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True Stories of Cruising Over Mayan Highways with Scarlet Macaws

Wilderness Conservation Society Guatemala

8,100 Square Miles of Incredible

The Maya Biosphere Reserve covers an area about the size of New Jersey and boasts sky-high biodiversity. It also forms the core of a tri-national system of protected areas in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, making this bio-region the largest remaining contiguous block of tropical forest north of the Amazon.

Pumas and jaguars roam the depths of the forests, while howler and spider monkeys traverse the branches above. The canopy is home to scarlet macaws, toucans, orange-breasted falcons and millions of migratory birds. Though the Reserve's remote location and vast territory have helped protect this incredible biological wealth, this protected area still faces many threats. LightHawk provides flights so local groups can survey the remote landscape, identify problem areas and devise creative conservation solutions.

Photo of illegal land clearing: WCS with aerial support from LightHawk

A Match Made in the Heavens

LightHawk works with conservation partners including Wildlife Conservation Society, Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas de Guatemala (CONAP) and Defensores de la Naturaleza to monitor and prevent damage to the Mayan Mountain Biosphere Reserve. Vinicio Mejia, Director for CONAP, commented after a mission flown by volunteer pilot Andy Young (CO), "This flight is so important for this protected area. It is so useful to have information from the air and [it] let us know the state of the forest... We would not have this flight without LightHawk because flight is so expensive and here in our country [it would be] difficult to pay for this trip."

Donated flights can quickly detect and end illegal hunters' campgrounds, agricultural fields, cattle ranching and squatter settlements, as well as spot looters of Mayan ruins and temples. Each year since 2000, LightHawk has stationed a plane near the reserve for an extended period of time enabling volunteer pilots to conduct missions for our conservation partners.

WCS with aerial support from LightHawk

Finding the Shadows of the Maya

Hundreds of years ago, it was the Mayan seat of power. Today, Guatemala's six-million-acre Maya Biosphere Reserve (MBR) protects the largest remaining expanse of tropical forest in Central America.

Since 2000, LightHawk has provided the aerial view to help local groups accomplish their conservation goals, including the discovery of lost Maya causeways, or sacbeob, swallowed by the impenetrable jungle. These well-built elevated roads, some 13 feet above ground, were paved with crushed white stone and made travel between Maya villages possible. Long since overtaken by the jungle, it's impossible to spot the causeways from the ground. But from the air, researchers have discovered that the jungle growing atop the elevated roads casts long, linear shadows on the adjacent green canopy, thus revealing these ancient roadways.

Photo: Chris Packham/WCS Guatemala

Soaring with Scarlet Macaws

Recently, LightHawk enabled Wildlife Conservation Society to track radio-collared scarlet macaws, using aerial telemetry to efficiently cover a vast area in a short amount of time. In addition to spotting macaws from the air, the flights detected new stands of cantemir trees, the macaws' preferred nesting trees. "To search for the macaws wearing radio collars without LightHawk support would be too strenuous, it would take too much time and it would be very expensive," explained WCS biologist Rony Garcia. After locating macaws and cantemir trees clusters, ground patrol teams were able to focus their studies on these sites and guard against poachers who pluck baby birds from their nests for the illegal pet trade. Information gained both in the air and on the ground gives biologists a better picture of the health of this endangered macaw population, and provides a leg up in helping these incredible birds survive and thrive.

Photo of passengers in front of LightHawk's Cessna 206 in Guatemala: George Simchuk/LightHawkLightHawk volunteer pilots fly donated missions in Mexico and Central America during the Mesoamerica flight season from January to June each year. Building on over 25 years of partnership in the region, LightHawk flights help protect the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor and Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. The aerial perspective empowers local conservation groups to fight for and protect their valuable and irreplaceable ecological resources.