Belize is a critical link in the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, the biogeograhical path along which animals from North and South America travel and disperse and, with close to 40 percent of its total land area protected, is one of the most important regional contributors to the IUCN’s post-2020 biodiversity goal of protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030.
Home to some of the largest and most exquisite tropical wet forests and mangrove ecosystems in Central America, as well as the richest reefs in the Caribbean (the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef), Belize is a natural jewel of both regional and international importance.
Some 150 species of mammals (half of which are bats), including the largest concentration of felines in Central America, 151 species of reptiles and amphibians, 600 species of birds, 600 species of marine and freshwater fish, 4,000 species of flowering plants, 700 species of trees, and 700 species of butterflies have been recorded in the country, making it the 6th most biodiverse country in the world by land area.
Because of this, and thanks to Belize’s relatively low human population, the country has long been a global hotspot for both nature enthusiasts and researchers. Contributions from universities from around the world, as well as private donors, major NGOs like the WWF and intergovernmental organzations like the UN, combined with strong local efforts, have established reserves and ecological research stations throughout the country.
Other than Costa Rica, no other Central American nation has so successfully made nature and wildlife tourism the core of its “brand.”
Two places that are well worth the consideration of serious nature and wildlife travellers are the Hillbank and La Milpa Field Stations, both inside the megadiverse and critically important Rio Bravo Conservation Area, which are owned and managed (both the conservation area and the field stations) by the non-profit Programme for Belize.
The Rio Bravo Conservation Area
The Rio Bravo Conservation Area is the largest private reserve (and the second largest reserve overall) in Belize, home to the country’s highest recorded biodiversity.
Started in 1996 as part of a UN-backed, privately funded carbon sequestration project (one of the planet’s first REDD initiatives), the Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area is a crucial link between the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Petén, Guatemala and the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Campeche, Mexico, which together form the Maya Forest, the largest protected area in Central America and one of the Five Great Forests of Mesoamerica.
All of this is to say that the Programme for Belize’s Rio Bravo Conservation Area is an integral part of the globally important Mesoamerican Biodiversity Hotspot and one of the largest and most protected forestry areas on the planet.
Part of a unique and highly successful carbon offset program, the Rio Bravo Conservation Area is home to endangered animals like the Black Howler Monkey, the Jaguar (as well as the rest of Central America’s feline species), a huge number of resident and migratory birds, and some of the most spectacular reptile and amphibian diversity in Mesoamerica.
The Programme for Belize has done an admirable job of putting together species inventories here.
The Rio Bravo area also encompasses some 75 percent of the watersheds in the north of the country, including the New River, the Rio Hondo and the Belize River, making it not only a spectacular and important birding destination but home to a significant amount of Belize’s threatened turtle and neotropical freshwater fish diversity, as well as threatened West Indian Manatees.
In short, the Rio Bravo Conservation Area, and the two field stations providing the best access to it–La Milpa and Hill Bank–offer up some of the most spectacular nature and wildlife tourism experiences in northern Central America.
Before getting into the various animal groups and species found at La Milpa and Hill Bank, a short primer on the two main ecoregions that comprise the Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area: Petén-Veracruz Moist Forest and Belizean Pine Forest.
Petén-Veracruz Moist Forest
Covering most of Belize, the northern half of Guatemala and southern Mexico, the Petén-Veracruz Moist Forests form a vitally important habitat bridge between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast of northern Central America, facilitating the survival of thousands of species of plants and animals–perhaps most notably, northern Central America’s endangered large mammals.
An ecoregion that the WWF considers critically endangered, the Maya Forests and watersheds of Belize, Mexico and Guatemala are home to over 200 species of snakes and lizards, 170 species of mammals (70 of which have been recorded in the RBCMA), 450 species of birds (390 in the RBCMA), dozens of species of freshwater fish, some 100 species of amphibians and countless plant and invertebrate species.
