for National Geographic News
Efforts to protect manatees in the coastal waters of Belize stand to benefit the global conservation of the huge, sluggish marine mammals, a leading expert says.
"In Belize they've got a strong [manatee] population, probably the densest in all of Central and South America," said Caryn Self-Sullivan, a doctoral candidate in wildlife and fisheries at Texas A&M University in College Station.
Self-Sullivan studies manatees in the sparsely populated Central American country, which she says is perfectly suited to the giant animals.
(See Belize photos, maps, fast facts, and more.)
Scientists believe at least a thousand manatees ply Belize's coastal waters, which are protected by barrier reefs, dotted with mangrove islands, and sliced by narrow channels.
And the sea grass-grazing mammals, which can weigh more than 1,000 pounds (455 kilograms), have been protected in Belize since the 1930s.
The combination, according to Self-Sullivan, has allowed the endangered species to maintain a relatively robust population there, even as manatee populations elsewhere in the world face pressure from coastal development, boat traffic, and hunting.
She hopes that studying what works for manatee conservation in Belize will help keep the gentle giants from extinction and protect the coastal habitats they need to survive.
"We do face realistic obstacles that other countries face," Nicole Auil, a conservation biologist and manatee expert with the nonprofit Wildlife Trust in Belize City, Belize, said in an email.
Belize's current tourism boom, for example, is driving increased coastal development and boat traffic that pose a threat to the nation's manatees, she says.
But a program spearheaded by Wildlife Trust is promoting manatee-safe development and educates tour operators on how to avoid boat collisions with the marine mammals.
Self-Sullivan notes that manatees and other wildlife are Belize's main tourist attraction. Belizeans understand that protecting wildlife is good for the economy, she adds.
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