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Wildtracks: Conservation, Research and Education
Manatee

Manatee Rehabilitation Centre

Belize is home to the West Indian Manatees (Trichechus manatus). This species ranges from Florida to Brazil, and is divided into two sub-species. The sub-species in Belize is the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus) – Belize is the stronghold for this endangered subspecies, with a population estimated at between 800 to 1,000.

The Manatee Rehabilitation Centre has been established to fulfil three primary objectives:

  • To care for all orphaned or injured manatees found in Belizean waters
  • To prepare rehabilitated manatees for reintroduction to the wild
  • To raise awareness of manatees and manatee conservation

With the support of a network of manatee vets and biologists, the Manatee Rehabilitation Centre has become well known for its commitment and successes and now plays an active role in the sharing of skills and experiences of its approach.

Manatee rehabilitation facilities

 Manatee Rehabilitation facilities at Wildtracks

The Rehabilitation Centre is well situated – on the edge of Shipstern Lagoon, with access to abundant natural water resources and a natural lagoon environment suited for the long period of soft-release each manatee goes through prior to its final release.

Why do manatees need rehabilitation?

Manatees are facing increasing threats in Belize – particularly increased boat traffic and watercraft collisions. Whilst many animals do not survive such collisions, some orphaned calves and surviving injured individuals are rescued, requiring care.

With the wild population being so low, it is important that where possible, individuals are returned to the wild population.

Causes of manatee strandings in Belize

Causes of manatee strandings in Belize, 2007 – 2011 (Galves, 2011)

What happens when a manatee comes into the Rehabilitation Centre?

The first 72 hours in care are critical... calves normally arrive dehydrated and emaciated, often with their ribs and skull clearly visible.

Even before arriving, during rescue and transport, the calf is offered rehydration solution. Once the calf arrives at the Rehabilitation Centre, it is measured, weighed, and introduced into the Intensive Care Pool.

This pool is small, with a water temperature maintained at between 28° and 30°C. The calf has constant contact with the carers, who sit on rotation in the pool for the first 24 hours, and is monitored continuously for at least the first 48 hours.

Rehydrant solution is given every 2 hours by bottle... after the first 6 hours, an elemental soya-based milk formula is gradually added.

A very young manatee shortly after arrival at the centre Carers monitoring a recently-arrived manatee's behaviour

How do you prepare a manatee for release?

Young manatees need to be kept stimulated and active. As the manatee grows, time is spent encouraging it to develop normal manatee behaviour and to eat manatee food.

From 2 months old onwards, seagrass is collected each day and placed on the base of the pool, fastened in a PVC frame.

Manatees learn by watching their mothers – carers swim with calves to seagrass beds within the lagoon enclosure, encouraging the calves to investigate. The lagoon enclosure allows larger calves to learn about natural water flows, changes in salinity and temperature, to seek shade and shelter under overhanging mangroves – and to move in relative freedom.

Once old enough, the calves are introduced to the seagrass beds in the lagoon itself, and are gradually weaned off human dependence. This extended soft release process is critical in the preparation for a successful reintroduction to the wild. They are fitted with a tracking device and monitored for their first year.

To date each manatee that has been successfully rehabilitated and released from the Centre has survived well and integrated into the wild manatee population. Our first manatee, Woody, has been wild now for over 11 years and is thriving.

A manatee being introduced to the lagoon enclosure A young manatee in one of the pools at the centre A young manatee exploring the lagoon with assistance from a carer

How can I help?

Volunteer

The Manatee Rehabilitation Centre does not have salaried staff. Raising and rehabilitating manatee calves is achieved through the recruitment of committed volunteers. This is critical to the success of the programme – without volunteers, these animals could not be saved and rehabilitated in a country such as Belize, which lacks national funding for such work.

Volunteering can be hard work (especially on night shift with young calves), wet, smelly... but also extremely rewarding.

Volunteer placements are for a minimum of 1 month and more often for 2 to 3 months or more. We have volunteers who extend their stay with us for up to a year, and others who keep coming back.

Get in touch to discuss volunteer opportunities!

Feeding a manatee calf An adult manatee in the large pool

Donate

The Manatee Rehabilitation Centre is entirely dependent upon donations. Depending upon their age and condition, each manatee can consume between US$8 and $15 worth of milk formula daily.

The development and extension of facilities, and additional support for individual calves, have been supported by a number of organizations and individuals, including Busch Gardens, Oak Foundation, the Protected Areas Conservation Trust, Save the Manatee Club, Sea-to-Shore Alliance, Sirenian International, and private donations.