Na­ture di­aries

Delv­ing deep into the jun­gle, you ex­pect to come face to face with some of the loud­est, small­est and dead­li­est crea­tures in the world, but there are many you don’t want to get too close to

World of Animals - - What’s Inside... - Words Lau­rie Newman

Into the Belizean jun­gle

It was two days be­fore Christ­mas and in­stead of overindulging on fes­tive movies and choco­late I found my­self headed for Cen­tral Amer­ica. This year it would be far from tra­di­tional as I was ven­tur­ing out to ex­pe­ri­ence the cul­ture and wildlife that Belize has to of­fer.

The first stop on my trip was La­manai, which means ‘sub­merged croc­o­dile’ in the Yu­catec Mayan lan­guage. La­manai is lo­cated in the Or­ange Walk District and is home to some of the old­est Mayan ru­ins in Me­soamer­ica. It was also my en­try gate into the jun­gle.

It was only day one of my trip and by 5:15am we were al­ready out of bed and trekking through the heart of the Belizean jun­gle at La­manai Out­post Lodge. By 6am I’d al­ready been told a story that pet­ri­fied me and made me ques­tion whether it was too late to turn around.

“If there’s one crea­ture you don’t want to cross while you’re here it’s the yel­low jaw snake,” our tour guide, Ruben, ex­claimed. At the mere age of ten he was out won­der­ing around the jun­gle when he ac­ci­dently stood on one of the most deadly and ag­gres­sive snakes in Belize. “I knew I had hours to live and I was miles away from any hospi­tal, so I did what any Belizean would do: I took my ma­chete and cut the chunk of venom from my calf.”

I couldn’t fig­ure out whether be­ing sur­rounded by deadly crea­tures ex­cited me or ter­ri­fied me, but at least I knew I was in good hands. We con­tin­ued through the maze of palm trees, fol­low­ing the odd danc­ing grey cracker but­ter­fly that, as the name sug­gests, sound like fire crack­ers as they beat their wings. I was in awe of the bright-coloured birds that Belize is home to. Among my favourites were the iconic keel-billed tou­can and the yel­low war­bler, which both popped with colour among the dense green jun­gle.

In be­tween point­ing out the end­less cat­a­logue of birdlife Ruben spot­ted a path that had been cleared on the ground like the part­ing of the Red Sea. “Leaf-cut­ter ants,” he said as he ex­am­ined their hard

“The taran­tula was at least the size of an adult hand. The creepy crawlies didn't stop there”

“I couldn’t fig­ure out whether be­ing sur­rounded by deadly crea­tures ex­cited or ter­ri­fied me, but I knew I was in good hands”

work. I was shocked to see this path con­tin­ued on into the jun­gle as far as the eye could see.

The ants ex­ca­vate these paths through the night, de­liv­er­ing pieces of leaves back to their colonies in or­der to grow fungi.

I was mes­merised to learn that they can carry up to 50 times their own body­weight. While ad­mir­ing the work of these fan­tas­tic crea­tures I quickly re­alised that I had spent too much time look­ing at the ground and not enough time look­ing up at the canopy.

A pro­gres­sive noise that sounded like an air-raid siren was com­ing from deep within the tree­tops – it was the echo­ing noise of the Yu­catan black howler mon­key. We could just about make out its black shadow as it nes­tled amid the tree­tops. As we looked more closely we could iden­tify a baby that lay en­twined in its mother’s thick coat. It seemed in­trigued and stared back at me like I was a puz­zle that it was try­ing to work out.

On our way back to camp we paused at a nearby lake that was home to an adult tor­toise and a host of drag­on­flies that skipped in the warmth of the morn­ing sun­light. Ruben en­cour­aged us to stay com­pletely still, close our eyes and lis­ten to the sound of the jun­gle wak­ing up. As I con­cen­trated on the vi­brant hum of my sur­round­ings I re­alised just how far away from home I was.

Af­ter our morn­ing ac­tiv­ity we had a few hours of well-de­served free time, which I filled with swing­ing in a ham­mock and cool­ing off in the croc­o­dile-in­fested river. I was very ap­pre­hen­sive about div­ing in, but the guides re­as­sured me that no one had ever been eaten alive at La­manai.

By night­fall we were back out into the thick of the jun­gle, this time with head torches on and an ex­tra layer of bug spray. It was time for us to ex­plore the crea­tures of the night. “We usu­ally take guests on the night walk at the end of their time here at La­manai, not at the start, as we don’t want to scare you while you’re stay­ing here,” ex­plained Ruben. “Per­son­ally, I’d rather know what we were sleep­ing next to rather than be bliss­fully un­aware!” I replied.

When mov­ing around in the dark I no­ticed a glis­ten­ing that ap­peared like di­a­monds al­most ev­ery­where I looked. Ruben told me this was my light re­flect­ing off all the spi­ders’ eyes. This would no doubt be any arachno­phobe’s worst night­mare, as it was hard to find a gap

where eyes weren’t star­ing back at me. The owner of eight of them was re­vealed to be a taran­tula. Us­ing a sheath of grass, Ruben teased the spi­der in the same way that you would en­tice a kit­ten with a piece of string. It sent shiv­ers down my spine when the taran­tula came out of its home, and I could see that it was at least the size of an adult hand. The creepy crawlies didn’t stop there ei­ther, and it ap­peared that Ruben had a lot more tricks up his sleeve to lure out the crea­tures of the night.

As we con­tin­ued walk­ing into the jun­gle we shortly came to a stand­still at a tree with a huge gouge on the edge of it. I thought to my­self that this would no doubt be a per­fect home for any­thing that wouldn’t want to be dis­turbed. Ruben shone a UV light down a crack to high­light the pro­trud­ing pin­cers of a scor­pion. I found it fas­ci­nat­ing to learn that scor­pi­ons are con­sid­ered a bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cent an­i­mal, which means that un­der UV light their skele­tons glow, al­low­ing you to ex­am­ine these preda­tors in the dark.

On route back to our jun­gle hide­away, dodg­ing the odd dan­gling snake cac­tus as we went, we by­passed a pond that al­most on cue sprang into a cho­rus of croak­ing toads. These seemed rather in­no­cent crea­tures in com­par­i­son to the other rep­tiles, am­phib­ians and arach­nids we had crossed paths with over the last 12 hours. I also found it re­as­sur­ing to know that they were (hope­fully) the only an­i­mals nearby to where we were sleep­ing.

Af­ter a full day of trekking through the jun­gle I was ready for some rest. Let’s just say that I made sure I checked every inch of my bed for bugs be­fore I went to sleep that night, as I cer­tainly didn’t want to let the bed bugs bite here!

above The largest mon­key found in Belize, black howler mon­keys live in troops of be­tween four and eight mem­bers

above Oc­cu­pied for over 3,000 years, La­manai was once the site of a ma­jor Mayan civil­i­sa­tion

above Belize is home to 603 species of bird, in­clud­ing 26 species of hum­ming­bird

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