Conservationists Fight Flames to Protect Rare Pine Savannah Ecosystem in Southern Belize

The 20,000 acres of natural savannah protected in Belize’s Payne’s Creek National Park are particularly precious because they are an exceedingly rare ecosystem in Central America, a region once virtually blanketed by tropical trees. So conservationists are determined to fight illegal logging, hunting, and the intentionally set fires that devour wide swaths of grasslands scattered with Caribbean Pine (Pinus caribaea). The Toledo Institute for Environment and Development (TIDE), a conservation group based in the southern coastal city of Punta Gorda Town, in the Toledo district, is managing Payne’s Creek, and fire control is one of the group’s main objectives in safeguarding the protected area’s 31,000 acres.

Its array of ecosystems makes Payne’s Creek, declared a national park in 1994, a particular draw for ecotourists. In addition to the savannah, broadleaf and mangrove forests, wetlands, and undeveloped coastline provide shelter to rare and endangered wildlife, including five species of wild cats and two species of monkeys, tapirs (Tapirus bairdii), peccaries, yellow-headed parrots (Amazona oratrix), jabiru storks (Jabiru mycteria), muscovy ducks (Cairina moschata), and aplomado falcons (Falco femoralis). Endangered marine wildlife found off the mainland includes West Indian manatees (Trichechus manatus manatus) and hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata). The park is also an archeological treasure, the site of Maya ruins now submerged under a lagoon.

TIDE has led a successful campaign to drastically reduce once rampant manatee poaching and illegal fishing on southern Belize’s coastlines. Inland, TIDE is also working to protect Payne’s Creek from illegal logging and hunting. With support from the Summit Foundation, TIDE has hired three park guards; two guards are always on duty to provide 24-hour protection of the Park. The group has also purchased a boat to patrol the park’s coastlines. TIDE Executive Director Wil Maheia says that “If it weren’t for the support of the Summit Foundation, Payne’s Creek would still be a ‘paper park’,” designated by lines on a map but with little actual protection.

Maheia notes that the park’s most threatened ecosystem is the savannah. Since the pine trees have been heavily logged, intentionally set fires race quickly through the grasses. During the dry season, when weeks may pass without rain, hunters set the tall grasses on fire to attract deer that come to graze on new shoots of grass that soon sprout through the ashes. The fast-burning flames, fueled by thick and arid grasses, kill pine seedlings and destroy the nesting sites of the endangered yellow-headed parrot and other bird species.

The recent expansion of a highway in southern Belize, which will continue into Guatemala, also has TIDE concerned, as the road opens a formerly isolated area to further logging and farming. “This road will put not only the park, but all the remaining forest at risk,” Maheia warns. “It will give unprecedented access for deforestation equipment. Since this road has been paved, several new pastures have already appeared, and we consider it a major threat.”

TIDE is working with The Nature Conservancy and the Caribbean Regional Environmental Programme to develop a fire-management plan for Payne’s Creek, working to promote pine regeneration, conserve habitat for the yellow-headed parrot, and prevent wildfires. At a recent workshop, consultants from The Nature Conservancy provided training to logging concessionaires and members of the local community about understanding fire behavior, identifying weather conditions that affect fire, using fire-fighting equipment, and determining appropriate landscape-management practices.

Mario Muschamp, Park Manager of Payne’s Creek, is spearheading TIDE’s fire prevention efforts in the park. “We are just beginning to implement fire suppression activities, because we are seeing the negative effects of fire — we are slowly losing the pines,” he says. “We want to prevent fires by removing the grass, or ‘fuel’ from around the young saplings with prescribed burns. When a fire happens, it usually burns the entire savannah, so it’s really impeding regeneration. We are seeing no pine saplings, so when the older trees die out, there will be no trees to replace them, and it will become a grassland.”

In spite of the seriousness of the problem, Muschamp remains hopeful. “The existing pine stands are still producing seeds, and over time, by protecting the saplings, the savannah will recover,” he confirms.

Recognizing that they need more equipment and manpower, Maheia says that TIDE is currently looking for additional funding to protect Payne’s Creek. “We want to increase the number of rangers from three to at least four, as this park borders land and sea and requires more surveillance,” he explains. “We also need funds to construct lookout towers, as it can take awhile before we are aware that there is a fire. We also don’t have a vehicle. When fighting a fire, we have to travel by bicycle or on foot. We’d also like to do more wildlife monitoring, to assess the population of the endangered species living in the park, especially the jaguars, and determine best management practices for their habitat.”

Nearly all of the staff at TIDE are from Toledo, and their personal relationships and bonds with members of their community have attributed to the group’s successful environmental education initiatives. As Maheia notes, “At TIDE, we have 22 employees and 20 of them were born and raised in the Toledo district. When you talk about community development, it starts here.”

Muschamp, also from Toledo, is hoping to involve community members in TIDE’s fire prevention activities. “I’m trying to work along with communities and logging concessionaires to get them more proactive by helping us to fight fires, and also using fire in the right way,” he says. “Once we get people involved and they see the benefit of our work, we can get things done. So far the response has been positive.”

As part of its park-management efforts, TIDE works closely with three communities outside Payne’s Creek: Monkey River, Punta Negra, and Punta Gorda. Members of the Payne’s Creek National Park Advisory Committee include a variety of stakeholders, including community representatives and government officials. Residents are reaping economic benefits from the area’s natural resources, as they lead visiting anglers on fly-fishing trips and ecotourists on nature hikes through the forest that lines Monkey River and winds into the park, where close-up views of howler monkeys are almost guaranteed.

— Melissa Krenke

Contacts in Belize:

Wil Maheia
Toledo Institute for Development and Environment
P.O. Box 150
1 Mile San Antonio Road
Punta Gorda Town
Toledo, Belize
tel 501/ 722-2274, 501/ 722-2431
fax (501) 722-2655

Mario Muschamp
Toledo Institute for Development and Environment

Read more about this project in the Eco-Index:


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