Search #Belize on Instagram and you'll find 1.8 million photos, with one common factor: Archeological reserves, national parks, marine reserves, natural monuments, and forest reserves, which all combine to be an astonishing backdrop.
It doesn't matter who said it first, but the age-old adage that spans languages and destinations is true—a picture does indeed speak far more than a thousand words. Where mere words fail us, each photo memorializes a specific moment in time and all of a sudden, 'photographer' becomes 'storyteller'.
It's an innately creative outlet, especially for those who have a story to tell and use that imagery to rally support, like for Belize's natural world and conservation efforts.
A clear-eyed but stirring portrait of Belize's aquatic and terrestrial palette is enough to evoke the environmentalist in each of us. And that's exactly our goal here.
"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." - Baba Dioum
Behind each photo below is a shared ethos for the natural world and the wildlife that inhabits it. Conservation photography is one part what the photograph says, and two parts what the photograph does: It is the active and deliberate use of photos to support conservation awareness and action. We're sharing some of our favorite conservation causes in Belize, as a form of environmental education.
Photographer Highlight: Many of the stunning photos used in this photo essay were taken by internationally recognized wildlife and nature enthusiast and photographer, Mr Tony Rath.
It's a popular destination to hike, especially considering it's the world's first jaguar preserve, but the ecological value of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary runs far deeper than its inhabitants.
Found within the vast 128,000 protected areas of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (CBWS), two adjacent geographic watershed basins feed facing slopes of the Maya Mountains Massif—a landscape of ridge crests, rolling hills and river floodplains, cloaked primarily in tropical broadleaf evergreen forest.
Separated only by a ridge of land, the Cockscomb Basin is the cornerstone of the National Protected System; the East Basin drains into South Stann Creek and the West Basin drains into Swasey River, a tributary of Monkey River. In the Maya Mountain extension of the Sanctuary is Trio Branch, this ultimately drains into Monkey River Watershed.
You'll recognize these protected upper watersheds of important river systems—providing priceless ecosystem services to the communities that buffer the Sanctuary—after embarking from base headquarters for a hike that ends in a refreshing reward. Take the Tiger Fern Trail: the oversized fern-lined 4.3 kilometre out-and-back trail gives hikers two options: a 360 vista of the Cockscomb Basin atop its summit campsite, or a double-waterfall adventure.
With nearly 40% of its lands under protection, Belize is a powerhouse in conservation. At 13,000 protected acres of preserved jungles, rivers, streams, medicinal trails (including the Ix Chel Trails at The Lodge at Chaa Creek started by Don Elijio himself) and Ancient Maya ceremonial caving system, the Noj Kaax Meen Elijio Panti National Park reveals unparalleled evidence of Belize’s Ancient Maya history. Besides pottery, the most notable within this pocket of wonder is the wealth of medicinal plants and their ancient, indigenous techniques.
Named after nationally-acclaimed Maya herbal healer known to treat even the hopelessly ill, Elijio Panti died at the age of 103 in 1996. Moved by his impact in surrounding communities, Maria Garcia—his niece—spearheaded the protection of ecosystems around Cristo Rey, San Antonio and El Progress 7 Miles, culminating in national park status in February 2001. Today, walk in the steps of the late Elijio Panti on the medicinal trails within, then chase waterfalls and explore the on-site cave.
Healthy oceans need sharks. Worldwide, coral reefs provide food and shelter for up to one-quarter of all marine species and numerous benefits to coastal communities—and Belize is famed for our World Heritage-attested Barrier Reef, the second largest on the planet. Imagine how many marine species rely on the reef?
Sharks are still in trouble in the Caribbean, with the largest threat to sharks and rays today as overfishing. Wildlife neither knows or cares about international borders, and sharks play a critical role in keeping the populations of many prey species in balance. This has important consequences for many habitats—including Belize's coral reefs.
That's why in June 2021, Belize prohibited shark fishing within a two nautical mile raid around our resident three atolls of the Western Hemisphere's total four: Lighthouse Reef, Glover's Reef, and Turneffe atolls. With one swift motion, sharks can enjoy an additional 1,500 square miles as a safe haven in Belize.
Vividly wild and layered, including the ancient Mayan city of Caracol enveloped within, the Chiquibul Forest Belize's encompasses a total 423,000 acres of tropical forest; that's about 4 times the size of the Caribbean island of Barbados.
The area includes the largest cave system in Central America—the Caracol Mayan Site—and the Chiquibul River, which provides water to 40% of the Belize population, plus Belize's favorite lovebirds.
The Scarlet Macaw is essentially range restricted, with Chiquibul being their prime choice for breeding grounds. It's also where they're targeted by poachers for the illegal pet trade; each Scarlet Macaw chick can sell for upwards of $3,000 each, although 88 percent die in the process to the commercial market.
However, Friends For Conservation & Development—a non-profit, non-governmental organization tasked with the co-management of this trans-boundary nature since 2007—launched their Anti-poaching Strategy. To deter poachers—and monitor the nests for productivity data—rangers set up camps in the Chiquibul Forest, right under the trees where macaws nest.
With only 55 mating pairs estimated in the Chiquibul National Park, each Macaw saved is an investment in the sustainability of this species. Within one week, five caged Scarlet Macaw chicks were rescued from a captured poacher. Even better? After nearly 3 months in care, a total seven rescued Scarlet Macaw chicks were successfully released back into the wild.
Dedicated birder or no birder, seeing these kaleidoscopes flying freely in the wild is an unparalleled experience.
Similar to the role that sharks and rays play to keep estuarine, coastal and marine environments healthy, Jaguars provide the same on land. Luckily, the largest and most important jaguar habitat in Mesoamerica is the greater Selva Maya, an inverted arc of forest that stretches through Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. And now, Belize is safeguarding 236,000 acres of imperiled tropical rainforest, boosting climate efforts and securing vital habitat for species including the jaguar.
The late researcher Alan Rabinowitz was one of the first to argue that habitat connectivity is vital, and the key to saving big cats. Perhaps nowhere is both that need—and progress—more evident than where Rabinowitz’s work first began: Belize. As the catalyst for the creation of the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, renowned wildlife biologist Dr. Alan Rabinowitz observed an unprecedented population of jaguars in Belize.
In 1986, the Government of Belize named it the world's first jaguar preserve. From a humble 3,600 acres, the reserve has expanded to 128,000 acres (200 square miles) — a mosaic of river-fed habitats that also support four other feline species (puma, ocelot, jaguarundi and margay).
Try your luck sighting a big cat in the wild with a night tour—you might not see more than their scat or fresh tracks in the mud, but they'll likely see you.
Perhaps the best approach for us as travellers is to seek out our own outdoor experiences – to use the geotagged photographs not as blueprints, but as inspiration for uncovering our own hidden gems, holding their own story. Who knows? Maybe you’ll capture Belize's terrain, underwater canyons, cultural dignity, and occasional bursts of unspoken emotion as compellingly as those above.
Start with your base, choosing a regenerative Eco-lodge in Belize that not only practices conservation, but encourages the community within too. Take The Lodge at Chaa Creek as a pioneer in adventure travel, instrumental in bird research including Scarlet Macaw conservation through Birds Without Borders Project and a Bay Leaf Reforestation initiative within its 400-acre private nature reserve.
At the end of the day, community makes conservation possible. That’s what you’re building through your Belize vacation (and all those glorious Instagrammable memories), inspiring the next person that comes along. Never forget that.