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					Dances With Science
by Neal Matthews
Rewrite filed 21 Aug 2000

      Tearing through the night along the New River, our speedboat's
spotlight beam sweeps the shallows for the telltale pink glow of
crocodile eyes. Doctoral student Thomas Rainwater, splay-legged on the
bow with a rope snare on the end of a pole, has captured more than 300
endangered Morelet's crocodiles along these tree-lined banks, but
tonight all the creatures spook as we move in. It's late. Time for one
last try.
      This is the Night Safari from the Lamanai Outpost Lodge in
central Belize, a one night stand involving tourists and scientists.
Sometimes Rainwater fills the boat with as many as 15 crocs, whose
blood he will sample for DDT and other chemicals before releasing them,
at the same GPS coordinates, the next day. Visitors get to help schlep
the creatures from the black lagoon to his lab at the eco-lodge, and
observe the examinations. "For me, having people along is kind of a
rush," the Texas Tech grad student had told me before strapping a
hunter's lamp across his forehead. "I'm a little idealistic and I hope
I don't grow out of this, but I want to make a positive impact. There's
a big gap between scientists and the public, and there's gotta be a
bridge. Maybe eco-tourism is that bridge."
      About eight miles upriver from the Maya temples of Lamanai, the
water is a black mirror under a lopsided moon. The spotlight, directed
by Maya bushmaster Ben Cruz, finds another pink pair of eyes. Cruz
kills the boat's engine (an eco-friendly four-stroke outboard),
enveloping us in a wave of insect chatter and birdsong. Rainwater, his
headlamp steady on the six-foot reptile lying on the bottom amid a
welter of fallen branches, slides the snare under the surface and
sneaks it past the croc's nostrils, where two pointy teeth protrude
through the upper jaw. The animal moves back a little, it's clawed toes
sinking deeper into the bottom mud. Rainwater whispers that it's a
female as he lifts the snare over a branch and tries again, gently
slipping the loop past the croc's fangs, over the gem-like eyes, past
the tiny ear slits -- then he jerks the line. The water explodes.
      Her pleated belly is a rolling blur in our lights. In quiet
voices and quick, practiced movements, Rainwater and Cruz play her out
into deeper water, where she soon gives up and awaits her fate. "Let's
get her back quick," Rainwater tells Cruz as they muscle her aboard and
wrap her snout and legs in duct tape. Rainwater points out her widebody
build and guesses she's pregnant with eggs -- especially good news for
the scientist, and a major thrill for the rest of us.

[section break]

      In Belize, scientists make it possible for visitors to feel like
participants in a national resistance movement against the
environmental assault underway throughout Central America. Stuck like a
pebble under the boot of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, with a population
of only 230,000 in a country the size of Massachusetts, Belize has
protected about 43 percent of its landmass in 58 separate forest
reserves, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and marine refuges --
all with the help of scientists like Rainwater. Research activity in
Belize has achieved critical mass and chain reaction.
       "It's got the reefs, snakes, monkeys, birds, archaeology -- you
name it," says Norm Rosen, a professor of anthropology at Cal State
Fullerton, who was on the Night Safari as a tourist and just
established a field school covering culture, archaeology, primatology,
and visual anthropology at Lamanai. "There are no civil wars here,
they're not ripping down the forests. Scientists are making some real
breakthroughs, and the government is encouraging to researchers. When
you're opening up a field school, I guess you don't want Camp Runamuck,
but you want everybody to be happy. On a scale of one to ten," Rosen
chuckles, "we found Belize to be a twelve."
        The country's official language is English -- the semi-official
language of science. The vibrant but war-scarred cultural ferment of
neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, and the political slipperiness of
Mexico, make peaceful Belize seem like an oasis. Prior to 1981 it was a
British colony, and while its forest were logged for hardwoods, luckily
its mountains were never clear-cut, and rivers instead of roads
provided transportation. It's ecological assets can still be saved with
preventive, rather than curative, measures. Belizean researchers speak
openly of trying to save the country from being swamped by the incoming
tide of tourism, and this has led to conservation-minded research,
giving Belize a leg-up in protecting her treasures from being loved to
       At Lamanai, Rainwater's crocodile study is just one of many such
projects, including work on birds, bats, insects, howler monkeys, and
archaeology. The propeller heads are literally unavoidable. A short
distance from the lodge, you step off the boat in front of the Mayan
ruins and practically trip over archaeologist Linda Howie-Langs. She
studies how Maya ceramics changed at the time of the Maya cultural
collapse, around 900 A.D., in a temporary thatched lab set up in front
of the ruins where she spreads out her potsherds on a big wooden table.
Her work requires no further excavation, part of the less invasive
modern approach to archaeology. She lives at the Lamanai Outpost Lodge,
and part of her deal there requires that she be willing to mingle and
answer questions from visitors. "It's very Indiana Jones, a very
dramatic site," she says. "I've had two snake days in a row -- a boa
lives close to my work table. And there's a colony of tarantulas
       Not that she's complaining. "Having close contact with other
scientists is a real plus," Howie-Langs explains. "Working close to
monkey people and bird people gives you awareness of different ways
scientists approach problems, and increases your awareness of the
environment." Then she laughs. "At the lodge, having all your meals
prepared and your laundry done, if you don't finish your work you can't
blame it on primitive living conditions!"

