Some animal sounds typify the "Call of the Wild". The loon's lonely cry on a Northern Lake, the wolf's wail to a full moon, the hoot of an owl in the dark of the night. In the rainforest of Belize, it is the roar of the black howler monkey, often mistaken by visitors for the roar of a jaguar.
"Baboons", as the howler monkeys are known in Belize, live in troops of 4 to 8 members, carving out a territory of between 12 and 15 acres. Weighing 15 to 20 lbs, the baboons defend their territories from intruding troops by using their remarkable voices to let other troops know their location. Howlers often begin and end their days by roaring. Their roars can be heard as far away as a mile.
There are only six species of howler monkeys in the world, all of which live throughout Central and South America. The Black Howler monkey range is limited to southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize. Its population are rapidly declining and becoming isolated due to increasing deforestation throughout Central America. Belize supports one of the last strongholds of the baboon in the region.
Often described as a lost Shangrila amidst the sea of humanity in Central America, sparsely populated Belize still has most of its tropical forests intact. "Our small population is one major factor protecting our rich and diverse wildlife heritage," explains Therese rath, ex-president of the Belize Audubon Society. "Estimates vary, but we still have over 60% of our land covered by tropical forest, with healthy populations of many regionally endangered species, including the baboon. Of course another major factor for our healthy resource base is our conservation efforts".
The Belize Audubon Society (BAS) is the prime conservation lobby in the country. Starting out as a bird watching club in the early 1970's, BAS has grown in membership and stature. In 1982, the government of Belize asked BAS to look after Belize's first National Park, a small bird rookery and one of Belize's coral atolls. Today, BAS oversees or manages seven large protected areas in the country, including the world's first jaguar preserve, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (CBWS).
The Cockscomb Basin, known locally as "Cockscomb", spreads over 160 square miles of rugged gullies and steep slopes in the middle of the country, all carpeted by rainforest. Hemmed in on all sides by ridges or mountains, the Cockscomb actually consists of two smaller basins, each a complete watershed for two of Belize's major rivers. Annual rainfall averages from 100-120 inches, with the wettest months from June to October. Over the last 50 years, selective logging and hurricanes have created dense secondary forest in much of the basin, with an upper canopy of 45-130 feet. The fierce tangle of vegetation, while inhospitable to people, allows animal life to flourish.
In 1984, The Cockscomb Basin was legally declared a forest reserve and no hunting zone. In 1986, 3,600 acres were set aside as the world's first wildlife sanctuary. In Belize, a wildlife sanctuary means by law "any area reserved as a nature conservation (area) for the protection of nationally significant species...".
This rugged sanctuary supports a profusion of endangered wildlife. The bird list for the sanctuary stands at nearly 300 species, including the brilliant scarlet macaw and rare, secretive Agami (Chestnut Bellied) Heron. All together, 55 different mammals make their home in the basin- 75% of all mammals found in Belize. Besides the jaguar, four other species of wildcat prowl the Basin's Forests- The Puma, Ocelot, Margay and small Jaguarundi. The endangered Morelet's crocodile feeds in the major rivers of the basin, and tremendous populations of the splendid red-eyed tree frogs periodically appear in the thousands.
At one time, the black howler's roar also filled the early morning air of the Cockscomb Basin. But, in th early 1960's, they were driven to extinction due to over hunting, yellow fever and hurricane destruction of the forest canopy. " We've had single individuals around the village and even a small troop along a nearby river, " reports Ernesto Saqui, Director of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, " but none have been able to enter the sanctuary because of the high ridges surrounding the basin".
50 miles north, at a grassroots project supported by BAS, landowners have agreed to manage their properties to benefit the baboons. The resulting Community Baboon Sanctuary supports an estimated 1200 monkeys. Since the sanctuary was cerated in 1985, there has been an increase of 20-30% in the Howler population. The Baboon roaring is deafening at sunrise and sunset around the sanctuary.
Now that the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is secure, Dr. Rob Horwich, a tropical biologist from Wisconsin and founder of the Community Baboon Sanctuary, is co-leading a team of local and international conservationists to relocate a viable, self-sustaining population of the baboons from the baboon sanctuary of the Cockscomb Basin.
"In May of 1992," Beams Dr. Fred Koontz of the New York Zoological Society, the other co-leader of the reintroduction team, "We successfully relocated 3 complete troops (15 individuals) without the lost of a single individual, including two pregnant females." One of those females even gave birth in the basin. In May of 1993, Koontz and his team returned to Belize and relocated an additional 23 animals.
Today, the howlers are flourishing. Part of the project includes training the staff of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary to monitor the Baboons progress through radio telemetry. All the wardens live in a nearby village to the sanctuary, Maya Centre. Now, instead of entering the forest with machete and shotgun, warden Hermilindo Saqui who is in charge of tracking the transplanted monkeys, wears headphones and carries a directional antenna. "The baboons are all healthy and beginning to roar again", he proudly reports, "as if they were never left." The Belizean "Call of the Wild" has returned to the Cockscomb.