Bitten by the Chiquibul Bug

by Christiana Ferris

After studies showed that Central America’s largest cave system was facing serious threats from agricultural activities, fires, illegal logging and wildlife hunting above ground—as well as looting of cultural artifacts and vandalism in the cave—the government of Belize decided something had to be done. After all, the Chiquibul Cave System plays host to an underground stretch of the country’s largest and most important watershed, and it shelters sacred Mayan sites.

They turned to the Conservancy for help developing a management plan that outlines the research, monitoring and  limits on public use needed to conserve the cave's natural and cultural resources. Alex Wyss and Cory Holliday from the Tennessee chapter were brought in for their expertise in conservation planning and karst cave protection. spoke to Wyss about his experience in Chiquibul—the world’s fourth largest cave system—and what makes it so special.

"In Belize caves, everything is bigger, especially the chambers. You could fit an entire Super Walmart in one of them!"

Alex Wyss
Eastern Tennessee project director

What’s the connection between Tennessee and Belize?

Alex Wyss:

Here in Tennessee we’re blessed with having an incredible number of caves that have been found so far—almost 10,000, which is more than in any other state in the union. So cave preservation is a key component of our work. The folks in Belize have a lot of this karst geology, too, and Chiquibul—the largest cave system in Central America—is found in Belize.

So going to Belize was a natural fit.

Alex Wyss:

Yes, but we had no idea what a treat we were in for. Cory and I went down there with the idea that we were going to teach about cave conservation planning, but in reality we learned so much from the Belizeans. Like just how important caves are to the Maya. They’re considered sacred places—portals to the Maya underworld. Unlike here in Tennessee, every cave in Belize has evidence of Maya use. So there’s a really strong connection between the conservation community and the archaeological community in Belize, and we’re just now beginning to see this in Tennessee.

Here, a couple hours from Knoxville, The Nature Conservancy purchased the 4,200-acre Skinner Mountain tract—a biological hotspot—in 2006. One day Cory was walking the property looking for caves, and at one cave overhang, a graffiti-like drawing caught his attention. A scientist from the University of Tennessee went out to the site and verified that it in fact is cave art dating back to anywhere between 400 and 1,000 years ago. We like to call it the “lobster man.” In this case, our conservation of nature also includes the conservation of a Native American site.

It’s a common thread between Belize and Tennessee. People protecting biological and geological resources of caves are coming together with those protecting cultural resources.

Are there any differences between Belize caves and Tennessee caves?

Alex Wyss:

Other than the fact that use of caves by Native Americans in Tennessee is much less obvious than what you find in Belize, the biggest difference is the sheer size and scale of Belize caves. Everything is substantially bigger, especially the chambers. You could fit an entire Super Walmart in one of them!

It sounds like you’ve been bitten by the Belize bug. What inspired you most?

Alex Wyss:

Definitely it was the people we met. The people in Belize are doing so much with so little—so few resources. Both our TNC counterparts and the staff from Friends of Conservation and Development—our local partner there—are passionate about their work, which is incredibly effective. They really believe in the importance of what they’re doing. I want to see the people there succeed.

During one of the workshops, we met Dr. Jaime Awe, a leading expert on Maya archaeology and history. He talked about how these caves are not just geological and ecological wonders, but a storehouse of Maya relics, artifacts, and even human remains. We were so inspired that we invited him up to give a talk at the University of Tennessee on ancient Maya cave use and cave conservation in Belize. The crowd was spellbound, and at the end no one left but rather stayed behind and peppered him with questions.

What was it like to go into the cave itself?

Alex Wyss:

Well, first of all, just getting there is an adventure. What’s considered a mere field trip in Belize would be a full-blown expedition anywhere else. In fact, our first trip took place at the start of the rainy season, and because of bad road conditions in the jungle, a one hour repair delay quickly became a 24 hour delay while we dug ourselves out of the mud. That meant we had to call off the trip. But luckily we had a chance to go back three months later, and that time we made it to the cave. It was a life-changing experience for Cory and me.

Another really cool thing is that we found evidence in one of the chambers of the K-T boundary. That’s a thin geological layer that demonstrates a separation between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods thought to be caused when an asteroid hit what is today the Yucatan Peninsula, forming the Chicxulub crater. This boundary is found throughout the cave.

What was the role of Tennessee staff in the planning process?

Alex Wyss:

My role was to facilitate the workshops, and this involved months of planning ahead of time. Cory, our cave researcher, brought his experience in cave ecology and conservation to the table. The Tennessee chapter also contributed funding to hold the workshops and write up the management plan.

What’s next?

Alex Wyss:

We expect this partnership between Belize and the Tennessee to continue to benefit both of our programs. There’s just so much to learn about caves and their conservation. In a lot of ways, it’s unexplored territory. The Tennessee chapter is continuing to fund work in Belize, and Cory and I are eager to keep the partnership going and share lessons and cave conservation expertise.



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