Looking at the Google search results, it’s easy to see why Belize attracts so many holiday-makers to its sun-soaked shores. In short, it’s a nature-lovers’ paradise. Lush tropical rainforests fill the pint-sized footprint of this Caribbean country and on the sandy outskirts, lies an expansive blanket of turquoise sea. It’s within these waters that one of nature’s most mysterious creatures resides, the Antillean manatee. 

Lovingly nicknamed ‘sea-cow’ due to its languid pace and love of grazing on all things green, the manatee, with its large paddle-shaped tail and 1500kg body, bears no genetic resemblance to cows or seals for that matter. In fact, it’s believed that these gentle giants share common ancestry with elephants. However, a lot less is known about the Antillean manatee than their trunk-bearing relatives, and unfortunately, due to this lack of scientific study on the species, it makes them difficult to protect. 

In Belize, an estimated 1,000 Antillean manatee remain in the wild and their numbers are declining due to threats such as habitat degradation, entanglement in fishing gear, poaching and boat collisions. Their endangered status has prompted serious action from conservationists and this year, Auckland Zoo carnivore keeper Helen visited Belize to lend her skills to the cause. 

Swapping her usual routine of caring for carnivores like our cheetah, African lions and red pandas, Helen spent a month working as a volunteer for Wildtracks in Belize earlier this year; a trip that was self-funded. 

Similarly to Auckland Zoo, Wildtracks is a not-for-profit organisation which is involved in a range of conservation projects. Their conservation focus is wildlife in Central America, with an emphasis on rescue, rehabilitation and release for primates and Antillean manatees. The organisation was established 30-years-ago, and still, to this day, is the only facility in Central America accepting all injured and orphaned manatees that require care. Helen explains that its dedication to manatees and the incredible work they’re doing made the decision to join the conservation team extremely easy.

“To be actively involved in the conservation of my favourite species truly means everything to me. I am so proud to be associated with an organization that is rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing so many of Belize’s national treasures. Beyond this, as an organisation, it is working at a much larger level collaborating with communities and government, helping write policies, educate change and protect critical wildlife corridors throughout the country.”

When asked why manatees are her favourite species, Helen remembers wildlife series, ‘Last Chance to See’, featuring Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry. In the very first episode, the two enthusiasts fly to Manaus, Brazil, in search of the Amazonian manatee and join a conservation team in the area that rescue and release injured manatees back into the wild. The show highlights the risks that manatees face in the wild and how their numbers are rapidly declining. 

Since the airing of the episode more than 10 years ago, manatee populations all around the world, especially Belize, still face significant threats. These threats, according to Helen, desperately require human intervention and education to prevent future loss. 

“Manatees move between areas which are high in salinity and freshwater to access food, rehydrate, rest, reproduce and nurse their offspring, which includes rivers, lagoons and coastal marine environments. These areas are popular with fisherman and therefore manatees become prone to strikes and get tangled up in fishing gear, leading to many deaths for the already shrinking population. Additionally, manatees have a low fecundity. Following a gestation period of almost a year, the cow will typically give birth to a single calf which remains dependent upon its mother for two years. This makes it very hard for the population to recover from any significant loss in numbers.”

This is why organisations like Wildtracks are so important for endangered species like the Antillean manatee, and the work it does is critical for the survival of these gentle sea cows. The rehabilitative stage of a rescued manatee requires the utmost effort from volunteers – and can often take several years – in order for animals to be physically, behaviourally and psychologically prepared and capable for life back in the wild. To help manatees transition as effortlessly and naturally as possible, the Wildtracks site makes use of the lagoon that it sits upon. In a cordoned-off area within the lagoon, manatees can begin to learn about changes in both the salinity and temperature of the water and how they can seek shelter underneath overhanging mangroves. The lagoon itself is the perfect location for their soft release site. This involves raising animals in an environment that is similar to where they will be released so they can become accustomed to their surroundings and acquire skills needed for survival in the wild. At this stage, they can come and go freely and are weaned from human contact, are able to graze freely on seagrass and mangroves, and can integrate with the wild manatee population. From here, their movements are tracked through satellite trackers.

All of this work requires a great deal of resources and labour, and just like our work at Auckland Zoo, relies heavily on the willingness and support of volunteers. Joining Wildtracks for a month is no easy feat. Helen describes long days and many hours spent dedicated to making sure all patients within the centre are adjusting and adapting well. However, it’s this time spent with manatee patients that Helen found the most rewarding, and one highlight she’ll treasure for a lifetime. 

”This year I helped nurse a five-month-old calf. It is heart-breaking to see orphaned calves but it was a privilege to be one of her careers. During the time I was there this involved pool sessions, which provided her with physical contact and stimulation, as well as many bottle feeds, which would start at 6 am and finish at 1.30 am.”

We’re so proud of our staff who never fail to show their dedication and passion for wildlife – even when the project at hand is located more than 10,000 kilometres away –to help some of the world’s most incredible species. 

Through the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund, our passionate staff and conservation partners lend their expertise to projects both locally and globally to protect wildlife and wild places. Because of your Zoo visits and donations, we’ve been able to contribute more than $4 million to a diverse and deserving number of wildlife conservation projects – and that number keeps growing, thanks to you!