Belizean Pine Forest (Pine Savanna)
A comparatively sparse collection of habitats compared to the lowland moist forest that dominates the RBCMA (and most of Belize), the Belizean Pine Savanna that runs the length of the coast is a relatively well-protected ecoregion.
Predominated by Caribbean Pine (in the Rio Bravo area), these savannas feature sandy soils with relatively poor drainage and, while lacking in endemism, the ecoregion contains a diverse collection of neotropical fauna, particularly birds–perhaps most emblematically, the Yellow-Headed Amazonian Parrot, which is restricted to these coastal pine forests due to poaching for the illegal pet trade and habitat loss.
The rivers and coastal areas of this ecoregion are home to vulnerable species like the Morelet’s Crocodile, American Crocodile, and the critically endangered Central American River Turtle–all of which can be found in the Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area.
Hill Bank Field Station and La Milpa Ecolodge and Research Centre
The Programme for Belize has two field sites within the Rio Bravo Conservation Area: La Milpa in the northwest and Hill Bank in the southeast.
La Milpa (La Milpa Ecolodge and Research Centre) is probably best known for being one of the largest archaeological sites in Belize and a great place from which to explore the surrounding 60 Mayan sites in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area.
Accommodation options are in either private thatched-roof cabanas with private baths or in comfortable dormitories with shared baths.
An observation blind has also been recently installed along the edge of a pond that makes it easier to observe some of the reserve’s flightier bird species–like the Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Stub-tailed Spade Bill–as well as any mammals entering and exiting the water.
Hillbank, to the southeast of La Milpa, built in 1995, is the basecamp for a wide range of RBCMA employees, including rangers, forestry personnel and others.
The New River Lagoon (home to Morelet’s Crocodiles and Central American River Turtles) and its surrounding rainforest, as well as interceding pine savannah (home to the Yellow-headed Amazon Parrot), are the main attractions at Hill Bank.
Both day visits and overnight stays can be arranged and accommodation is either private cabana or dorm-style housing with shared bathrooms.
The Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area offers some of the best tropical wet forest fieldherping in northern Central America–home to 22 species of frogs and toads, one salamander, one crocodile, eight turtles, 30 lizards, and 46 snakes.
Of the 108 reptile and amphibian species recorded in the Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area, it is the snakes that top the herpetofauna diversity list.
Clockwise (top to bottom): Salmon-bellied Racer, Snail-eating Thirst Snake (Dipsas brevifacies), Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus), Tropical Moccasin (Agkistrodon bilineatus), Variegated False Coral Snake (Pliocercus elapoides), Green Vine Snake (Oxybelis fulgidus)
The RBCMA’s diversity of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, including both moist forest and pine savannah, provide ample, well-preserved habitat for a wide range of both nocturnal and diurnal species–making for excellent day and night herping.
After the snakes, it is the lizards that dominate the Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area, including both Green and Black Iguanas, the iconic Yucatan Banded Gecko, as well as 9 species of Anole, 3 Basiliks and 2 Casque-headed Iguanas.
Clockwise (top to bottom): Rainbow Ameiva (Ameiva undulata), Yucatan Whiptail (Cnemidophorus angusticeps), Green Iguana (Iguana iguana ), Yucatan Banded Gecko (Coleonyx elegans ), Black Iguana (Ctenosaura similis )
Turtles and Crocodiles
Of the eight turtle species recorded inside the Rio Bravo Area, it is undoubtedly the critically endangered Central American River Turtle that occupies the top spot on most visitors’ target species lists
And no visit to the RBCMA would be complete without sighting a Morelet’s Crocodile
The Rio Bravo Conservation Area’s 22 species of frogs and toads (and one salamander) include standouts like (clockwise top to bottom): the Casquehead Treefrog (Triprion petasatus), Mexican Treefrog (Smilisca baudinii ), Red-eyed Treefrog (Agalychnis callidryas), Yellow Treefrog (Hyla microcephala), Red-footed Treefrog (Hyla loquax), Variegated Treefrog (Hyla ebraccata)
The Mexican Mushroomtongue Salamander (Bolitoglossa mexicana) can also be seen clinging to leaves at night:
Of the niche naturalists and wildlife travellers who are familiar with La Milpa and Hill Bank, the vast majority are likely to be birders.
