In a secluded lagoon on the northern coast of Belize, sunlight sparkles off the waves, casting a diamond-like glimmer over the waters. Here, amidst the arched roots of mangroves, two manatees surface for air, familiar figures to the watchful eyes of Zoe Walker, co-founder of conservation group Wildtracks Belize.
These manatees, identified as Mitch and Lucky, are former patients of the Wildtracks rehabilitation program. After their successful recovery, they have adapted well to a life in the open waters. “They’ve been in the wild for four, maybe five years now,” Walker shares. Their curiosity is apparent as they continue to show interest in the younger manatees, recently introduced to the lagoon.
Wildtracks, established by Zoe and her husband Paul over three decades ago, operates at a crucial intersection of wildlife preservation and ocean conservation in Belize. Their objectives include rescuing, rehabilitating, and reintroducing manatees and primates to their natural habitats. Additionally, they offer technical assistance to help implement national strategies for wildlife preservation and the protection of key areas, aligning with the broader goals of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
The primary mission for Wildtracks and its partners is to ensure no species goes extinct in Belize by 2030. A challenging target, especially considering the vulnerable status of the Antillean manatee, whose population in Belize is estimated to be only between 700 and 1,000.
With their specially-equipped vehicles, ready to transport a six-foot manatee if necessary, Wildtracks is always prepared to respond to reports of sick, injured, or stranded marine mammals. The majority of these animals are found near Belize City, where increased boat traffic has led to an uptick in incidents.
However, Wildtracks’ efforts extend beyond individual animals. Zoe Walker insists, “Wildlife rehabilitation is only one part of the solution.” They also aim to ensure the health and sustainability of the larger marine environment. Consequently, Wildtracks and its partners focus on capacity building for conservation in Belize. By offering project planning and management training and grant-writing courses, they aim to ensure more Belizeans can contribute to protecting the nation’s precious natural resources and wildlife.
One of Wildtracks’ key areas of interest is the Northern Belize Coastal Complex, a diverse marine environment stretching from the lagoons and rivers of Corozal Bay to the reefs of Bacalar Chico, Hol Chan, and Caye Caulker Marine Reserves. This habitat supports coral reef formations, seagrass beds, and mangroves vital for the survival of manatees, sea turtles, sharks, and various fish species.
Zoe Walker and her team, seeing the fruits of their labor in the healthy and active manatees like Mitch and Lucky, and the return of howler monkeys to forests that were silent for eight decades, remain optimistic about the future of conservation in Belize. For Walker, these daily reminders highlight the importance of their work, ensuring a sustainable future for Belize’s wildlife and generations to come.