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A Guardian of the Mangroves Takes Flight

Monkey River, Belize. Ilka Feller/Smithsonian

Guardian of the Mangroves

As we ready for wheels up on our 25th year flying donated missions over Mesoamerica, LightHawk takes a look at how Smithsonian scientist Ilka "Candy" Feller uses flight to see mangroves in a new light and halt destruction of these unique ecosystems called the "rainforests of the sea". 

photo of Candy Feller during a LightHawk mission by Armando Ubeda/LightHawk

In the Field

"As a child, I played in a swamp near my grandma's house. It terrified and excited me all at the same time. And I still do the same thing today," says Feller.

Upon meeting Feller in Panama, Armando Ubeda, our Mesoamerica Program Manager recalls, “one of her research assistants told me, ‘you should see her in the field, she moves better than anyone I know among the dense root system and mud of the mangroves.’” Trained as an insect ecologist, Feller studies the minutiae of insect/plant relationships and embraces the thousand foot aerial perspective to discover mangrove distribution and disruptions. Feller leverages LightHawk donated flights to get a landscape-scale view of coastal mangroves forests in Belize, Florida, Nicaragua and Panama.

photo of Candy Feller courtesy of Anne Chamberlain/Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

The Rich Swamp

More than mucky swamps, Feller enthuses that mangrove forests are intricate ecosystems that provide nursery grounds, shelter and dinner table for many commercial, threatened and endangered species, including approximately 75% of all tropical commercial fish species. The emerald belt of mangroves hugging the coast also protects communities inland from storm surge, especially during hurricanes. Their dense web of serpentine roots prevents soil erosion, retains nutrients and improves water quality by filtering sediments and pollutants.


photo of Belize shrimp farms taken by Candy Feller during a LightHawk flight

Appetite for Destruction

Flights reveal that mangrove forests are in decline as activities like dredging and clearing of mangroves for tourism, shrimp farms and other developments take precedence. When mangroves are lost, fisheries decline, migratory bird species are imperiled, clean water is spoiled by erosion, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide depletes our ozone layer, and vibrant coral reefs are buried in silt and drowned by elements normally filtered out by the mangroves. Also, without the protective buffer of mangrove forests, coastal populations are at a higher risk from storms and hurricanes damage. Scientists estimate 50% of the world's mangroves have been destroyed and, if we continue at this pace, mangroves will be extinct during the next century.


photo of Pelican Cays, Belize by Candy Feller taken during a LightHawk flight

Showing What's at Stake

"The destruction that's going on within the various marine protected areas and the Belize Barrier Reef World Heritage Site is mind boggling. I think these aerial surveys are the only way to really see what is going on. Illegal clearing and filling of mangroves is rampant. And, it can happen with little notice on the ground until it is too late to stop it,” explains Feller.

“A series of aerial photographs from LightHawk flights allowed scientists to track and quantify the destruction of mangroves on these islands. They compiled these photographs along with ground surveys and developers’ plans...which they sent to government officials, conservation organizations, and the public. This was widely distributed and… as a result, pressure from all these groups resulted in a moratorium on mangrove clearing and development in this area."

photo of Turneffe Atoll mangrove destruction taken by Candy Feller during a LightHawk flight

Tracking Change from Above

LightHawk flights allow researchers, like Feller, to monitor and document landscape-level changes that occur in different cayes along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System off Belize. These studies have helped prompt better management of critical conservation sites like Turneffe Atoll, which has more than 200 mangrove islands. The atoll is thick with eagle rays, dolphins, turtles, huge green morays, whale sharks, manatees, nurse sharks, reef sharks, trunkfish, groupers, snappers, permit, horse-eye jacks, and wide-eyed divers and anglers.


photo of Ambergris Caye, Belize taken by Lee Pagni/LightHawk

A New Season in Mesoamerica Aerial Conservation

This Mesoamerica flight season starting in January, information gained on LightHawk donated flights will help guide decision making that doesn't sacrifice the health of mangroves and the coastal communities for short-term monetary gain.

Feller and her colleagues will continue to marry flight and science to uncover the close ties between healthy mangrove stands and thriving, protected communities. Generous volunteer pilots from LightHawk will ensure the valuable resource of flight is available to help preserve these coastal communities.

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