[section break]

      Near the boat dock of Lamanai Outpost Lodge, Mark Howells looks
up into a tall tree at Mikelet, the resident howler monkey. She stares
down at us through shiny black eyes, a silent participant in the
conversation. "The thing it comes down to," says Howells, who operates
the lodge with his wife, Monique, "is this is my home, and I'd like to
see it stay as it is."
      Toward that end the Australia-born Howells established, with his
late father, the Lamanai Field Research Center. He set aside three of
his 20 rooms for scientists working on local research projects, and his
lodge is now a microcosm of what's happening throughout Belize. "To
talk about conservation, you have to put a value on the land," says
Howells. "It has to be worth something in order to save it, and you
have to convince the local people of that worth. And science can play a
huge part in building that financial foundation on the environment."
      That can extend all the way down to the grass roots, where
Rainwater sometimes pays local Belizeans for crocodile eggs which would
otherwise be destroyed. Howells employs local cooks, maids, and guides
who otherwise might be dependent on slashing and burning the forest for
subsistence farming, and requires that scientists at Lamanai regularly
visit the nearby elementary school to give presentations. In the
classroom, Rainwater and a few other researchers regularly let local
snakes bite them (they enjoy comparing scars), chipping away at
ignorance and proving not every snake in the jungle is deadly.
      The morning after the Night Safari, I find Rainwater in a small
wooden out-building behind the eco-lodge, taking a blood sample from
the pregnant croc and rigging it into a rope sling for weighing. Using
a centrifuge and a microscope, he'll be checking hormone levels in her
blood to determine whether agricultural chemicals in the lagoon have
affected her. Rainwater's crocs are the proverbial canaries in the coal
mine. They are registering a baseline level of chemical contaminants
that will be used to measure environmental degradation from expanding
agriculture or tourism activities.
      "Hopefully, in 20 or 30 years I'll come back and see some of the
same crocs," Rainwater says as he hoists the motionless animal onto a
hanging scale. Her soft underbelly is a mosaic the color of faded
gardenia petals glowing in the early light streaming through the
doorway. Weight: 70 pounds. Length: six feet, six inches. A couple of
visitors from the lodge have wandered back to the lab after breakfast,
and snap pictures as the scientist readies the croc for the return to
its lair.