And for good reason.
Some 390 species of resident and migrant birds have been recorded in the Rio Bravo Conservation Area, including iconic species like the Harpy Eagle (which has been reintroduced to the western RBCMA) and Petén-Veracruz Mosit Forest endemics/range-restricted species like Ocellated Turkey and Yellow-headed Amazonian Parrot.
Clockwise (top to bottom): Black and White Owl, Keel-billed Toucans, Ornate Hawk Eagle, White Hawk, Slaty-Tailed Trogon, Red-legged Honeycreeper.
The Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area’s unparalleled forest and wetlands ecosystems make it a dream destination for mammal watchers.
West Indian Manatees, Baird’s Tapir, Yucatan Black Howler Monkeys, Jaguar, Puma, Ocelots, Margay, Jaguarundi, Neotropical River Otters and 66 bat species call the forests around La Milpa and Hill Bank home (including the Great False Vampire Bat and Northern Ghost Bat).
While paling in comparison to the river basins south of the Isthmus of Panama (i.e., the Amazon, Orinoco, La Plata and Magdalena), Belize’s river systems feature wonderful freshwater fish diversity (118 species).
The Rio Bravo Conservation Area, which contains 75 percent of the watersheds in the north of the country, lies within the New River, the Rio Hondo and the Belize River basins, and is home to much of that diversity.
This includes Cichlasoma species like Cichlasoma meeki, Cichlasoma maculicauda, Cribroheros robertsoni, Cichlasoma freidrichstahli, Cichlasoma synspilum, Cichlasoma urophthalmus, Cryptoheros chetumalensis, Petenia splendida, Parachromis friedrichsthalii, and Vieja melanurus
Livebearers such as Belonesox belizanus, Poecilia kykesis, Gambusia luma, Heterandria bimaculata, Xiphophorus helleri.
And tetras like Astyanax aeneus and Hyphessobrycon compressus.
Anyone interested in the fish diversity of Belize would do well to consult the main authority on the subject–Greenfield and Thomerson’s Fishes of the Continental Waters of Belize (1997).
Rio Bravo Under Threat
While certainly deserving of its conservation accolades, particularly its place as one of the first UN REDD projects (and an economically viable one), the RBCMA continues to face threats.
Poaching, Illegal logging and land clearing, illegal hunting, climate change (and related forest fires) and freshwater ecosystem contamination continue to put stress on RBCMA ecosystems, as do large infrastructure projects.
What’s more, Covid-19 devastated Belize’s tourism industry, along with places like the RBCMA, which rely on both private and public funding, as well as tourism dollars to stay afloat.
This is money used to buy and service patrol vehicles, educate and pay the salaries of rangers, and maintain roads, trails and infrastructure, all of which also help further the Programme for Belize’s conservation objectives by providing livelihoods to local people.
How to visit
Visits can be arranged in advance either via email or over the phone.
See it while you can
While it is likely that the hard work Belize and the international community have done over the years will continue to see Belize remain a premier nature and wildlife travel destination into the foreseeable future, nothing is promised.
Climate change and the other anthropogenic threats discussed above will continue to place the longevity of places like the Rio Bravo Conservation Area in jeopardy.
The financial viability of initiatives like the Programme for Belize and places like Hill Bank and La Milpa depend on the largesse of concerned private and intergovernmental organizations, but also people like you–informed, passionate nature and wildlife travellers with the means and desire to visit these sites.
For anyone interested in the concept of tourism as an act of conservation, concerned about the survival of one of the most important tracts of tropical rainforest in Mesoamerica for this and future generations, you would do well to spend your tourism dollars at places like La Milpa and Hillbank.