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Simon Barnes
Simon Barnes

Simon Barnes, wildlife spotting at night in Belize.

The Times Saturday August 6 2005 Comment 23

Two glittering stars on one day in the rainforest. Just how lucky is that?


THERE ARE two kinds of luck. The first comes from work, from the hours put in, from the ability to recognise and seize an opportunity. Call it deserved luck. The second kind is much better. It is the luck that comes from nowhere, the luck that strikes from a cloudless sky, the luck that comes as a whimsical blessing from fate. That is undeserved luck. It happens, sometimes, to those with a taste for the wild. And in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area it happened to me.

Vladimir Rodriguez has worked as a field naturalist for Programme for Belize for six years and he has seen them 14 times. Ramon Pacheco has worked as station manager at La Milpa, deep in the rainforest, for eight years, and has seen them eight times. John Burton, head honcho of the World Land Trust, has made “about 20” trips to the forests of Belize over 15 years, and has never seen one.

You’re not supposed to see them. My guide book to the Belizean wildlife told me: “Banish all thoughts right now of ever encountering El Tigre.” But with wildlife you never banish all thoughts. The secret is to set out with hopes high and expectations low. Even on your second day in the rainforests of Belize.

And there, as we hammered down a forest track in the pick-up, a wild yell from Vladimir, and Ramon was standing on the brakes: and there ahead of us, nonchalant, burly, huge, perfect, a total embodiment of bottomless cool: the matchless spotted coat in perfect light as he watched us, turned and padded nonchalantly, brimming with easy, understated confidence, back into the gust of the forest.

Jaguar. Or perhaps I mean: Jaguar! And we were swapping hand-shakes and whooping and uttering prayerful obscenities (that was me) and wondering, above all, what we would say to Burton. For this, should you need me to tell you, is undeserved luck: and it was a great moment in a lifetime of chasing wildlife.

  • THERE IS a decent population of jaguars in Belize: about 1,000 of them. This is because there is a decent amount of rainforest. Jaguar – the cars rather than the big pussies – have, with rather splendid appropriateness, put money into jaguar conservation here. So have any other people, by means of the World Land Trust. The trust has a majestically simple approach to the conservation of threatened habitats round the world: buy ‘em.

    So they advised on the establishment of Programme for Belize, and helped the project to purchase big and beautiful chunks of rainforest, teeming with big and beautiful seldom-seen cats. The trust is the place to go if you want to buy an acre of rainforest – or for that matter, of coral island, Patagonian desert or Ecuadorian dry forest.

  • THE RAINFOREST is the place to go if you like life. Life comes in more different forms here than it does anywhere else on earth: endless forms most beautiful, to use Darwin’s perfect phrase. Take pussies for example. The forest doesn’t just do jaguars. You can also find, in order of size, oncilla, ocelot, margay, jaguarondi and puma, each operating in slightly different niches. Burton has seen jaguarondi and claimed, with spectacular but decreasing conviction, that this was not only more unusual but actually far more interesting.

    Looking for wildlife in the forest is not like the open plains of Africa. You need luck, and you need to revel in sudden, vivid glimpses. The forest teems with life, but it stores up the actual sightings as sudden, startling revelations.
    Everything then, is to be treasured. The forest periodically echoes to the sound of the howler monkeys, a wild, demented sound caught forever halfway between a roar and a vomit.

    They eat mostly leaves, which is not a hard thing to find in the canopy of the rainforest, so they have little to do all day but sit about eating and howling. But spider monkeys have a more energetic form of existence, swinging themselves about the canopy with glorious displays of five-limbed gymnastics – the fifth being a tail. A troupe of spider moneys does a fair amount of teeming all by themselves.

  • ALL THIS and Daryl Hannah too. Yes, the mermaid herself came out with us. Hannah – star of Kill Bill, Splash and of course, Attack of the Fifty-foot Woman – came out to do a photo-shoot for Hello! Because of her deeply-held ecological convictions. Daryl, jaguars, the teeming forest: it was tough but someone had to do it.

Reproduced here by kind permission of The Times newspaper.

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