The Yucatan Black Howler Monkey is the largest monkey in the Americas, and found only in a small section of Central America. Originally called baboons by the locals, the Yucatan Black Howler Monkey has been listed as an endangered species since 2003 and its population has declined over 60% due to loss of land, hunting and disease. Yet an innovative, community-led grassroots project called the Community Baboon Sanctuary located in the Belize River Valley outside of Belize City is doing wonders to conserve and protect both the monkeys and the local community who support them. It was the first place I visited on my trip to Belize with G Adventures and was the perfect way to start off a week of adventure and sustainable travel.
I arrived in Belize City on a non-stop morning flight from cold, wintry Minnesota. The moment I walked off the plane, I was greeted with the sticky, thick humidity of the tropics. A smile instantly came across my weather-worn face. I was ready for some sun and adventure, both which would be coming over the next eight days in Belize exploring the jungle, ancient Mayan ruins, and marine life in the world’s second largest barrier reef.
After gathering my luggage, I was greeted by a representative from the Black Orchid Resort where I’d be spending the first two days of my trip. Located next to the mangrove banks of the Belize River near the tiny village of Burrell Boom, it was the perfect alternative to staying in Belize City. The Black Orchid offered peace, beauty and nature yet was not too far away from the major tourist attractions and very close to the Community Baboon Sanctuary where we would be spending our first full morning.
After an evening of settling in at the hotel and meeting my fellow group of travelers with G Adventures, we were ready to depart for a morning tour of the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS). I was extremely excited to visit the CBS because I love monkeys and I am passionate about seeing sustainably run conservation projects on the ground. We arrived around nine and were met by our guide Robert who would first give us an overview of the project and then take us on a wonderful nature walk within the sanctuary where we would learn about the flora and fauna of the rainforest and be able to observe the monkeys in the wild.
The CBS is an exemplary community-led grassroots conservation project that works to protect the natural habitat of the endangered Yucatan black howler monkeys while also working hand in hand with the local community through education, community development and sustainable ecotourism practices. The CBS was founded by American primatologist Dr. Robert Horwich in 1981 after he identified the region of the lower Belize River Valley as one of the largest habitats of black howler monkeys in North Central America. Working with the local community of private landowners, the pioneering idea of creating a voluntary sanctuary for the monkeys was formed. Property maps were drawn up for each landholder and they were asked to sign a voluntary pledge that outlined the management plans for conservation.
In 1985, the CBS officially opened its doors to sustainable tourism as a way to promote economic development of the participating villages while limiting the impact of traditional tourism on the environment. Revenues from tourism are reinvested back into conservation, research and community development efforts that provide alternative livelihoods such as organic farming and gardening, cohune oil processing, jam making and sewing. Today, over 200 private, local landowners in seven villages, stretching over 20 square miles, have voluntarily pledged to conserve their land for the protection of the black howler monkey, resulting in an increase in the monkey population and other species as well as improved prosperity for the community. It has been a win-win situation that has become a model for sustainable tourism and grassroots conservation throughout the world. The CBS also runs a Women’s Conservation Group in which a female representative is elected from each of the seven villages to help manage the CBS. Thanks to the CBS and the support of the local communities, the Yucatan Black Howler Monkeys are thriving and an estimated 4,000-5,000 live within the grounds.
After learning about the sanctuary, it was time for the best part of the tour, our rainforest walk. As we left the Community Education Center, we passed a series of brightly painted green buildings hosting a primary school. With the joyful sound of children playing, we set off along the trail heading into the deep thickness of the jungle. Robert proved to be an excellent host who was witty, charming, and very knowledgable and passionate about the project. At times he had us competing with the monkeys, howling with laughter at his amusing jokes.
Robert showed us many interesting things inside the jungle such as medicinal plants that help mothers after birth and babies sleep and the majestic mahogany trees that are Belize’s national tree and were tragically almost wiped out of the jungle by the British decades ago. However, what was of course the most incredible part of the entire tour was getting up close and personal with the Black Howler Monkeys.
Although I’ve been to Costa Rica several times and to other parts of Central America, I have never seen a howler monkey this close. I had only heard their loud guttural roar from the distant trees. While there are several species of howler monkeys found throughout Central and South America, the Yucatán black howler monkey is native to only Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico. The Howler Monkey is one of the loudest land animals on earth thanks to an enlarged hyoid bone which enables their howls to be heard for almost up to three miles through dense rainforest. Howling is an important part of their social behavior and if you have never heard the sound before it is definitely worth listening to.
Robert told us that black howler females reach reproductive maturity at age 4-5 and males age 6-8 and they breed throughout the year. Females give birth to single infant and have on average 12-15 babies during their reproductive years. Their life expectancy in the wild is 30 years and they are vegetarians eating the tender young leaves and fruit found in the rainforest. Most howler species live in groups and they howl as a way to communicate and also ward off challenging groups of howlers from entering their territories.
We learned from Robert that the greatest threat to the monkeys continues to be habitat disturbance due to agriculture, logging and hunting. The CBS was established to help address this threat by showing landowners the benefits of preserving their lands for the monkeys. The CBS works to make sustainable tourism an attractive alternative to destructive land management practices. At the same time, the Sanctuary helps educate both local communities and visitors about the importance of biodiversity and sustainability. One of CBS’s strongest successes has been its influence on rural communities throughout Belize. The success stories from the CBS has inspired dozens of community-based conservation and ecotourism programs both in Belize and around the world. The world can certainly use more.
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