August 31, 2021

Manatees, Howler Monkeys, and Mosquitos…Oh My! A Project Dragonfly Account from Belize

Travel writing is hard. On the one hand, you have the overwrought, flowery prose of every overenthusiastic blogger who wants to be the next Rick Steves. On the other hand, you risk stripping away all character and texture, rendering a lackluster account of What I Did on My Summer Vacation. I’d like to say that I’ve accomplished both in the writing of this piece as I attempt now to strike a fair balance.

For context, I had the privilege, honor, and opportunity to spend twelve days teaching a field course on Environmental Stewardship in Belize as part of Project Dragonfly* at Miami University of Ohio. I’ve been an adjunct professor with Dragonfly since 2014, teaching both Earth Expeditions and web-based courses. This marked my ninth Earth Expedition (EE) in seven years and my third trip to the tiny Caribbean country that’s home to manatees, howler monkeys, and a truly unreasonable number of mosquitos. Every year, the EE season was the promise of a great adventure. I’d taught in the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil, the Mongolian steppe, and the Costa Rican cloud forest. I’d helped students track whale sharks in Baja, where I’d also gotten badly assailed by an agua mala while trying to help a girl out of jellyfish-ridden waters. Injuries and insecurities, hurricanes and homesickness–I’d racked up an impressive list of field stories.

But I’d never led an EE amid a global pandemic. Suddenly, all my normal considerations–permethrin or DEET? (both) How much would it rain? (a lot) And am I packing enough Nuun? (almost never)–seemed trite. There were new issues to consider. What if someone came down with COVID on the trip? What if someone tested positive before we left? And am I bringing enough masks?

We say in Dragonfly that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I’d like to think that traveling to another country while the world’s future is still unclear would absolutely challenge the boundaries of anyone’s comfort zone. The next ten days were full of uncharted territories, but a lot was still entirely familiar. We engaged in inquiry-based field work both in the Belize barrier reef and at our partner site, the Belize Zoo. We learned about deep community conservation through the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS) and the successes they’ve had protecting the black howler monkey in its native forests. We visited Altun Ha and later traversed through the caves of Runaway Creek to contextualize our nature experiences within the Maya culture.

Some things were very different–to start, our class was entirely comprised of cis-female students–a composition I’d never had before. Because of COVID, we could no longer do homestays with the women of the CBS. And Sharon Matola, the founder of the Belize Zoo, had passed away. But in the wake of these changes, there were new opportunities. Not doing the homestay allowed us to spend extended hours with the heartachingly inspiring matriarch of CBS. In mourning Sharon, we had the opportunity to see Celso Poot excel in his new role as the zoo’s director. And we used that dynamic allotted to us by an all-female class to dig deeply into some of the related issues and challenges we’ve faced in our personal and professional lives.

I strongly believe that there’s a graduate program out there for anyone who’s interested in pursuing further education. Unlike many other instructors in the program, I am not a Dragonfly graduate–and that’s okay. I can’t imagine my life without the experiences I had in my own master’s program. But my involvement in Dragonfly has become a top priority in my life because it represents one of the closest approximations of the kind of community-based conservation that we’re trying to achieve in zoos and aquariums. The personal and professional growth I see in some of my students over the course of the program is inspiring to say the least, but the opportunity to bring conservation professionals from a myriad of roles and levels into the field has the potential to be paradigm-shifting.

Perhaps now I’ve veered into the rococo territory of travel writers past – but I hope you’ll forgive me for that. And if you’re interested in Project Dragonfly, check out while I go tend to my mosquito bites. Happy trails!

*Project Dragonfly is an education reform initiative with master’s degree programs that champions inquiry-driven learning and shared action to support a better, more collaborative, just, and sustainable future. Earth Expeditions are stand-alone education and conservation-focused graduate courses in which students join world-class conservation and community projects across the globe to build an alliance of individuals with first-hand knowledge for the benefit of ecological communities and global understanding.

Recent Insights

Women Shaping Culture

Women Shaping Culture

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re featuring interviews of six women leaders who are shaping our culture and planet for the better.

read more

+49 856 9568 95

39 Lion Street

Your content goes here. Edit or remove this text inline or in the module Content settings. You can also style every aspect of this content in the module Design settings and even apply custom CSS to this text in the module Advanced settings.

Send Us a Message

Dr. Frederick Lahodny

Even though using “lorem ipsum” often arouses curiosity due to its resemblance to classical Latin, it is not intended to have meaning. Where text is visible in a document, people tend to focus on the textual content rather than upon overall presentation.