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Keeper of the wild side.

LATE ONE SUMMER afternoon several years ago an old man with white hair and a wrinkled face appeared at the Belize Zoo's main gate. It was past closing time and Sharon Matola, the U.S.-born founder and director of Belize's only zoo, was tired. Still, she welcomed the man and told him to come in. Matola gave the man a personal tour (as she did for all visitors during the zoo's early days) guiding him past the zoo's tapirs, boas and currasows and telling him a little about each. When she got to the jaguars and started explaining why they are endangered in many parts of Central America, however, he began to cry. "I am very sorry, Miss," the wizened old man told Matola. "I have spent my whole life here in Belize and this is the first time I have seen the animals of my own country." For that man and, indeed, many of Belize's 200,000 people, the Belize Zoo offers a first view of their country's wildlife and the first message they have heard about the need to conserve it.

In only a decade, the Belize Zoo has become a focal point for conservation in a country vital for preserving Central American wildlife. "I want to involve the local people in their environment," Matola says of her zoo, located halfway between Belize City and Belmopan, the country's capital. "Unless people know wildlife is worth preserving, they will destroy the animals' habitat." Although only 8,800 square miles, Belize has acquired an importance that belies its size. While most trees have been burned or cut down elsewhere in the isthmus, Belize's rain forest remains largely intact. It harbors animals rare or extinct in other countries. "Belize is a showcase for biodiversity," says William Konstant, species program director for Conservation International, a U.S.-based group, and a zoo consultant. "The prospects for preserving habitats are better in Belize than anywhere else in Central America."

In fact, Belize has put nearly one-third of its land in parks and wildlife preserves, thus safeguarding more of its natural heritage than any other Central or South American country. One, the 108,000-acre Cockscomb Basin Forest Preserve, is the only refuge set aside for jaguars, the New World's largest cat. Belize (British Honduras until 1981) also possesses the most extensive coral reefs in the Americas, surpassed only by Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

That a zoo should play a pivotal role in conserving wildlife may surprise some, but not those who know Sharon Matola. Tall and good looking, Matola exudes energy, enthusiasm and indignation. She is not only the Belize Zoo's founder and director, but for many years its chief keeper, education director, publicist and fundraiser as well. And she has become one of the most outspoken and effective voices for animals and habitat preservation in Belize. "Sharon has plugged a zoo into a national and international effort to save Central America's tropical rain forest," says Konstant, who as former director of Wildlife Preservation Trust International helped fund Matola's programs. "The Belize Zoo is doing exactly what a good zoo should be doing."

Why should a Baltimore-born woman whose resume includes stints as a circus show girl, lion tamer and film assistant care about Belizean animals? "We have a great diversity of wildlife," says Matola, now a Belize citizen. "I want to help alert people here to their country's biological importance. I want to help create a national pride in Belize's wildlife and environment." She adds, "I have come a long way in 10 years. I have been involved in something far greater than myself. I put all my energy and waking moments into the zoo and into conservation. I want to share my feeling that preserving Belize's wildlife is important. When you see the magic in the eyes of the children, you know what you are doing is right."

Such grand visions were not always the main driving force behind Matola's efforts. At times, at least, merely finding money to live on took precedence. Back in 1982 she was working for a British wildlife photographer in Belize. When the flow of money from the photographer's parent company in Britain ceased and he was sent to Borneo, she was told to get rid of the animals. "There was only one way to do that," Matola says, interpreting the order to mean she was expected to kill most. "The animals had come to us injured or as backyard pets," she explains. "They could not be freed and expected to survive. The photographer had brought his British buddies to see the animals, so I thought, 'Why not charge them?'"

Matola hand-painted some crude wooden signs, hung them on trees and telephone poles, and opened her 2-acre, backyard zoo on New Year's Day, 1983. The zoo's 17 original animals included an ant-eater, tapir, jaguar, puma, margay and tayra, a long, thin, weasel-like animal that ranges from Mexico to Argentina. "People said you can't start a zoo because there are too few Belizeans to support one," Matola recalls a decade later. "I had no money. There were days I could not go near my bank. I remember when we would not throw away uneaten peanuts to save money. But I never thought the zoo would not make it. If some thing is a good idea, the money will come."

To publicize the Belize Zoo, Matola spread the word among locals, put up signs at the airport and elsewhere around Belize City, and asked the only bar owner on the road from Belize City to Belmopan, to steer tourists her way. Later, she threw a birthday party for April the tapir, inaugurated "Maya Day" for Belize's Indians, sponsored essay-writing contests in schools and organized picnics at the zoo. Matola also unashamedly begged money from Belize businessmen. She charmed one into donating $300 from each of his five companies. The Belize Zoo now boasts more than 200 corporate and private patrons, among them the Hershey Chocolate Company which contributed $20,000.

More important, Matola began regularly visiting government ministers and offices, asking for support and advocating wildlife conservation. "I banged my fists on quite a few desks," she reports. "I was a very controversial figure at first." One official leaned across his desk, looked Matola in the eye and asked, "Are you a CIA agent?" She laughed.

Matola convinced the Belize government to support the zoo's wildlife education programs in the schools. She wrote booklets for teachers and children, loaded them onto elaborately painted bicycles, motorcycles and buses, and brought them herself to every school district in the country. "The kids who came during the week with their schools would come back on the weekends with their parents," the wily business woman says.

To pay for zoo projects and to support herself, Matola raised chickens and sold them to local restaurants and markets. For some, the zoo was known as the "chicken emporium." She also led nature tours--"tours from hell," she would later call them--for Belizean travel companies.

