By Karla Gabriela Hernández-Aguilar, Christina Garcia and Kamille Pennell, Ya’axché Conservation Trust
Toledo District is the southernmost District in the country of Belize. It is the least developed region in the country and features the most pristine forests, majestic rivers, coastal lowland plains, and offshore cayes. Despite its tiny size of 4,649 kilometer squared,, this area possesses a unique landscape where nature and people co-exist.
Ya’axché Conservation Trust is tasked with managing an ecologically important landscape within the Toledo Distrtict, the 770,000-acre Maya Golden Landscape. This landscape consists of three protected areas: Bladen Nature Reserve, Golden Stream Corridor Reserve, and Maya Mountain North Forest Reserve. One of the biggest challenges to the management of these protected areas is enforcement efficiency due to the limited resources of the organization. Seeking to address this challenge, Ya’axché, with the guidance of Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), piloted the use of the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) in its terrestrial protected areas in 2015—a first for Belize. By 2016, SMART was fully implemented across all of its three protected areas. SMART is helping to safeguard 150,000 acres of forest, including species such as the tapir, Jaguar, Scarlet Macaw and peccaries, and threatened timber species such as Rosewood and Mahogany.
As a protected area manager, Ya’axché needs accurate and current information on the distribution in time and space of different threats, patrol efficiency, wildlife poaching, hunting camps, tracking of arrests, detentions and ranger performance in order to make informed decisions on how and where to deploy its limited resources. To achieve this, every member of Ya’axche’s ranger team plays a very important role in the collection of enforcement data. The work starts every day with a group of 13 passionate frontline heroes (park rangers) who patrol these protected areas collecting information on illegal activities threatening these areas, guided by SMART. Last year, in 2017, the park rangers conducted 557 patrols and walked more than 37,000 miles; that is 50 percent more than when it was first implemented in 2015. The increase of our patrols and patrol coverage was a result of better systematic planning of our enforcement efforts and the collection of reliable information allowing us to measure and evaluate the impact of our work; transforming it into actions on the ground. We use the data collected through SMART and the results to design strategies for better management of this unique landscape.
As a result, the implementation of this tool has brought great benefits as it has been able not only to determine the major threats affecting our protected areas but has been able to provide us with useful data on the location of hotspots where intelligent operations need to be deployed. In addition to that, SMART has motivated our ranger team and managers through training networks, allowing for continuous capacity building and technical support. But mostly SMART has allowed us to work closely with neighboring communities to develop effective community outreach strategies.
The buck doesn’t stop there. The information generated is also used for suitable advocacy through the engagement with government agencies and other conservation NGOs. This has led to successfully lobby for implementing SMART nationally so that managers and decisionmakers have better access to information that encourages and enables results in strategic planning and operations for effective protected areas management throughout the country. These conservation actions have led Ya’axche to be recognized nationally and internationally for our efforts contributing to improved and innovative conservation of the national protected areas system of Belize, proving that long-term commitment can benefit both nature and people.
Current SMART partner members include: Frankfurt Zoological Society, Global Wildlife Conservation, North Carolina Zoo, Panthera, Peace Parks Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, Wildlife Protection Solutions, World Wildlife Fund, and Zoological Society of London.
(Top photo: Enforcement Patrol Team reviewing patrol plan and route during deep patrol in Bladen Nature Reserve. Photo courtesy of Ya’axché Conservation Trust))