do so from June through November. From December through May, hunting the Royal Rat is not allowed, to protect the species and also to protect Belize’s vibrant ecosystem.
The agouti paca is important as it helps to aerate the soil, disperse seeds and fungi, and is an important food source for Belize’s predatory species. Keeping a healthy population of this small rodent helps to protect the health of Belize’s rain forests.
If you do happen to fancy a meal of Royal Rat, you’ll typically find it served stewed or grilled. The meat has been compared to ham or rabbit, with a layer of fat found beneath the skin.
Queen Elizabeth II was served this rare delicacy when she visited Belize in 1985.