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May 26, 2023

Forty years of the Belize Zoo!

This year the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center is celebrating forty years of service to wildlife conservation efforts in Belize. This year also marks the second annual Sharon Matola Day, recognition to the pioneer behind the institution of distinction. But why is this year’s celebration for the best little zoo in the world more special than the last? Sabreena Daly found out in this week’s look on the Bright Side.


Sabreena Daly, Reporting

The Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center remains the only wildlife park in the country. Home to over a hundred and fifty species of animals, its unique set up is recognized internationally because of its focus on the needs of native wildlife. Jamal Andrewin Bohn is the conservation program manager here at the zoo and shared Sharon Matola’s vision.

Jamal Andrewin Bohn

Jamal Andrewin Bohn, Conservation Program Manager, Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center

“It wasn’t about bringing in exotic animals from abroad for spectacle and recreation. It was about providing a platform where animals could be cared for that needed it, but also so they could serve as ambassadors for their species.”


The self-proclaimed ‘Best Little Zoo in the World’ has certified itself among local and international visitors. But the distinction did not come without challenges. In less than five years, the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center struggled to stay afloat during a global pandemic and soon after a natural disaster.

Jamal Andrewin Bohn
“The Global Pandemic was global. It was something that impacted everyone. So, Unlike going through a natural disaster so on, which can be a bit more isolated. It was something that the zoo had to navigate at a time where all of our supporters were feeling it in, in equal measure. So the fact that we still managed to get support during the pandemic, I think speaks volumes of the appreciation and the merit that the zoo holds in the minds of not just people internationally, but people locally. So we really got through that adversary, adversity with the support of, of our supporters, um, mostly in Belize at that point when the borders were so closed. So then as you rightly said, we take a breath, we get back on our feet, and then we are struck down again by a natural disaster.”


Hurricane Lisa in 2022 was the third natural disaster weathered by the Belize Zoo; but unlike the others, this storm came with the most devastation. Every animal habitat in the zoo was affected by the winds of the category one storm, and while it took six weeks of intensive recovery to have the gates reopened to the public, there are still remnants of the impacts sustained less than a year ago.

Jamal Andrewin Bohn
“That was six weeks of no access to the public, which means no income and moving every staff and every resource, mobilizing it to that rep, repair, repair and recovery, so that we are then in a position to reopen and start generating income to make that back.”


And while challenges have tested the stability of the wildlife sanctuary, it’s the rebound that has made this little zoo even more special. June third marks forty years of the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center’s service to wildlife conservation efforts in Belize and the second annual celebration of Sharon Matola Day, the pioneer of the institution. So what can we expect? An exciting day with animals and even the debut of a new home for Neo the river otter, a semiaquatic mammal seldom seen here in Belize. But that’s not all. World renowned conservationist, Jeff Corwin will be your guest zookeeper for the day.
Jamal Andrewin Bohn

“But part of the, uh, debut committee for that day is another highlight. We will be joined by Jeff Corwin, who is a world renowned conservation explorer, slash wildlife biology, slash many other things. And Jeff, Has had many shows on different major TV networks in the US. He’s been on discovery on Animal Planet, but he got his, and he says this readily, he got his start, his kickstart to his career here in Belize many years ago when he was, I think about 18. So basically the public will get a chance to see Jeff. He’ll be sharing, he’ll be putting on the role of a zookeeper for a little bit and talking about Neo’s species and about his habitat, along with our team. And then he’ll be available for Q and A and some interaction with the public.”


After the festivities with the animal residents, the celebration continues into the night with a gala and a scholarship awarded to a female studying the natural sciences– the first recipient of the Sharon Matola Conservation Scholarship.

Jamal Andrewin Bohn
“In the evening we’ll be having an actual, kind of a gala or our version of a gala here at the zoo. And that’s a ticketed event that comes with dinner and entertainment and so on. But the purpose of that event is to generate income for the Sharon Matola Conservation Scholarship that we set up last year. And so this year we’re hoping to announce the first recipient. So we did get pledges last year to get the scholarship going, and this recipient would be a young Belizean woman that is studying in the national sciences.”


With forty years of fulfilling the vision of Sharon Matola, the woman who started it all, continuing the legacy is a step the folks at the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center are committed to doing. Aside from management and protection of Belize’s faunas, the zoo is also part of a larger initiative to preserve and protect the landscapes that they occupy.
Jamal Andrewin Bohn
“So the idea is that as much as we. Standard ready to provide homes for animals, animals should, should stay in the wild, wherever possible. So we are, we’re meeting the need where it is as well. So we’re trying to reduce the number of animals that have to be taken out of problematic situations by simply keeping their habitat intact. So that is the next step, or the evolution of the zoo, looking beyond just being a traditional zoo, but actually being a center for conservation science.”


Looking on the Bright Side, I’m Sabreena Daly.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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