Belize, a tiny country sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala, isn’t exactly a commonly known location in Boone. But this tropical nation in Central America nevertheless has a major connection to the North Carolina High Country. For the past decade, Inspire EdVentures – a Boone-based company that focuses on innovative educational experiences – has been forging a close relationship with conservation and ecological institutions in Belize, including the Belize Zoo, the “best little zoo in the world”. The Zoo is deeply involved the in conservation of some of Belize’s most vulnerable wild animals: tapirs, pumas, ocelots and, most of all, jaguars.
When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down international travel in 2020, tourism from the United States – a major contributor to the country’s economy – dried up almost overnight. At the Belize Zoo, this didn’t just mean a loss of visitors but also a struggle to keep up with the cost of feeding and maintaining animals including the 14 jaguars that call the Zoo home. That’s where Inspire EdVentures stepped in with a recent a Giving Tuesday sponsorship campaign to raise funds for the Zoo’s jaguars.
The Jaguars of Belize
“Jaguars are our ambassadors,” said Inspire EdVentures co-founder Michael Windelspecht. “They are the signature animal of Belize, and they’re what drives people to the Zoo. They’re tied so closely to the culture and the national pulse of Belize,” Through its social media campaign, Inspire EdVentures drove over $1700 dollars in donations to the Belize Zoo – and then matched it, dollar for dollar. The result was $3400 U.S dollars (the equivalent of 6,800 Belizean dollars) raised to support the Zoo.
The campaign couldn’t have come at a more vital time for the Belize Zoo, where every dollar counts. “In general, we’re meeting their basic needs”, said Jamal Andrewin-Bohn, conservation program manager at the Belize Zoo. “General care, vet care – as well as increased enrichment,” he said, referring to items like “indestructible” balls that give jaguars something to engage with. The jaguars favorite? Calvin Klein “Obsession” cologne, which works a kind of catnip to jaguars, who will rub on anything sprayed with it.
All jaguars at the Belize Zoo are formerly wild. While Belize has one of the healthiest populations of jaguars in all of Central America, as humans move further and further into Belize’s jungles, they’ve also infringed upon jaguar territories. While attacks on humans are nearly unheard of, jaguars can quickly switch to preying on cattle or chickens – and in the process possibly finding themselves on the other end of a gun.
The Belize Zoo steps in when this happens, taking in “problem jaguars” who have preyed on livestock, thus preventing further encounters between humans and jaguars that could lead to more jaguar killings. Most recently, the Zoo brought in a new, elderly jaguar, which they named Ben. “He was the textbook example of a problem jaguar – he was likely pushed out by another jaguar in his prime into nearby communities, and started hunting on someone’s farm,” Andrewin-Bohn said. The Zoo is the only place in Belize where jaguars like Ben can go in these situations, making the Zoo’s work is indispensable.
However, jaguars were not the only big cat species in residence at the Zoo. In addition to jaguars, Inspire EdVentures’ Giving Tuesday campaign also drove adoptions of three pumas (also known as mountain lions) and four smaller cat species (ocelots, margays, and jaguarundis) The grand total total was 21 sponsored big cats.
Not Just Big Cats
Matching campaigns like this are one of the many ways Inspire EdVentures is giving back to a country that has already given so much to Inspire EdVentures’ founders and the “EdVenture” groups they brought to Belize every year before the pandemic. Earlier this summer, Inspire EdVentures drove a similar matching campaign to build hurricane-proof shelters for the Belize Zoo’s tapir population.
According to Celso Poot, Director of the Belize Zoo. “We especially appreciate their recent donation towards our tapir management pen upgrade and for kickstarting the matching fund campaign to build a second pen. We would like to also convey our deepest appreciation to all donors for their support in meeting our goal on these much-needed management pens; this allows us to use our very limited resources on other required supplies for our critters’ health and wellness”
To get more people involved, since the summer of 2020 the company has been hosting virtual Zoom tours of the Zoo for students and corporate retreats as a way of not only to drive revenue and donations, but also to inspire attendees to one day travel to Belize in person.
Asked why Inspire EdVentures embarks on these campaigns, Windelspecht said “We founded our company on the ideals of giving back and making a difference. We get so much from this country every time we visit. The opportunity to experience these amazing animals, even in a virtual environment, has a huge impact on people and raises awareness of the need to protect these species. The Zoo is in a desperate state right now, and we’re just trying to help them survive until things pick back up in the spring”.
For More Information:
- Virtual Tours of the Belize Zoo
- The Big Cats of Belize
- Tapirs of Belize
- Make a Donation or Adopt an Animal at the Belize Zoo.
- The Human -Jaguar Conflict Program at the Belize Zoo
Article by Devin Windelspecht. Devin is a freelance writer who covers the intersection of science, travel, and culture. Learn more about him at devinwindelspecht.com