Saving savannas: development of environmental services in Belize

A Darwin Initiative mapping project in Belize has provided environmental organisations with valuable resources for biodiversity monitoring and plant identification in the country’s important savanna habitats.

Photo of school children in Belize taking part in the ‘Savanna Trail’
Local children taking part in the 'Savanna Trail'.

Darwin Initiative Grants are awarded to projects that will have a lasting impact in the host country. The remote sensing and mapping project described here did just that, directly influencing the creation in 2009 of a new Environmental Research Institute (ERI) at the University of Belize.

The ERI, the Ministry of Natural Resources and environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) based in Belize now conduct high quality work in biodiversity monitoring and plant identification. This work has been built upon the mapping databases and plant reference collections created by Dr Neil Stuart’s Darwin Initiative project, and on the training of more than 40 local environmental services professionals by UK scientists.

The local professional organisations are now able to fulfil monitoring and reporting requirements (for example to the United Nations) in order to protect plant diversity and to influence government initiatives such as the 2012 National Land Use Policy and Planning Framework which includes commitment to the monitoring and protection of biodiversity in the Belize savannas.

Underpinning research

The savannas of Belize are an important source of plant biodiversity within the Neotropics as they contain a unique mix of species from both North and South America.

The botany of the lowland Belize savannas was relatively unknown before exploration by Professor Peter Furley and colleagues from the Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), in 1996. This expedition discovered a unique diversity of plant species in this area, underscoring the global significance of the Belize savannas.

In 2005, Dr Stuart showed that savanna habitats can be mapped in detail with radar and optical satellite data. Thanks to this discovery, Dr Stuart secured funding from the Darwin Initiative, which is run by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to conduct the first comprehensive mapping and botanical assessment of savannas in Belize in partnership with the Belize government and scientists in Belize and at the RBGE.

Research findings

The Darwin Initiative mapping project, published in 2011, revealed that 10% of the savanna had been lost in the previous 20 years.

It also guided a systematic, nationwide programme of plant collecting. More than 10,000 plant specimens were collected and 54 new species identified.

Savannas were shown to contain 33% of the total floristic diversity of Belize and, importantly, 43% of all national endemic species, challenging the popular impression of savannas as areas of low biodiversity.

These new data were combined with existing historical collections from around the world to produce, in 2013, the first comprehensive botanical checklist of the savanna flora of Belize.

Engaging the next generation

The Darwin Initiative project’s research findings have been used in Belize to engage the nation’s children and create the next generation of conservationists.

In 2011, the ‘Savanna Trail’ and an accompanying classroom were established by the Belize Botanic Gardens and to date there have been visits by more than 2,000 children and 90 teachers (supported by Belize’s Ministry of Education). The findings have also been incorporated into a board game that teaches children to value the plants and animals of the savanna.

Belize Zoo is the most popular visitor attraction in the country. In 2012 it opened a 5km network of savanna trails inspired by the Darwin Initiative research findings, with interpretive signs designed by Dr Stuart and colleagues.

Relevant publications

Lenthall, Bridgewater & Furley (1999) ‘A phytogeographic analysis of woody elements of New World savannas’. Edinburgh Journal of Botany 56(2), pp 293-305

Murray et al. (2003) ‘The mangroves of Belize. Distribution, composition and classification’. Forest Ecology and Management 174, pp 265-79

Stuart, Barratt & Place (2006) ‘Classifying the neotropical savannas of Belize using remote sensing aided by ground survey’. Journal of Biogeography 33, pp 477-90

Cameron, Stuart & Goodwin (2011) ‘Savanna Ecosystems Map’. Technical Report to DEFRA for Darwin Initiative Grant 19-022 (Conservation of the lowland savanna of Belize)

Goodwin, Lopez, Stuart, Bridgewater, Haston, Furley & Harris (2013) ‘A checklist of the vascular plants of the lowland savannas of Belize, Central America’. Phytotaxa 101(1) pp 1-119

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