David Tzul

David Tzul

David Tzul

Runaway Creek Staff (2005-present)
Birds Without Borders Staff (2003-present)
Languages: English, Yucatec Maya, Spanish
Expertise: Botany, Birds, Anuran Studies (Frogs), Butterflies, Insects
BS., Neotropical Biology

“I like to train young people to learn more about protecting natural resources and the importance of those resources. I enjoy teaching them to appreciate the beauty and intricacies of nature. I do a lot of training for tour guides, birders, or anyone who wants to be a naturalist.”

Areas of experience

I originally studied animal science in Guyana, a country in South America. Over the years I’ve worked with different conservation programs here in Belize including the Belize Audubun Society and The Program for Belize. These are the two major conservation societies in Belize. I also studied noetropical biology at Cornell University.

What are your daily responsibilities at Runaway Creek?

Initially it was mostly to conduct the Rapid Ecoogical Assessment of the whole area, and to enforce the protection of the area. This includes monitoring illegal activities. Poaching, encroachment, illegal logging and hunting. This is along with everything else we do. I partake in a lot of the research activities that take place here whether it has to do with monkeys or birds. I’m the person responsible for retrieving bird blood samples, organizing and labeling them, shipping them. When it ocmes to the spider monkey research I’m the one who asists these guys on their phrenology studies to determine which plants are important to the monkies, and to determine their flowering and fruitting seasons. I assist them with establishing vegetation study plots. Specifically I ehlp to identify important fruit plant species for monkeys. There are more than seventy five plant species that the monkeys feed on. I also have the responsibility of conducting the environmental education aspect of the Runaway Creek project. Whenever there is a need for a presentation at a shcool on birds or on any topic of environmental importance that’s me. I’ve worked with a lot with students from U.S. universitiies. I’d be the one to give a crash course on tropical ecology, for example. I pretty much do everything out there. [laughing].

Which of your responsibilities do you find to be most fulfiling?

I would say the mercury studies carried out for the migrant and residence bird species have been especially interesting. Since the study’s inception I didn’t know much about mercury issues or problems. But since we started working along with this program it was suprising to note that several species that come here have high mercury content in their blood. Now we’re pondering what is the source of this problem and whether it will escalate to a higher problem, and also what we can do about it. I’m glad to be part of it because obviously something important will result from this. We will publish something that will help to educate the majority population of belize that is unaware of the issue.

How did you originally come to Runaway Creek?

I was actually working as a naturlast for The Program for Belize which is a big orgniziation that provides education to student groups and I noted that someone was needed at Runway Creek to partake in research activities. I thought it would be an excitinig and challenging job. It would be something that might give me more experience in different fields of study. I applied for a job and was given the opportunity to do that.

Why did you decide to work in conservation and natural studies?

Initialy that’s something that started when I became a member of the Belize Autobon Society. They were very keen on workinig with issues that dealt with conservation. I got a job with them and started studying birds in 1995. Then I just really got interested in learning more about conservation in Belize. Especially noting that we do have a lot of protected areas which is a good start for Belize. Some of our neighboring countries are not so lucky. I really got carried away then [laughing]. As I began to learn more about plant and amphibean studies I became even more interested in consevation.

What is your favorite part of working in conservation?

I like to train young people to learn more about protecting natural resources and the importance of those resources. I enjoy teaching them to appreciate nature. I do a lot of training for tour guides, birders, or anyone who wants to be a naturalist.

What does Runaway Creek represent to local conservation in Belize?

Runaway Creek is one of the last remaining patches of continuous forest that connects important biological cooridors from the north to the south. It’s centrally located which allows the movement of animals and wildlife between these two centers. This ensures a healthy genetic pool. If there is isolation then we run into problems, genetically speaking. If Runaway Creek was elimintated or developed then we would have a huge north to south gap. It’s the only remaining contiguous forest. It’s critically important.

What do you see as the mission of Runaway Creek

I think it’s important to protect the natural resource in general but specifically to provide a healthy habitat for wildlife. I would say that beyond that on a global scope it provides a healthy atmosphere for the country and the whole region. It also provides an environmental education base for the next generation which will ensure the perpetuity of the whole area. If we don’t change this next generation the possibility of this place being removed still exists. It’s important to get the buffer communities to realize that the ultimate benefits of protecting this area will return to them. They will have a representative sample of the different habitats protected – broadleaf forest, pine savannah – and all the important systems. If developed who knows what will happen to all these caves – probably disappear. I’m pretty sure that if that happens the ecological repercussions will effect the people around the area. That would be the immediate effect. The long term effects would be that since Runaway Creek is very close to the coast, whatever degredation occurs here will also rise along the coast because of the streams and rivers – erosion, pollution – there won’t be any filtering mechanism without Runaway Creek.

