The whole shoreline of Belize is protected by the world's second-largest barrier reef, 175 miles long, and by hundreds of little islands or keys, where several hundred species offish can be taken. The feeding competitions over the reef are so violent that fishing there can be a nerve-rattling experience, as when one gets into a school of blackfin tuna just ahead of the barracuda and sharks. "You'll be drifting along," says the country's most famous fisherman, Philip Andrewin, "and suddenly you'll be in the middle of a pot of boiling water, maybe a quarter of a mile long and 100 yards wide full of feeding blackfins, 10, 15, 20 pounds apiece. You bring in a few, and then all at once you start catching damaged fish, then half-fish, then just bloody heads. I've been told that the blackfin lets out a cry when he's hooked, and this draws the barracuda and the sharks, and sometimes they get so excited they come swimming right next to the boat, and we reach over and gaff them on the fly. American fishermen can't believe their own eyes!"
Occasionally an intrepid visitor will want to climb over the side and wade the reef at low tide, but Andrewin does not recommend the practice. "The big cudas sit out there in the deep water and wait for their prey to show up on the reef," he says. "When you're walking in shallow water, and you lift your foot, there's a flash of white, and the barracuda may mistake this for a small food fish. I know a man whose Achilles' tendon was nipped in two by a barracuda on the reef. That man's a cripple for life."
Hunting in Belize can be no less dangerous and far more chaotic than the fishing. There are serious weather problems. For about four months in late winter and spring, no rain falls at all, and hunting guides nurse stagnant water supplies stored in vats at their camps. If one wants a shower one usually jumps in a canal or a swamp, carefully avoiding the snakes and crocodiles. But for the six months starting in June the rain falls almost constantly, and jeeps can disappear completely in the mud. There are parts of Belize that measure as much as 170 inches of rain per year, almost all of it in the rainy season, and it is not unknown for hunters to spend four or five days perched on high hummocks, eating Cadbury's chocolate bars and waiting for the waters to recede
None of this fazes the natives, who continue a year-round style of hunting that can only be described as loosey-goosey. "Unfortunately, anything goes," says Mrs. Dora Weyer, an American naturalist who has lived in Belize for six years and who is widely respected for her numerous campaigns on behalf of wildlife. "The Belizeans consider all living things to be fair game, and as a result we're having a terrible time saving the breeding grounds of the ibis, and I think we've lost the roseate spoonbill. The jabiru stork, the largest stork in the Americas, is close to extinction. He has a wingspan of eight feet, and that's a lot of meat for a hungry family. The local people even shoot at the king vulture, the third largest American vulture after the Andean and California condors, and they have been known to shoot at the great white hawk, one of the most beautiful birds of the world."
For a long time Mrs. Weyer was heartsick about the jaguar, which had almost been eliminated in the rest of South and Central America but which remains abundant in Belize and parts of neighboring Guatemala. "The sale of jaguar hides was fierce and the pressure was enormous," the crusading naturalist explains. "As a result it's doubtful if there's even a breeding population of jaguars left in places like Costa Rica and Colombia and Venezuela, where they were once common. The same thing might have happened here, but we're blessed by some very intelligent officials. I'm so proud of our little Belize. We've cut down on the export of all wild animal hides, and by 1974 it will be illegal to export a single pelt."
One can only hope that Mrs. Weyer's optimism is well founded. For the moment, game laws in Belize are uniformly ignored. Jacklighting is common, and local hunters extoll the practice openly. "Why, when you turn on that searchlight at night you can see the eyes of everything from margays to jaguars," says one. "It's very effective." Laws against jacklighting are being pushed through, but the enforcement will remain spotty in a country that can barely afford local police, let alone game wardens.
The saving factor for the country's diminishing game population is the wild-ness and menace of the interior. No tenderfeet need attempt a typical Belizean hunt. Says Charles Payne, who guides in the northern part of the country, "We walk and climb and wade and work, and I mean work! If you hunt with me you don't sit in a Land Rover listening to Radio Belize. You move! Otherwise you better stay in the Fort George Hotel and bathe your skin. I tell every hunter, "Now, I won't nurse you along! If you don't like it, go home! Get a cheap guide! Get lost!' "
The would-be big-game hunter might also be advised that the jaguar is not a big docile pussycat like the Rocky Mountain puma, which more often seems to bear no malice toward the world. Dora Weyer tells of a Belizean guide who began his season with 20 expensive hounds and lost half on his first hunt. A jaguar that does not tree (and larger specimens seldom do) will lurk behind a rock and pick off the dogs one by one, killing them with tooth and claw in a matter of seconds, or circle around and approach the strung-out dogs from the rear, dropping them silently. Jaguars are much less dangerous to humans, but the sight of a newly caged specimen can be frightening. Philip Andrewin remembers, "A man had live-trapped a jaguar, and he brought it into town to show the schoolchildren. Every time a child got within 10 feet of the cage, that cat would throw himself at the steel bars, till finally he'd torn all the fur off his front body and his muzzle was bleeding and red, like raw meat, and his claws were ripped off, and still he was coming. They finally had to throw a canopy over the box to quiet him down."
For a few years that Belizean officialdom would rather forget, certain jaguar guides in Belize engaged in a shoddy campaign against the noble cats. "Great white hunters" from the U.S. were enticed into "guaranteed jaguar hunts" for fees ranging up to $3,000, and more often than not they wound up shooting tame jaguars without even knowing it. "It was a vicious circle," says a member of the Belize Audubon Society. "First, the Belizeans would export baby jaguars to the United States, where they'd be sold as pets for up to $500. Well, you take your pet jaguar home and by the time he's four months old you're beginning to wonder about your judgment, and by the time he's eight months old you know you made a dreadful error. So you look for a way out, and you find that the zoos won't take him because the zoos are full of them. But lo and behold, the same kindly pet shop owner takes the grown animal off your hands for $150, and your problem's solved. Then he turns around and sells the pet jaguar to a hunting guide in Belize who takes it out and releases it just ahead of a great white hunter and a pack of dogs. Surprise, surprise, the hunter gets his jaguar, and then he can go back to the States and tell everybody how brave he is."
"I don't care whom you've talked to or what they've told you," the government official said. "You won't know a bloody thing about Belizean hunting till you've talked to Jackie Vasquez. In this part of the world, Jackie Vasquez is the hunter."