In the end, though, Matola's efforts paid off. Now more than 20,000 a year pay to see the Belize Zoo. Another 12,000 children visit the zoo, often arriving after several hours journey over bumpy dirt roads in overcrowded school buses or in the backs of pickup trucks. As attendance has skyrocketed, so, too, the zoo itself has grown. The original 17 animals now number 120 from 47 species, all native to Belize. They include several endangered species, such as the black howler monkey, Morelet's crocodile and Baird's tapir. None were taken from the wild, Matola proudly states.

Further, the Belize Zoo has been rebuilt. The new zoo, renamed the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Center, encompasses 28 acres about a mile from the old one. In typical Matola fashion, a parachutist dropped in opening day to hand-deliver special T-shirts to dramatize the zoo's December 1991 opening. An even newer freshwater fish exhibit, designed and built largely by volunteers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium near San Francisco, opened this spring. While bigger and more professionally designed, the new Belize Zoo retains the original's rustic, bushy flavor offering visitors low-tech, natural exhibits that reflect Belize's diverse habitats. Matola and her staff of 16 still often give personal tours. And Matola's hand-painted signs still tell about the animals and the need to conserve them.

In recognition of her work, Matola received a $160,000 MacArthur Foundation grant last year to develop a conservation and research center on 84 naturally forested acres across the road from the zoo itself. The center will house teacher workshops, promote field research, provide an outdoor laboratory for biology students and sponsor wildlife tours.

More than just a promoter, Matola and her zoo have become tireless voices for conservation in Belize. She campaigned for expansion of the Cockscomb preserve in 1990, wrote a children's book (Hoodwink the Owl) on Cockscomb's critters in 1988 and donated copies to Belizean schools. A second children's book, Further Adventures of Hoodwink the Owl, was published this spring. Her popular show "Walk on the Wild Side" airs daily on British military radio and "Rambo |the toucan~ Says" twice weekly on Radio Belize. Matola is a member of a coalition of private conservation groups known by its acronym BACONGO. Her Project PACA, sponsored by the Belize Zoo, the Belize Nature Conservancy and the United Nation's CARE, helps local conservation groups strengthen their programs.

Whereas she once had to beg and cajole government officials for support, they now ask Matola to advise them. She organizes and leads scientific surveys of the Maya Mountains and other areas for the Belize Ministry of Natural Resources. One such survey resulted in the identification of a new frog species and several new plants. The Belize government uses the surveys to determine whether and where to establish protected areas.

Government advisor and respected naturalist is a long way for a former circus show girl and lion tamer to come, Matola admits. During the journey she has been called a "zoo lady," "queen of the jungle" and "babe with a mission." Now older, perhaps, but not necessarily mellower, Matola--a far-from-ancient 39--has been known to harangue store owners she found selling endangered animals, show up at parties with a snake draped around her neck and contemptuously refuse to buy wild-caught animals for the zoo. Recently, on a shopping trip to Belize City with a friend, she discovered a trendy tourist shop selling jewelry made from the shells of hawksbill turtles. Hawksbill turtles, which lay their eggs on sandy Belizean beaches, are an endangered species. Belize law protected them, but only until they reached a certain size. The problem, Matola says, is that hawksbill and other endangered sea turtles take years to grow to adulthood and sexual maturity. Just when the turtles are ready to reproduce and most need protection, they can be legally killed and products made from them legally sold, she adds. "This is an embarrassment for a country that prides itself on conservation," Matola declares. People elsewhere look to Belize as a beacon for environmental awareness." After scolding the shopkeeper, she initiated a boycott of the store.

As a result of Matola's efforts and those of others, the Belize government revised the law protecting hawksbill turtles. The new law, which went into effect February 11, prohibits the sale of any hawksbill products regardless of the turtle's size or age. But it also gives merchants a four-month grace period to sell their existing stock.

Meanwhile, Matola somehow finds time to oversee efforts to conserve rare tapirs. She chairs the tapir specialist group for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a Swiss-based organization. Tapirs, primitive odd-toed ungulates from Latin America and Southeast Asia, are related to rhinoceroses and horses. The IUCN lists all three Latin American tapir species as endangered or vulnerable. Matola is particularly concerned about Baird's or the Central American tapir. Rare throughout most of its range from Mexico to Colombia and Ecuador, Baird's tapir is still common if elusive in Belize. Matola hopes to breed in captivity the animal Belizeans call the "mountain cow."

For years, April the Belize Zoo's Baird's tapir lived alone. She arrived in April 1983 infested with screwworms, fly larvae that parasitize large animals. Matola, whose work day often runs from 5 a.m. to midnight, awoke three times nightly to give the ailing tapir medicine. To keep herself awake, she often played music from the Doors, a 1960s North American rock band. One day following her recovery, April escaped from her enclosure and, after nearly encountering a truck on the road, disappeared into the forest. Matola hooked up her stereo and played the Doors' "Light My Fire" as loudly as possible. April, perhaps recognizing the tune, returned to the zoo.

Now, the Belize Zoo has acquired a year-old male tapir found by local missionaries. Nicknamed Scotty, Matola predicts he will one day mate with April. Such a union is important, because most Baird's tapirs in zoos are bordering on becoming inbred. International rules governing trade in endangered species make it difficult to export wild-caught tapirs to U.S. zoos. But any zoo-born offspring of April and Scotty could be sent to infuse new genes into the captive population.

"I want to preserve tapirs in the wild before they are gone," Matola says. "I want to help preserve their forest habitat and the whole relationship between plants and animals and people. We use the zoo to share the feeling that conservation is important."

Jeffrey P. Cohn is a freelance writer who specializes on zoos and wildfire conservation issues.
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Title Annotation:Belize Zoo zookeeper Sharon Matola
Author:Cohn, jeffrey P.
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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