A wildlife rescue project protects Belize’s threatened seascapes and wildlife–one manatee at a time

Zoe Walker stands behind a concrete rehabilitation pool that is currently empty.
Zoe and Paul Walker stand in front of a blue lagoon on a bright day in Belize

Zoe and Paul Walker, co-founders of Wildtracks.

In a quiet lagoon on Belize’s northern coast, sunlight—still tender in the morning hours—glances off waves in such a way that the entire body of water appears encrusted in diamonds. Mangrove roots arch into the water, protecting a shoreline that quickly transitions into forest. And here, near these complex and intelligent trees, two manatees take turns popping their snouts out of the water for a breath of fresh air.

The pair is indistinct to the untrained eye. But to Zoe Walker, co-founder of the conservation organization Wildtracks Belize, these two are old friends.

“That’s Mitch and Lucky,” she says from the grassy hillside of the manatee and primate rehabilitation facility she and her husband Paul established more than three decades ago. These animals had previously moved through the organization’s recovery process and—once healthy—settled into a life in the open water.

“They’ve been in the wild for four, maybe five years now,” Walker says. “And they’re doing fine. They come and go. They’re interested in our calves that have just gone into the lagoon enclosure, so they’re hanging around a little bit right at the moment. They’re just inquisitive. They’re really nosy nowadays.”

Wildtracks functions at a critical crossroads for the future of wildlife and healthy oceans in Belize: rehabilitating and reintroducing manatees and primates into the wild as well as providing technical support to strengthen and implement national wildlife and protected area strategies—important areas of work for WWF, too. Working alongside other local, national, and global nonprofits, government, and communities, the organization wants to meet a national target that says no animal will become extinct in Belize by 2030. It’s a tall order considering the threatened and declining population of the Antillean manatee—even in their Belizean stronghold they number only from 700 to 1,000 individuals—but it’s one that the Walkers face head-on.

How to save a manatee

Wildtracks is always prepared for a phone call reporting a sick, injured, or stranded marine mammal in need of help—so much so that the Walkers do not purchase a vehicle without first confirming that it can fit a six-foot manatee in the back. The organization is part of the National Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which helps connect animals in need with appropriate care. Many manatees that end up at Wildtracks come from around Belize City where increased boat traffic means more collisions.

“We are still relatively successful at being able to get a lot of these back to the wild,” Walker says. “A lot of times they just need somewhere safe where they can recover. Safety, food, no stress.”

Orphaned manatees often take much longer to make that return. Manatee calves and their mothers maintain physical contact 100% of the time, so separation requires the treatment of a baby’s mental health alongside any injuries or ailments.

A youngster at Wildtracks begins its rehabilitation journey in a small pool with a person in the water around the clock to offer comfort simply by existing in the same space.

“That's the way you stabilize a calf and make it want to live, give it the will to live,” Walker says. “That in-water presence has made the difference between struggling to get a calf to feed and it reaching the point where it's quite happy to feed. It needs to feel trust.”

The manatee receives a pool floaty—the sea cow equivalent of a stuffed animal—that stays with them as they move from small pool to large pool to fenced-off lagoon water. The animal receives formula to start and graduates to much-anticipated “banana smoothies” that pack the nutrients and fats necessary to put on weight. Detailed, individualized care plans and a soft release into an enclosed portion of the lagoon before the wild have helped Wildtracks successfully rehabilitate these endangered animals. It’s why Mitch and Lucky—bobbing near the shore—needed no intervention years after their release.

Of course, protecting individual manatees requires addressing the health and well-being of the larger seascape where they live.

“Wildlife rehabilitation is only one part of that solution,” Walker says. “It takes a team of people across Belize, whether it's the Fisheries Department, whether it's the people who rescue the manatees or us doing the rehabilitation or the protected-area managers who are making sure the areas are safe for manatees. And those are declining rapidly, so the protected areas are becoming more important.”

Wildtracks partitions a portion of the lagoon to help manatees adjust to life in the water.

Protecting critical seascapes in Belize

Helping manatees on the individual level is critical work but will only succeed if their habitat and the larger environment remain intact. That’s why Walker and her team also focus on building capacity for conservation in Belize—essentially determining how communities, organizations, and government can bring their skills and resources to the table to protect the nation’s precious natural resources and wildlife. Wildtracks is currently running project planning and management and grant-writing courses and partnering with other organizations to make conservation training accessible to more Belizeans.

“They are champions when it comes to national policy,” said Nadia Bood, senior program officer for marine science and climate change at WWF-Belize, of Wildtracks and other local conservation organizations. “So even though they exist locally, they also help to lend their voice to make sure that we meet national policy and management goals, too.”

WWF partners with local organizations like Wildtracks to strengthen protections of the country's coastal ecosystems. Together, we are working on seascape-level planning to protect Belize's mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, coastlines, and abundant wildlife.

Of particular focus for Wildtracks is the Northern Belize Coastal Complex—a river-to-reef seascape of protected marine areas—that stretches from the lagoons and rivers that flow into Corozal Bay to the reefs of Bacalar Chico, Hol Chan, and Caye Caulker Marine Reserves. This seascape is critical because of its coral reef formations, plentiful seagrass beds, and lush mangroves. Manatees, along with sharks, sea turtles, and a wide variety of fish need these habitats and nursing and feeding grounds healthy for their survival. Looking at this bigger picture rather than individual protected areas will achieve better conservation results.

“A lot of the work that we do here is to provide technical input at the site level, but also at the national level, about why these areas are important and why it is more effective to be able to manage them as a landscape or a seascape than as individual protected areas,” Walker says.

A vision for the future

Belize is well-positioned to build a better, healthier, and more sustainable future for people and wildlife given the coordination among communities, organizations, and the government. For Walker, this vibrant community of conservation practitioners shows that Belize is ready to meet its conservation goals, from protecting individual manatees to meeting international environmental targets.

Seeing rehabilitated manatees in the lagoon like Mitch and Lucky and hearing howler monkeys in a forest that went 80 years without them serve as a daily reminder that the hard work that the people of Belize are doing now is what will help the country achieve a brighter future for the generations to come.

“It's those things that make the whole thing worthwhile, it really is,” Walker says. “Those occasions that make your memories of why you're doing what you're doing.”