BELIZE: RICH IN BIRDLIFE & HOWLER MONKEYS
"If you want to avoid monkey poop, don't stand under this strangler fig," cautions Geraldine Fermin. My daughters and I are standing in a forest clearing 90 minutes north of Belize City, gazing at a troop of eight black howler monkeys that stretch lazily in the branches of the tree directly above us. The 20 square miles they share with some 3,500 other monkeys is loosely known as the Community Baboon Sanctuary, an area comprising seven villages in which more than 200 villagers own land.
Its name can be confusing-since baboon is the kreol word for monkey. But in 1985 the area was identified as containing one of the largest populations of black howler monkeys in North Central America. Somehow, a group of concerned citizens persuaded the villagers to refrain from the slash-and-burn practices that were previously destroying the monkeys' habitat. With this loose promise the black howler monkeys' longevity has been safeguarded-for now, at least.
The vegetarian primates stare down at us, showing little interest until Fermin, our guide, heads into the forest and returns with one of their favorite foods: the leaves of a trumpeter plant. With some encouragement an adult black howler hangs low enough from her branch to retrieve the offering, munching thoughtfully on the leaves before returning to the safety of higher branches.
The howler monkeys got their name from their howl, a loud, guttural sound that rips through the quiet and can be heard from over a mile away. Usually they roar at the start and end of each day in order to space themselves from other troops, or to warn other troops that they are nearby and don't necessarily appreciate company. Fermin is somewhat of a howler monkey specialist.
Cupping her hands together she emits a throaty roar that sounds more like a predatory bear than anything else. After a few minutes a monkey purses his lips and howls back, his roar infinitely more resonant and powerful. It's a primeval sound that catches your attention instantly.
The monkeys' delicate, jet-black features are so intelligent and human-like, my daughters are in awe. "They look so much like us," says one, as she watches a three-month-old primate play with its mother, seeking attention by touching her face. A protective one-year-old nearby tries to play mom by enfolding the infant in its embrace, but the baby moves away, determined to claim adult attention instead.
We'd been glad to escape the bustling town Fort George in Belize City that day, as four cruise ships converged on the city of 70,000 and disgorged somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 passengers and crew for several hours of exploration. Avoiding the heavily booked cruise ship excursions, we'd instead hired a private guide to take us north into the countryside, past Belizean fast food stands offering hazelnut wine and cold coconuts, and past large iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks.
In the early afternoon of a searing hot day, the humidity has left the monkeys as robbed of energy as their human spectators. Content to lounge in the strangler fig, they will move later in the day into the middle and higher canopies of the forest. The troops eat, sleep and travel together, older females often tending to other infants besides their own in the troop.
It's women that oversee the Community Baboon Sanctuary as well. Female representatives from the seven villages manage and run the operation, and with funding from a Belize conservation trust they've created initiatives to bring income to the villagers and thereby discourage them from resorting to destructive slash-and-burn practices.
"Seven families so far have received tilapia ponds where they can raise and sell tilapia," says Fermin. Another six families have received funding to make home improvements so they can rent out a room as a bed and breakfast. Guiding visitors to see the black howler monkeys is another way villagers can earn an income, and one Fermin relies on.
For the 45-minutes she spends teaching us about the monkeys, their behavior and their habitat, she confesses she'll make $1.25 per person. I reach into my pocket for a $10 bill to offer as a tip, suddenly embarrassed at our comparative affluence and deeply appreciative of her heartfelt concern for the monkeys' safety, given her own precarious financial existence.
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1. Black Howler: (image courtesy Belize Tourism) The black howler monkeys' appearance and behaviour is uncannily human. Examine them carefully and you know you are looking at distant relatives.
2. (photo credit Sarah Aginsky): A troop of black howler monkeys hangs languidly in the boughs of a tree, lethargy overcoming them in the heat of Belize's early afternoon.Travel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.travelwriterstales.com
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