Dr. Marcella Kelley
Jaguar Scientist, Virginia Tech University
Studied Wildlife in Macal River Valley

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Minister Maria Minna
Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)
200 Promenade du Portage
Hull, Quebec K1A 0G4 

December 7, 2001

Dear Madam:

I am writing this letter in response to the proposed Chalillo Dam project on the Macal River in the Cayo District of Belize. Since 1998 I have been conducting mammal surveys at Las Cuevas Research Station, which is located roughly 20 km upstream from the proposed dam site. My censuses have shown that this area supports a high diversity of small mammals (Caro and Kelly 2001) and that 2 species of mouse opossums, Marmosa robinsoni and Marmosa mexicana occur together at this site (Kelly and Caro, under review). This is unique. No other study from anywhere in Central America has shown two Marmosa species to co-exist within the same study site.

I currently am conducting a camera-trapping survey in this area, primarily focused on jaguars. I have analyzed the results from my pilot study which was conducted in June-July of 2001. Two results were very interesting. First, I had a higher capture success for jaguars than reported for Cockscomb or Gallon Jug. For forested roads, my capture success averaged 10.2% and was as high as 19.0%. This means that there are 1 to 2 photographs of a jaguar for every 10 nights that a single camera is up and running. Second, I have found that jaguars move very large distances within a single day. On two separate occasions I have photographed a jaguar in the morning at one camera station, and then photographed that same jaguar in the afternoon of the same day at another camera station 8 km away (as the crow flies). Likely these 8 km translate into 15 km walking, and the day was not over yet.

Additionally, I have a very high capture success of ocelots (15-20%) and capture pumas at a rate of about 6-8%. So far, I have captured a whole host of prey species on film: peccaries, tapir, white-tailed and brocket deer, ocelated turkeys, chachalacas, etc. Other small carnivores have also been captured: coati, gray fox, skunk, and tayra. It is clear this area is rich in diversity of small and large mammals. I believe that there is a high density of these species likely due to the remoteness of the area (no villages are nearby) and protection from hunting (although a small amount of poaching does occur). This area could be an important refuge for jaguars and other large mammals within Belize.

Given that jaguars range far and wide, it is likely that the proposed dam project will affect jaguar (and other species) habitat use patterns. The hydrology of the area will be altered, likely backing up the waters of the Macal River all the way to the Monkey Tail Branch, which flows near Las Cuevas Research Station. The effects of this dramatic change on wildlife are unclear. I believe it would be a grave mistake to go ahead with such a plan without further study of the large ranging species in this area such as the jaguar, tapir, and puma. Additionally, particular assemblages of the unique small mammal fauna could be wiped out completely by floodwaters. A survey of the small mammal fauna in the area to be directly flooded should be conducted.

Besides the disturbance and altered hydrology, I worry that the influx of people during the construction and maintenance phases of the dam, will lead to increased poaching in the area. In addition, the attractiveness of this area as an ecotourist destination may be compromised by the construction of such a dam. Currently the Chiquibul Forest supports many, many sites for tourists: Thousand Foot Falls, Rio On Pools, 5 Sisters Falls, Big Falls, Hidden Valley, Rio Frio Cave, and of course, the ancient Mayan temples at Caracol. Several of these sites are downstream from the proposed dam site.

I believe the value of this area as a wildlife sanctuary and ecotourist destination (which often go hand in hand in Belize) is much higher economically in the long run for the country of Belize than the electricity produced from such a dam. As I understand it, the amount of electricity produced from the proposed dam is fairly small and will not lead in any substantial way to increased self-sufficiency in energy production for Belize. Given possibly low benefits of this dam compared to the high value of the geologic, hydrologic, and historic beauty, and abundant wildlife this area supports, I would be very hesitant to make any change that could result in irreversible damage to such a unique area. As ecotourism is of continued economic importance to Belize, Belizeans should take into careful considerations the handling of one of its prized gems.

Thank you for consideration of this matter.


Marcella Kelly, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Virginia Tech University

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