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Exploring the Frontiers of Belize – a Travelogue

Satellite BelizeFor three weeks in March 2016, botanists, professors, ecologists and horticulturalists are exploring a remote region of Belize that has been described as a “botanical black hole” that is largely undocumented by scientists. The expedition team of 11 men and women covers the Cocoa Branch river system of Stann Creek District, as well as adjacent regions of the Cayo and Toledo Districts to study this unknown ecology in near-pristine conditions.

Bruce Holst, leading international expert in epiphytes studies and the Director of Botany from Selby Gardens, has visited Belize multiple times since 2014 to work in partnership with that country’s Caves Branch Botanical Garden, as well as colleagues from the University of Belize and well-known forest and plant ecologist Dr. Steven W. Brewer. This expedition continues the work to map the interior rain forests of Belize that are among the most difficult lands to access in all of Central America.

“At Selby Gardens, we have been working to construct a historical perspective of areas visited by botanists throughout the history of exploration in the country, and Stann Creek District in particular stood out as being a botanical black hole,” Holst said in advance of the expedition. “With its varied geology, topography, and humid tropical environment, it promises to yield new discoveries for the country and possible for science.”

While the journey could yield important botanical discoveries previously unknown in academic circles, the expedition has a closer-to-home importance for the Belizean team members.

belize_600x410“This project is very important from conservation point of view,” said Ella Baron, director of Caves Branch Botanical Garden. “Vast areas in Belize disappear due to logging and agriculture development, and expeditions like this allow us to identify the natural resources of our country that need to be protected for future generations.”

Dr. Elma Kay from the University of Belize who first studied with Holst at the Missouri Botanical Garden nearly 20 years ago echoes Baron’s concerns.

“I realize once more how very, very important it is for Belize and our protected areas for us to highlight the Belizean element in such an amazing trip of exploration,” Kay said. “Our young people are anxious for role models, for seeing the adventure through the eyes of people they can relate to so that they also feel that they can be a part of the solution, of helping save biodiversity and our protected areas.”

Updates from the Field

The little-explored area in the Sittee Forest Reserve is habitat for large predators like jaguars, and the expedition team is sure to encounter snakes, insects and other animals during their journey. The scientists are carrying satellite phones to send updates during their journey. Below are updates from the jungle as they are received. Messages are from Bruce Holst, unless otherwise indicated.

  • March 3. I have the manual, and am working through the details, and have changed the necessary contacts. Sunlight would be good on this trip! Today and yesterday was drizzly all afternoon, but we are bringing in a few large li batteries as a backup.  If we have more connection, and battery we will provide more details. Leaving in the dark in just a few hours. Best, Bruce
  • March 4. Very rainy last night and more forecast, so we will have to be ready to get quite wet, and then there is the hiking in the water since trails don’t exist where we are going. Fun! Best, Bruce
  • 5:56 a.m.March 5, Day 1. On the road! 3 cars, 11 people. 20KM hike, 8 off trail. Exhausting and rainy. Feet wet all day and heavy rain so blisters and wet gear. Set up camp late.
  • Day 2. Continued upstream hoping to reach Cocoa Branch, but encountered steep hills, frequent river crossings, and heavy rain. Had to set up second camp on trail.
  • Day 3. Long and difficult hike over pass. Tough to find a route in mtns, but all happy to have arrived.
  • Day 4. …Work!
  • Day 5. Best day yet. Dry and good collecting!
  • Day 6. Forestry team completes first transect. Epiphyte team divides to explore limestone (poor) and acid soils (rich). Food is great, especially that locally sourced!
  • Day 7. Bruce and Elizabeth remaining in camp today to treat foot rot = cooking, cleaning and plant prep. Strong sun keeping batts fully charged with panels.
  • Day 8. moved camp 4km upstream. Left camera traps along way for jaguars. Several hours hiking in river. Lots of wild pigs, not peccaries. New camp nice!
  • Best collecting day yet. Forest beautiful here rich flora, fauna. Snakes, deer, monkeys, macaws, agouti and more!
  • Day 9: And the most feared animal here? The seed tick. Lots of hiking to explore new areas, upstream and on ridges. Great finds today!
  • March 14. Pls have carlitos bring all in resupply box–and a fresh roll of duct tape. thnx!
  • March 15. Pls also ensure coffee in resupply. Thnx!
  • March 16. Please also send tea with resupply. Testing Elma’s InReach so let us know if u receive this.
  • What day is it? Today hiked to highest point in region, 510 m, finding great plants along the way. Resupply arrived today, with coffee !: Last several days busy exploring mountain and valley. Good collecting! Fern diversity high. Everyone healthy except normal bites and scrapes.
  • March 18: Time for Ella, me and Liz to begin return trip. Twist is we travel by kayak and inner tubes! This to avoid torturous mountain route. Plan to arrive on 20. An adventure!
  • Elma and I switched text devices, since kelvins’ better. She, David, Marvin, Steven, guides moved camp further upriver for final week off expedition.
  • Packed plants early so hit the river to gain time and return a day early but river exhausting w rocky rapids and shallows and inner tubes slow.
  • March 20: We made it out yesterday afternoon after a grueling day of paddling through the calm waters and tackling the rapids with our fully loaded boats. The kayaks swamped easily with each rapid, requiring frequent bailing, but the canoes, which had to be portaged through some rapids, carried a large amount of gear and people and enabled us to get the whole group to the bridge for pickup by 5 p.m. The people in the inner tubes had it the worst, paddling with their hands through the calm water and in the end hiked out on land with their packs the last several km. Exhausting! Back at Caves Branch now processing plants and preparing paperwork.
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