It was getting late in the day, but even the shadowed portion of a January afternoon can be hot in Belize, and Sharon Matola was tired. Since closing the gate to visitors, Matola, an American biologist and the founder and sole keeper of the Belize Zoo, had been tending her animals, shuttling from Balboa, the boa constrictor, to April, the tapir, to Hans and Sigi, the curassow couple, to Maya and Pinto, the handsome pair of jaguars. She had swept their cages and brought them plates of food, and she was collecting and cleaning the dishes when the old man appeared at the gate of the zoo, which lies in bush country, 30 miles out the lonely road from Belize City. His face was parched with wrinkles. His hair was pure white. "I have come from Belize City to see the zoo," he said.
"Come in," sighed Matola.
She began walking beside the man, leading him on the tour that is given to all who visit her zoo. "To him, every cage was part of a myth," says Matola. "He said that if you feed curassow to a dog, the dog will go crazy. Young tapirs are spotted like watermelons, and when he saw April he said that if you eat a young tapir, you'll become spotted yourself. He stayed well away from the boa, because he believed that, from sunset to sunrise, they are very poisonous to the touch. Then he got to the two jaguars. It was an incredibly beautiful afternoon. Golden sunlight was streaming into the cats' cage, and they were rolling on the ground, playing with each other. I began telling him that in the U.S., where I came from, jaguars are extinct. That they are endangered in many places in Central America, but Belize has the healthiest population of jaguars in the region because Belize has so much intact forest; there is a habitat for them. Then I noticed that he was crying. I couldn't believe it. I felt very awkward. I felt responsible. I thought that maybe his favorite dog had been killed by a jaguar and that I had reminded him of something painful."
Then, she says, the man began to speak. "I'm very sorry, Miss," he said. "I have spent all my life here in Belize, and this is the first time I have seen the animals of my country. They are so beautiful."
"It struck me then what the real importance of the zoo was," says Matola. "I had come to Belize to work on a wildlife film project, but I saw that the zoo could offer with more immediacy what the films were trying to accomplish. How turned around can life get? I'm working for a film company to show these animals to people on the BBC in Britain when people in the Belizean bush and in poor villages have never seen them. Here was a place that made those animals accessible to Belizeans and could serve as an educational facility for them."
That was nine years ago, in 1983. At the time of the old man's visit, the Belize Zoo had been open for exactly a month. Ever since, Matola's zoo has been remarkable for the unerring consistency of its mission: It has acquainted Belize with Belize.
Belize, formerly known as British Honduras, is a sliver of a country tucked along the Caribbean coast of Central America, between Mexico's Yucatán on the north and Guatemala on the south and west. It's a place with an inchoate air about it, a country that is still adjusting to the independence it won from Britain 11 years ago after existing as a crown colony since 1862. Belize is a stable democracy with a two-party political system. But two thousand British soldiers remain on duty there because of a long-standing threat from Guatemala, which until recently claimed Belize as part of its territory. Lately the soldiers and the Belize Defence Force have also had their hands full with Colombian drug runners, who refuel their airplanes on hidden landing strips in the Belizean jungle. The country has a festering problem with crack cocaine addiction, because the Colombian couriers distribute the drug as salary to their Belizean assistants, who sell it for a relative pittance on the streets of Belize City.
Belize's estimated 200,000 citizens trace their roots back to native Indians, African slaves, British loggers, Chinese from Hong Kong and refugees from assorted American countries, mainly El Salvador and Guatemala. They are poor people, and to them the Belize Zoo is many things, including one of their country's foremost cultural and entertainment attractions—Belize's Disneyland, Dodger Stadium and National Gallery. Yet the zoo remains principally the place where Belizeans come to learn about the beauty and fragility of their country. Since the beginning, when she used to stuff Balboa and some slides into her backpack, jump astride her Kawasaki 650 and, uninvited and covered with road dust, roar up to give presentations at schools all over Belize, Matola has concentrated on the country's youth. Now she can stay put; nearly every schoolchild in Belize visits the zoo at least once a year, and for those who can't, because they live in isolated villages from which travel is prohibitive, the zoo has an outreach program.
Throughout Central America, trees and animals have vanished at an astonishing rate. In the past 30 years more than half of the region has been deforested. At present Belize has more forest cover per unit of total area than any other country in Central America. A full third of Belize is now classified as protected land. There are upwards of 30 Belizean reserves, including the 103,000-acre Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary (known as the Jaguar Preserve) and the 18-square-mile Community Baboon Sanctuary. The extent to which Belize has embraced conservation is best illustrated by an advertisement for Belikin, the best-selling national beer, that reads, "Belize is a lucky country...our cool forests still exist, wild animals roam our jungles, our wondrous reef is largely unspoiled and our rivers still How freely and without pollution. We must fight to keep it that way, fight to protect our precious earth or else the earth will turn its back on us."
It would be inaccurate to credit Matola alone for all this. Belize has a low population density, making it relatively painless for politicians to set aside land. Besides that, a variety of individuals and organizations have had much to do with the country's conservation success. Yet it's not purely a coincidence that most of what has been accomplished in local conservation dates from Matola's arrival in 1982.