Sharon Matola, a biologist and environmentalist, has had a huge impact on
the tiny country of Belize, and it is with great sadness that we learn of
her passing. As they say, it all started with the ‘Best little Zoo in the
World’. Sharon first came to Belize as part of a team shooting a wildlife
documentary and from this experience was inspired to create the Belize Zoo.
Since 1983, Sharon’s passion for wildlife and their habitat has been the
lodestar which Belize has followed for over three decades and has guided
this tiny country to become a shining star in conservation worldwide.
Her journey was not easy. She faced immense pressure and criticism from
industry, village farmers, and powerful interests in government.
Along her journey, Sharon also experienced heartbreaking disappointment.
Perhaps the most visible was the flooding and destruction of critical
scarlet macaw nesting habitat along the Raspaculo and Macal rivers. The
Chaillio Dam, (promoted and built by a Canadian electric utility company
Fortis) was almost certainly her most bitterly fought battle. From the
outset, the project was suspect, and many believed its main motivation was
to line the pockets of influential members in the Belize Government at the
time. With the completion of the dam in 2006, one of Belize’s most
unspoiled wildlife habitats was flooded. The rancour and bitterness that
characterized the battle were deeply hurtful to Sharon and caused her to step
back from a public role of championing wildlife in Belize.
Sharon also had many allies, big and small, across Belize and even around
the world. One such ally was Island Expeditions. Our experience with Sharon
was direct and important. We were young then, and somewhat in awe of Sharon.
Her work and passion inspired us. We wanted to be a part of what she and her
team were doing. Island Expeditions started working with Sharon and the
Belize Zoo in 1990. Our angle was adventure and tourism, creating
exceptional experiences for our guests and as an eco-tourism business, we
found many pathways to support her work.
Back then, Belize was a sleepy place, not much contact with the outside
world, and tourism was not yet a thing. Most importantly - and this was
something that Sharon was acutely aware of – Belize still had an astounding
amount of unspoiled tropical wilderness that was jam-packed with
biodiversity. Really cool biodiversity, like jaguars, tapirs, crocodiles, and
laughing falcons. The kind of stuff that gets us really excited. Sharon
realized that Belize was small and that the habitats where wildlife thrived
were not going to last unless something was done to protect it. And the “Best
little Zoo in the World’ was the way she was going to ensure that the wild
animals of Belize did not lose their wild home.
Sharon’s Zoo became a national institution, a symbol of pride for an entire
country. Tens of thousands of schoolchildren visited the Zoo each year to
learn the importance of wildlife and wild spaces. Her zoo managed to reach
out and touch something in the consciousness of a young country. She had
many great successes and we are proud to have been a small part of that. As
a way of generating funds to continue her work, for almost 20 years, just
about every Island Expeditions guest stayed at the Belize Zoo and Tropical
Education Center on their first-night arrival into Belize. In 1999 Sharon
came to us, to ask for help. She needed to expand community outreach and was
deeply concerned about improving the enclosures at the zoo to protect the
animals in a hurricane, of which there had been a few recent close calls. In
response, we built and then donated 10 guest cabanas and washrooms for the
Belize Zoo, this helped us by providing more comfortable lodging for our
customers and it provided important infrastructure that would generate a
consistent source of revenue to continue the vital work of protecting
critical wildlife habitat.
Fortunately, there are many dedicated young men and women in Belize who have
followed the inspirational path which began with the beloved Belize Zoo. The
torch has been passed, Belizeans are up for the task of continuing the fight
to protect the very essence of what makes Belize such a special country.
We are as inspired as ever, to be a part of this continuing mission.
RIP Sharon Matola, you will always be in our hearts.