Jaguars, Toucans and Talking Kangaroos

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This story begins in 1972, when a Long Island-based outdoors writer named Nick Karas takes his 12-year-old son Ken out of school to go on a safari the entire length of Africa, from Cairo to the Cape. A precocious lad, Ken brings along a 16 mm camera to film the adventure — and a career is born. Ken grows up to be a successful wildlife filmmaker, shooting for months on end in the wilds of Central America and Africa, and showcasing his work on prestigious outlets like National Geographic and PBS. Along the way he cultivates a profound appreciation for and understanding of nature. He learns skills that few sons of Long Island ever come to master, such as how to capture fierce predators. He learns the art of patience. And even after the video age sets off an explosion of exploitative wildlife programming that prompts Ken to retire from the nature-show business, all the special knowledge he acquired will be needed for his second career: environmental conservationist.

Karas' bold plan is to rescue a precious piece of the natural world that he has come to know well from his film projects — in southern Belize, a corner of the Caribbean where the Yucatán Peninsula joins the isthmus of Central America — and he'll do it by establishing a circuit of five small, up-market lodges along the lines of the best safari camps in Africa, where the guests are few, the hospitality and guiding excellent. So far, he's got two up and running.

We land in Belize City and catch a 45-minute flight to Punta Gorda, where we're greeted by a driver whose facial features, if they weren't so smiley, could come straight from an ancient Maya frieze. Three-quarters of an hour later he delivers us to Karas' Indian Creek Lodge, the flagship of his Belize Lodge Expeditions (BLE). It's a constellation of 12 thatched-roof huts garlanding a gentle hill set in lowland tropical broadleaf forest on the coastal plain between the Maya Mountains and the sea nine miles to the east. At the dining-reception pavilion, we are greeted by the manager, also a local Maya, who offers a tray of chilled towels for us to freshen up with. A barman presents us with glasses of delicious, freshly blended pineapple and watermelon juice.

After a quick lunch of grilled chicken wraps, we are joined by Ken, who's in his mid-40s and dressed like he's still on safari: hiking boots and green bush clothes lightly splattered with mud. In manner, he is at once humbly unassuming and take-charge; he's busy, so let's get going. He wants to give us the nickel tour of the grounds before dashing off to meet his wife, whom he refers to as the Mayan Princess, and their two daughters.We pile into his four-wheel drive, and as we bounce around the grounds, Ken explains that he didn't choose the location simply because he fell in love with the land and the Princess. This chunk of property is strategically located in the midst of one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, a species-rich sliver of the Meso-American Biological Corridor, which is an effort to connect key environments and provide native plants and animals a contiguous natural pathway from Mexico to Panama. The BLE lodges will link a variety of protected habitats from the mountains to the Caribbean cays; the goal is to allow wildlife to recover to levels prevalent between the Maya era and the modern one. In so doing, he is helping to maintain the economic viability and cultural integrity of the indigenous Maya, who live a lifestyle fundamentally similar to that of their forbears centuries ago. Partly because his plan is current with major international trends in conservation and ecotourism ("We hit all the buttons," he says), Karas has garnered support from top environmental organizations (Conservation International, Flora and Fauna International and the Nature Conservancy).

In relating the history of the mission, Karas rattles off a blur of factoid-filled information about the scale of the task of reclaiming the land from the depredations of the previous owner who grew bananas and logged timber; about digging huge ponds to build up bird populations; about the for-export vegetable-growing operation; about the forestry project that's already sold mahogany to be harvested 20 years hence; about the anti-poaching patrols ... the animal orphanage ... the new lodge under construction and the plans for future ones ...

Simply contemplating the man's to-do list is enough to induce a tropical torpor; there's no way to take it all in on a nickel tour. It will take us five days to experience the grand experiment that is Belize Lodge Expeditions.

From the outside, my hut made of local materials looks promisingly indigenous. But inside it looks like a basic British-colonial hotel room, with finished walls and ceiling, a mozzy-net covered four-poster, an armoire and an armchair. I step out onto the porch, which is perfectly poised for a sunset view, to find there's no furniture on it. I then struggle with the no doubt energy-efficient on-demand water heater in a losing battle for a comfortable shower. Down at the bar, I order a margarita in the hopes that the relative proximity to Mexico will mean a happy result, but the neophyte bartender uses a measured shot and a bottled mix to make a chemical-tasting drink that's not only bad but overpriced (everything but alcohol is included in the nightly rate).

When it becomes apparent that my photographer colleague and I are the only guests in the somewhat under-decorated dining room, it is crashingly obvious that even though the lodge has technically been open a few years, it's still cutting its teeth. Two more guests are due the next day — and the dining staff calls this a busy season. But any concerns that the hospitality side of the BLE experience is going to be sabotaged by chronic growing pains are obliterated by the dinner menu, which announces a five-course journey through a variety of unfamiliar local ingredients — taro soup, vigoron salad, smoked jack fish panades and a choice of allspice pork loin or cilantro red snapper — that turn out to be flavored and cooked to perfection. The chef comes from Commander's Palace in New Orleans, and on the basis of the first dinner, it's already clear that in the food department, BLE surpasses the African safari lodges on which it is modeled.

One realm, however, where Belize is always going to suffer by comparison to Africa is that of the so-called charismatic megafauna — big animals that people like to look at. Karas has skinned that cat, so to speak, by setting up a small animal orphanage that houses a pair of jaguars (refugees from a research project in Mexico City) along with a coati mundi, a howler monkey and a toucan. In the morning, after a whopping breakfast of omelets, pancakes and fresh banana bread, we mosey down to the enclosure. Even in the confines of a chain-link cage with a concrete floor, the big cats — one spotted, one black — look magnificent as they alternately lie around being glamorous and then pounce on one another in frisky bursts of impressive athleticism. Not far away, a new, naturalistic habitat is being built for them on the ground floor of a three-story lodge called House of the Jaguar, set to open next year. It doesn't take much imagination to project that staying in the suite overlooking a lair inhabited by a handsome pair of the world's third-largest cats will be a spectacular, one-of-a-kind experience.

In point of fact, everyone around here is already living with jaguars — southern Belize has the highest concentration in Central America, and 40 of the big predators have been counted within the 60,000 acres that Karas has secured protection for. But they are masters of camouflage and the jungle is thick, so the captive experience is virtually the only guaranteed way to see them. That's true not just for guests of the lodge, but for school groups who are invited to come and learn about wildlife to encourage their environmental awareness. Locals have traditionally had a reverential yet adversarial relationship with jaguars, which they regard as a threat to their cattle and goats. Karas urges them to build fences and promises to compensate them for lost stock if they call on him to come remove the problem animal. This is where his trapping experience comes in handy: He puts the fresh kill into a cage; when the cat comes back to dine, it gets captured and is then released back into the wilderness.

Reproduced with permission from Bonnier Corporation. All rights reserved.

Published: 5 Sep 2007 | Last Updated: 31 Jul 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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