Mounds of Secrets

      But not every scientific outpost is a Norman Rockwell tableau.
Along the Guatemalan border, at El Pilar Archaeological Preserve, an
advanced research technique that protects the Maya forest is attracting
poachers precisely because it is so successful. When I visit the
ancient Maya city, blanketed in dense jungle about 12 miles north of
San Ignacio near the village of Bullet Tree Falls, it is late afternoon
and the pale yellow butterflies seem to float on the thick air. Looming
mounds overgrown with ferns cover intricate Maya temples in cocoons of
time. Dappled sunlight falls onto grassy dells studded with copal trees
rooted in 1000-year-old ceremonial plazas. A trail leads to ridgelines
overlooking the border, a buzzing green riot of rolling forest that
appears deceptively indestructible.
      El Pilar is a unique kind of research project spread over 1900
acres in what was once a thriving Maya metropolis about 60 miles
southwest of Lamanai. The purpose of the El Pilar Archaeological
Preserve, a moody warren of some 15 overgrown plazas and numerous
temple mounds, is to create a conservation model encompassing the Maya
forest as well as the hidden ruins, overseen by a formal association of
Maya descendants in the nearby villages who operate the Amigos de El
Pilar cultural center and crafts shop in Bullet Tree Falls.
      While scientists in other regions of Latin America have been
sneered at as "bio-pirates" bent on extracting profitable compounds for
corporate masters, in Belize, and especially at El Pilar, scientists
have become guardians. Compared to fully excavated Maya temples, their
treasures long since carted off to distant museums, El Pilar is more
edgy and evocative because you sense the power and presence of the
hidden. It feels as if the forest is a patient mother, waiting for the
day when the modern world self-destructs and the Maya return. But her
patience is beginning to flag.
      "The forest at El Pilar is presently at risk," says Anabel Ford,
the UC Santa Barbara archaeologist who started mapping the site in
1983, and remains the designated project leader. "Cows are brought in
to drink from the Maya waterholes, and there's been some illegal
logging. Developing public interest in the site among the local
villagers is one of the main ways conservation can be enforced now."
      So Ford is as much community organizer as archaeological
visionary. Her experiment in helping living Maya preserve remnants of
their ancient glory may be shortlived, if the steady chipping away of
the forest continues. Belize has only a handful of forest rangers to
police preserve boundaries, and its history of enforcing environmental
protection regulations is not spotty. Spending an afternoon at El Pilar
has become an act of solidarity with a movement that rejects both
archaeological and arboreal invasion. It's not like hefting crocodiles,
but it's still a participating role in developing research. As the
falling sun casts a misty glow over El Pilar's buried city, I sit to
rest on a rustic bench made of dried jungle vines. From this ridge you
can gaze down across the invisible border to Guatemala, wondering which
trail the returning Maya will march in on.

[section break]

      The maelstrom of brown nurse sharks in a feeding frenzy seems
unreal -- until one of the animals swishes its tail across my belly.
This is in 10 feet of water in the newest addition to Hol Chan Marine
Preserve, a section of the turquoise shallows off Amergris Caye called
Shark/Ray Alley. When we tied up to a mooring ball our boatman, a
fisherman-turned-dive guide, had chummed the surface with a handful of
anchovies, and before he could stop me I had slipped over the side in
snorkel gear.
      The sharks and the big stickleback rays are pettable, but the
nearby corals are strictly a no-touch zone. Hol Chan, a Maya term
referring to the "Little Channel" cut through the reef, is a seven-
square mile marine reserve set aside in 1987, the first of a necklace
of marine parks envisioned along the 185-miles of barrier reef fringing
the Belizean shoreline. Scientists kick-started the project, which has
become a model for squeezing cash out of a coral reef without killing
      "All the fishermen have now become dive guides, and they're
making more money," says Miguel Alamilla, a marine biologist and the
manager of Hol Chan. "They were the ones who proposed expanding into
Shark/Ray Alley, and they have now proposed including another area of
about five square miles to the south." The $5 entrance fee covers the
cost of administering and maintaining the park, which hosted 37,000
snorkelers and scuba divers in 1999.
      Suspended in womb-warm 100-foot visibility near the Hol Chan cut,
you can take in whole communities of sea life at a glance. Husky
grouper lurk under overhanging branches of healthy elkhorn coral.
Silvery tarpon lie motionless near the bottom of the channel, with
several layers of schooling fish rising above them. Sea turtles cruise
by, and pastel parrot fish pull into cleaning stations to open their
gill plates like car hoods for the busy wrasses. It all seems timeless.
      But in reality, such fecundity is a recent comeback. In the early
1980's the reef around Hol Chan was almost a desert, completely fished-
out. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which had also taken an
activist role in preserving Belizean jaguars in the Cockscomb Basin
Wildlife Sanctuary in the Maya Mountains, made an offer marine
biologist Jacque Carter couldn't refuse: a supporting grant to study
Nassau grouper near the Hol Chan cut, and to develop a plan for a
preserve to save them.
      "A park is the best way to protect an animal," says Chuck Carr,
the WCS Mesoamerican and Caribbean coordinator, who helped recruit
Carter. "We could see there was all this development on its way to
Belize. What we needed was the aquatic equivalent to the jaguar, or the
mountain gorilla -- big, charismatic mega-fauna." A BCM, in
conservation shop talk.
      The Nassau grouper fit the bill, and Carter's study laid the
groundwork for the park. You can usually spot these husky fish down
close to the bottom of the reef channel, looking wary but regal,
surveying their domain from the shade of overhanging coral. Their
august presence certifies the power of human curiosity, and as I dive
down toward one our underwater dance is now a scientific certainty. #

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