How do you communicate the critical importance of Runaway Creek to local people?

It has to be in the form of environmenal education. Raisinig awareness of tropical species and the importance of bird species even to humans – and how do the tropical forests with birds contribute to the welfare of people. If we can accomplish this within the schools then we will have a new generation that will show much more appreciation for the natural resources in gneeral. The parents will be a tough job to accomplish. It’s very difficult to change older Mayans from what they’re used to. But i think with the growing population of the younger generation they will be much more likely to make an impact. I think the only other option we have to work with the older heads of the community is providing them with some sort of alternative income generating projects or porgrams that would minimize or reduce their dependenc on natural resources. I think people like to see tangible benefits. Not just education but money for example. If they can make money from planting trees that they can market for fence posts or whatever then their dependence on hunting and illegal logging will be reduced. It’s a big challenge but it’s not impossible for Runaway Creek. If we can get community leaders to become very innovative and start moving along that trend then i think something can be achieved to reduce this dependence. People have grown up with the culture of when the need something they go to the forest. Not only because of that but also because of their culture and tradition. But if they can produce it themselves then they won’t need to go there.

Did you have any turning point in your passion for nature and conservation?

Well, yeah. Growing up in the countryside my dad was into farming, but I was amazed that even in those times they would be able to recognize important trees and the uses of plants for home construction and medicinal purposes, for example. It’s amazing that they can recognize all this and utilize it. It’s something that struck my interest from way back. That’s how I started to learn about botany. When I started to study it, it was simply a matter of attaching scientific names to common names I’d already learned. My father and the community was very selective in what they would take. They wouldn’t destroy everthing because they knew they would need it for the future. They would harvest in a sustainable matter. Introducing machines and technology into development has allowed for things to be messed up much faster. I think the introduction of television started to have a big effect on the generation. I think the exposure to Mayan communities happened too suddenly. Everyone suddenly wants fancy shoes and things they see on television. It exploded in the minds of indigenous people. Some years ago – about 25 years – the Maya were much more conservative. They stayed in their respective areas but now they’re all over and picking up some of the most negative aspects of modern culture. I know these poeple here that go out of their way to buy a vehicle without even thinking if they can afford to maintain it instead of buying something of greater use – like a water tank so they can have clean water. The trend is the same here as in the states. People will use their land as collateral to buy a big fancy house and then they end up losing their house and their land.

What has been one of your most memorable days at runaway creek?

I think at Runaway Creek for me I think it was cave exploration. That was something I’ve never done anywhere except at Runaway Creek. It was very scary at first and I kept bouncing my head on stalagtites but then I started to get used to it. But then after discovering cartificats then we got to like caving more than anything. You get so eager to see what is in there. That cave where we discovered the huge pot – we were thinking what in the world would these people have used this huge pot for? There was so much ash underneath it. There definitely had to have been years of use in ceremonies to have ashes like that. Who knows if those aren’t all ashes from bones, you know? When I was first going into the caves it was scary because finding artifacts is something very sacred when we grew up. When my dad would be working in the forest and find a sacred site we would immediately be instructed not to touch it. In Mayan culture artifacts and sacred sites are something that are from very important people and something bad can happen to you if you disturb them. It was initially something that was against my culture and beliefs. But after so many years of doing it we got over it. But it still gets exciting every time you find a new cave. (DONT PUT ON WEBSITE).

These caves can be very dangerous though. One time as Ray and I were walking we were toughing the ground and it sounded very hollow. And then we hopped down onto a lower level in the cave and we looked below and saw that it was completely hollow underneath. And it was very deep below. We were just walking on a thin shell. If we would have fallen through it would have been a complete disaster. Then we kept walking and just around the bend I stopped and turned around to wait for Ray and Stevan. I was looking around with my headlamp and saw that I was standing right on the edge of a huge sinkhole. It was completeley vertical shaft. We threw a rock down there and you could hear it knocking along the sides of the shaft as it went down down a couple hundred feet at least. There are sink holes in the forest but I’d never known they could be in caves too. That shows you how dangerous that these caves to be.

What would be one thing you would might communicate to someone who hasn’t been able to have the unique the experiences you’ve had in nature?

I would say read more about the things that are relevant to nature. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if there’s something that you don’t know. I’m always willing to share all the time with anyone who wants to learn. Read more about it and try to visit places that offer you the opportunities to experience the beauties and intricacies of nature.


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