Wildtracks – Making waves in manatee rescue

Early last year, I started my search for international volunteer opportunities as I wanted to further develop my skill sets and gain a hands-on global perspective on wildlife conservation. The first thing I searched for were opportunities to work with manatees. When Wildtracks in Belize (Central America) popped up, I thought all my dreams had come true! I read through their entire website again and again as I did not want to miss a thing about their work saving manatees. As manatees are one of my most favourite animals in this world, I became obsessed about visiting Wildtracks. All I could think about was me going to Belize, being at Wildtracks, and being next to manatees.

Ultimately, my overall training needs at that time made the final decision for me. In the end, I accepted a wildlife conservation internship and left to South Africa. But I have never ever stopped thinking about Wildtracks and still hope one day, I will be able to visit them and participate in their great manatee conservation work.

A little bit more about Wildtracks

Wildtracks’ primary area of work concentrates on rescuing and rehabilitating the endangered Antillean manatees (Trichechus manatus ssp. manatus – a subspecies of the West Indian manatee) injured from watercraft accidents, and the Yucatan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and Geoffroy’s spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) from illegal pet trade. After months of painstaking rehabilitation work, the animals are eventually released back into the wild. As all three of the animal species are predicted to face significant decline in numbers in the coming years, it is critical that each and every individual are given every opportunity possible to survive and be returned back to the wild, something which Wildtracks has been doing since 1990, and it’s still going strong.

Antillean manatee
Antillean manatee (Photo Credit)
Geoffroy's spider monkey
Geoffroy’s spider monkey (Photo Credit)

#I found this great YouTube video about Wildtracks featured by Belize Channel 5.

Releasing wildlife back into the wild, surely that must be easy?

During my master course (Wildlife health and population management), I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the important elements of releasing animals back into the wild. I am not embarrassed to admit that, before I did this course, my understanding was…you rescue an animal, give it the care it needs, and BAM…you let it go in the wild where it will live happily ever after. As it turned out, that is definitely not the case. Especially if the animals were young at the time of rescue and have not had the chance to learn the adequate skills needed for their survival in the wild.

I’m still far from being an expert on wildlife rehabilitation and reintroduction, but what I have learnt is that the process takes a lot of resources – time, effort, patience and money. It may take months before an animal is ready to be released, if at all. You need to make sure that the animal is in good health and receives the proper assistance to help it develop the necessary skills before its full release. This is usually done in stages, gradually taking the one step closer to its future natural habitat. Wildtracks appears to have a good understanding of this step-by-step approach, which became evident to me when I read about their rehabilitation and release program. A very commendable achievement given the inherent complexities involved.

Yucatan black howler monkey
Yucatan black howler monkey (Photo Credit)

But even if all of the above is done well, one needs to consider the safety of the environment that the animal is being released into. Is it free of danger and disease? Or is the animal being released back into the ‘war zone’ it came from? Reducing threats in the habitat or evaluating the condition of the environment where an animal is to be released is also highly critical.

For more detailed information about wildlife release, CLICK HERE.

Why is community involvement so beneficial?

If my previous work as a Citizen Science Project Officer has taught me anything, it is the power of involving the community in conservation initiatives. I was very pleased to see Wildtracks actively involving the community with it’s conservation work. Wildtracks works with local fishermen, University students and the community to raise awareness of the problems faced by manatees from watercraft collisions and cruelties of illegal monkey pet trade. This is also a great way for them to inform people about their work thus increasing their presence in Belize. Involving the locals in the community, acts as a great catalyst to increasing their ownership and support of the initiative and getting more hands on board in support of making this initiative work.

Engaging the community can also be very useful (if implemented well) to achieve long-term positive outcomes. By getting local people involved, you are giving them the powerful choice to make a difference. As people become more aware of their actions and the resulting impacts, they may contribute to threat reductions in habitats by steering watercrafts with more care or reporting people harbouring illegal pets. Although this outcome may not always be a given, but it sure as hell is better than doing nothing. An important lesson I learnt so far is that it should NEVER be assumed that people are aware of a current dire conservation issue happening right in their own backyard. The higher the number of people you connect with, the wider the network, and the better access to information and chances of receiving reports of any incidents (i.e. stranded manatee)  enabling timely actions to rescue the animals.

A short one minute video by BBC Earth showing the beauty of a grazing manatee.

Some final words

Of course, the big question here is…how do I know all this? It is very tricky writing about a conservation group that I have never visited or had a personal encounter with. My highlights about Wildtracks and its work is purely based on the numerous blogs, articles, tweets, their website, YouTube videos (mostly done by their previous volunteers) and other resources which I came across during my research. But the fact that they have thrived since 1990 and look like they are not going anywhere seems a good indication things might not be that crazy there. Perhaps, they are onto something.

Visit Wildtracks for more information. I also found this lovely travel blog about volunteering with Wildtracks.

Do you know of any conservation initiative or group making a difference with community education or awareness programs? Share it in the comment section as I would love to hear about it 🙂


The views and opinions expressed here are of my own and do not represent or reflect the views, positions or opinions - expressed or implied of any agencies, conservation groups or organisations or any individuals.

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