In this two-part series for the Cari-Bois Environmental News Network, Belizean multimedia journalist, Carolee Chanona, explores Belize’s famed St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park and reports on the park’s conservation efforts which are supported by birding activities. READ PART 1 HERE
With a mission of fostering a balance between Belizeans and the natural environment, the Belize Audubon Society continues its efforts to build the capacity of environmental stewards in communities across the country as a means of developing leadership and strategic partnerships to sustainably manage the country’s resources.
Responsible for the management of several protected areas across Belize, the Society incorporates these sites into its environmental education programme which engaged over 10,000 people in 2019 alone.
In an interview with Cari-Bois, programme director, Dareece Chuc, shared that the majority of the people engaged in the programme were part of the Society’s school outreach efforts.
She also revealed that birding activities at the St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park is a key component of the programme’s practical activities.
Chuc explained, “The idea (of the programme) is to get the kids excited about birds, hopefully spark a curiosity for a career in conservation or even bird-guiding, and give them the tools to make their community more bird-friendly.
“Behaviour change is really the biggest challenge in any community outreach.
“But once you’re able to share the why behind conservation efforts, understanding always precedes action.”
As part of the Society’s continued efforts to sensitise school-aged children about the importance of birds, protected areas, and coexisting with nature, they also support the establishment of “Bird Gardens” in schools.
Filled with native plant species to attract birds – and ensure they have a safe space on school compounds – Chuc said these gardens help students understand the importance of functional ecosystems everywhere and not just in protected areas like St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park.
Programme results: participants getting involved in conservation work
In the first article of this two-part series, readers were introduced to Miguel Sho and Edgar Batz.
Both are currently rangers at the St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park and were inspired to get involved in conservation work because of their exposure to environmental education at an early age.
But Chuc said they aren’t the only ones.
At the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary (CTWS) – one of the protected areas under the management of the Belize Audubon Society – she said there are other rangers – Walter and Tyrique – with similar starts.
Chuc shared, “I first met Walter in 2010 for COP16. His school nominated him to attend the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico as a UNICEF Child Climate Change Ambassador for Belize.
“As for Tyrique, he grew up in the Junior Bird Club to now be employed and again, teaching this new cohort of club members.”
Park Rangers: working with school-aged children requires dedication
Orlin Chinchilla has officially worked as a ranger at the St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park since 2015 but his journey as a guide and birdwatcher didn’t start then.
Growing up in Armenia Village which is near to St. Herman’s Park, Chinchilla had a view of the park in his backyard.
He recalled, “I’ve been a tour guide, officially, for nine years but I was first introduced at 18 years old at Sleeping Giant Lodge.
“Even though I only completed primary school education, I was the only one who spoke English—moving my way up from a casual citrus reaper, to maintenance worker, to groundskeeper, to a guide, eventually.”
With no training and no previous experience, Chinchilla learned birds along the way as he accompanied guests on a trail to a lookout gazebo built in 2012.
It was the catalyst for him to return to a classroom setting for his tour guide certification which propelled him to begin birding activities after graduation.
With his first big tip, Chinchilla bought his national licence and was promoted as the first tour guide and driver at Sleeping Giant Lodge.
From there, he invested in training activities to become certified in bird identification and cave tubing (at St. Herman’s) which has been beneficial to his duties as a guide.
Chinchilla recalled, “My very first tour as a licensed guide, ever, was actually right here at St. Herman’s Cave.”
Chinchilla tells students visiting the park about his start in birding and conservation in hopes that it inspires them to understand that anyone can become environmental stewards if they try.
While some students “come in as green as ever, never even holding a pair of binoculars before,” Chinchilla added programmes like the Junior Bird Clubs and the Society’s environmental education initiative are key to their understanding of the environment and building their capacity as environmental stewards.
Overcoming challenges associated with conservation work
Over the years, birding has become a high-demand activity.
During the start of the bird migration season in 2018, Belize held its first Birding Festival with St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park being one of the birding sites.
But since the onset of the covid19 pandemic in 2020, the amount of visitors partaking in birding activities in Belize has taken a hit and the industry is still recovering.
In October 2023, the birding festival returned for its third edition and featured international guest speakers from the American Bird Association like Katinka Domen and Jesus Antonio Moo Yam.
Local birders like Roni Martinez, Batz, Sho, Chuc, and Chinchilla, also got their time to shine.
With birding activities continuing to be an important resource in Belize’s conservation activities, there is a hope for more investment and greater support.