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Looking Back in Time High Over Guatemala's Selva Maya

Ancient Mayan temples rise above the dense jungles in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve. credit:  George Simchuk/LightHawk

Walking through the dense jungle forests of northern Guatemala, LightHawk Mesoamerica Program Manager Armando Ubeda could easily walk right by a huge Mayan temple just ten feet away without ever having a clue it was there. But, from 1,000 feet up in the cabin of a small plane, these grey stone pyramids built during the Pre-Classic period reveal themselves as grey stone beacons rising above the verdant canopy. Each year since 2000, LightHawk has donated flights in the Petén area of Guatemala to protect the jungles, wildlife and the archeological record of the Mayan empire.

The Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) in northern Guatemala was once part of the vast territory occupied by one of the greatest civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica, the Mayas. The history of the Mayas goes back to 1500 BCE (Before Common Era), and their territory extended from the southern Mexican states down to western Honduras. From 350 BCE to 900 CE (Common Era), the Petén area, where the MBR is located, was considered the epicenter of the Maya civilization. More than 200 archeological sites including the famous city of Tikal, have been discovered inside the Selva Maya (Maya Jungle).

Slash and burn agriculture includes intentionally-set forest fires to clear land to plant crops. This fire was observed close to the border of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Flights provide an important vehicle for MBR personnel to monitor the reserve and possible encroachments. credit: Richard Grant

Due to its archeological and cultural importance, as well as the high levels of biodiversity, the Guatemalan government and UNESCO established the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 1990. This 8,100 square mile reserve that encompasses 10% of Guatemala is home to many species such as pumas, scarlet macaws, jaguars, spider monkeys, toucans and orange-breasted falcons. The reserve also provides shelter for millions of migratory birds and protects the largest broadleaf forest north of the Amazon Basin. Despite its protected status, the reserve still faces many threats and because the reserve is located in a remote, rugged part of the country that borders Mexico and Belize, it must rely on the nimble platform of flight to meet these challenges.

Donated flight missions are key to monitoring, stopping and preventing damage to the integrity of the Mayan Mountain Biosphere Reserve. Ground patrols would not be able to reach many remote sites, let along cover the vast expanses as quickly as aircraft. Flights are invaluable to conservation partners and local authorities to help detect and end illegal forest fires, hunters’ campgrounds, squatters’ settlements, agricultural fields, cattle ranching, marijuana plantations and looting of Mayan ruins and temples.

Like Indiana Jones in the pilot’s seat, LightHawk volunteer pilots also help search for undiscovered Mayan sites and monitor existing protected Mayan ruins like the Tikal National Park. Scientists enlist LightHawk to search for and track key species like jaguars, tapirs and scarlet macaws outfitted with radio collar transmitters. By tracking these animals, we can understand their movement, distribution and habitat use inside the reserve.

La Selva Maya hides many Mayan ruins under its canopy and thick vegetation. This temple is part of Tikal National Park, which was the capital of a conquest state that formed the cradle of lowland Maya civilization. Without springs, lakes or rivers nearby, Tikal was nonetheless built into a major city with no water resources other than stores of collected seasonal rainwater. credit: Armando J. Ubeda/LightHawk

Sharing the view from above has proven to be a consensus-building experience for LightHawk passengers. Several missions have taken indigenous leaders, local politicians, educators, donors, and others over the reserve to allow them to see the threats and enlist their support in conservation activities.

Each year since 2000, LightHawk has stationed one of its owned aircraft near the reserve for an extended period of time. A volunteer pilot ferries the LightHawk aircraft from its prior mission location to Flores, a picturesque town built on an island in Lago de Petén Itza. From this small town, just outside the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, the LightHawk aircraft lifts off each day (weather permitting) to conduct various missions with our long-term local and regional conservation partners like Wildlife Conservation Society, Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas de Guatemala and Defensores de la Naturaleza.

LightHawk flights have become essential to the conservation of this magnificent biological hotspot. Due to its remote location, vast territory and limited funding from the Guatemalan government to protect and reinforce laws related to safeguarding the reserve, LightHawk’s conservation partners depend on these missions to reach their conservation goals. LightHawk will continue to play a critical role in the ongoing conservation and protection of the Mayan Mountain Biosphere Reserve, one of the highest biodiversity hotspots in the western hemisphere and a place rich with the cultural heritage of the Mayan civilization.

Mesoamerica Program Manager, Armando Ubeda (far left) with LightHawk partners CONAP, Defensores de la Naturaleza, WCS and CEMEC.

“I was able to see first hand the major deforestation difference between managed and unmanaged areas of the protected area. This flight was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity that would have been impossible without LightHawk. Seeing is worth 10,000 photos. We will provide direct fund and USG [U.S. Government]investments to help protect the Maya Biosphere Reserve. It is vital for USAID to have this kind of direct monitoring to be able to begin effectively direct …support … This was fantastic support [that is]greatly appreciated.” -- Rick Garland, Director Economic Unit, USAID

Lago de Peten Itza in Peten, Guatemala. The second largest lake in Guatemala, it has at least 27 Maya sites around its shores. The lake is also a wildlife hotspot with more than 100 important indigenous species such as jaguar, crocodiles, red snook fish, parrots, toucans and macaws. credit: Armando J. Ubeda/LightHawk