By Wexler, Mark
National Wildlife , Vol. 37, No. 5
When Brenda Salgado arrived in northern Belize five years ago to begin field studies of black howlers, she quickly realized that her task involved more than just observing monkey behavior. 'It was evident that local villagers had a lot of negative misconceptions about wildlife in the region,' says the University of California-Davis animal behaviorist. 'So I began working with children in the area to dispel some of the myths.' Belizean folklore, she discovered, includes a notion that boa constrictors are poisonous from 6 pm to 6 am. 'People are fearful of them,' says Salgado, who took a boa to a village school to discuss how the nonpoisonous reptiles play a vital role in the forest ecosystem. 'If you're going to encourage people in a country like Belize to protect their wildlife, you also need to show concern for the people themselves.'
Salgado is among a growing group of U.S. scientists who are adhering to a new code of conservation ethics. Rather than just barreling through a developing country to collect samples and data and not leaving anything behind, these researchers are sharing their knowledge with their host communities and government officials. 'In today's world, scientists can no longer practice hit-and-run research,' says Mark Howells, a Belizean conservationist. 'In Central America, the most effective weapon we have in protecting our natural resources is increased public awareness.' Along with his wife Monique, Howells operates a riverfront ecotourism retreat called Lamanai Outpost Lodge that is adjacent to Belize's Lamanai Archeological Reserve--a protected, 1,000-acre forested area that includes not only extensive Maya ruins but also an abundance of tropical wildlife. In addition to serving tourists, the Howells have created at their own expense a research center that is a haven for foreign scientists. 'Usually one has to wade through a lot of red tape to do research abroad, but at Lamanai everything is taken care of so we can concentrate on our work,' says Adrian Treves, a University of Wisconsin primate biologist.
Since the early 1990s, Treves and Salgado have joined nearly two dozen other scientists from the United States and Canada who are conducting wildlife studies at Lamanai on everything from the effects of farm chemicals on Morelet's crocodiles to infanticide among forest monkeys. …