For Many U.S. Scientists, the Days of Hit-and-Run Research Are Over

Scientists have begun to realize that the most effective weapon for protecting natural resources is increased public awareness

  • Mark Wexler
  • Aug 01, 1999
When Brenda Salgado arrived in northern Belize five years ago to begin field studies of black howlers, she quickly realized that her task involved more than just observing monkey behavior. "It was evident that local villagers had a lot of negative misconceptions about wildlife in the region," says the University of California-Davis animal behaviorist. "So I began working with children in the area to dispel some of the myths."

Belizean folklore, she discovered, includes a notion that boa constrictors are poisonous from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. "People are fearful of them," says Salgado, who took a boa to a village school to discuss how the nonpoisonous reptiles play a vital role in the forest ecosystem. "If you´re going to encourage people in a country like Belize to protect their wildlife, you also need to show concern for the people themselves."

Salgado is among a growing group of U.S. scientists who are adhering to a new code of conservation ethics. Rather than just barreling through a developing country to collect samples and data and not leaving anything behind, these researchers are sharing their knowledge with their host communities and government officials. "In today´s world, scientists can no longer practice hit-and-run research," says Mark Howells, a Belizean conservationist. "In Central America, the most effective weapon we have in protecting our natural resources is increased public awareness."

Along with his wife Monique, Howells operates a riverfront ecotourism retreat called Lamanai Outpost Lodge that is adjacent to Belize´s Lamanai Archeological Reserve--a protected, 1,000-acre forested area that includes not only extensive Maya ruins but also an abundance of tropical wildlife. In addition to serving tourists, the Howells have created at their own expense a research center that is a haven for foreign scientists. "Usually one has to wade through a lot of red tape to do research abroad, but at Lamanai everything is taken care of so we can concentrate on our work," says Adrian Treves, a University of Wisconsin primate biologist.

Since the early 1990s, Treves and Salgado have joined nearly two dozen other scientists from the United States and Canada who are conducting wildlife studies at Lamanai on everything from the effects of farm chemicals on Morelet´s crocodiles to infanticide among forest monkeys. "In return for using their facility, the only thing the Howells ask of us is to help teach local ecologists," says Brock Fenton, a bat biologist from York University in Canada.

Situated along the broad New River Lagoon in northern Belize, the reserve is surrounded by miles of dense forest, riparian marshes and scattered settlements. Once the site of a thriving port city that dates back to 1500 b.c., Lamanai (a Mayan word meaning "submerged crocodile") has since been reclaimed by the jungle. Amid 100-foot-tall ruins and tropical trees, scientists have identified 366 species of birds and hundreds of insects and other creatures. None dominates the landscape more than the black howler, an endangered species found only in Belize, Guatemala and southern Mexico.

At Lamanai, the 15- to 22-pound monkeys travel from treetop to treetop in small troops led by a dominant male. Generated by a powerful throat sac that funnels sound into an unusually large resonating bone, the howler´s call is reminscent of the roar produced by an African lion--only louder. Indeed, the howlers´ cries, measured at 90 decibels, can be heard more than a mile away.

"We´ve observed vocal battles when two troops come within 15 feet of each other and just belt out their roars," says Treves, who speculates that such duels may help keep rivals at bay. "It´s literally deafening." Though scientists have studied the species for 60 years, much about the monkeys remains a mystery.

"We´re in the midst of a great adventure here in Belize and we don´t know where it will lead us," says Mark Howells. "But we do know that this kind of research will make a difference over the long run in protecting our wildlife."

It will also go a long way toward righting some of the wrongs North American scientists have done in the past in places like Central America. "The days of exploitive, commando-style research are over," observes Gary Hartshorn of the Organization for Tropical Studies at Duke University. "There´s a new generation of biologists out there who recognize they have an obligation to help advance conservation and education in the countries where they conduct research."

Mark Wexler is editor of this magazine.

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