Mathieu Charette (pronouns: he/him) is a French-Canadian ecologist, bird bander and founder of the Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society (or TREES for short), a registered Belizean non-profit field research station in Belize with a focus on ecological monitoring, capacity building in the local community and conservation education. Mathieu shares the journey that he and his business partner Vanessa embarked on when they made the decision to found Toucan Ridge.
Mathieu fell in love with birds at a young age while spending time in nature with his dad in particular. He shares –
“I had a few instances of having a moment with birds, even as a kid that I knew there was something there, but of course I didn’t know what it was.”
And then at 17-years-old, Matthieu took a zoology class in college where he had the opportunity to do an outdoor lab focused around ducks.
“And that was it. I knew I was going to become a bird biologist!”
Mathieu studied wildlife biology for his undergraduate degree, did a Masters in seabird biology and started a PhD on raptors in the Yucatan, Mexico. Although the project didn’t work out, returning to Canada allowed Mathieu to reconnect with Vanessa, a friend he met in University who would become his business partner in a joint venture to establish a field research station in the Belizean jungle. Mathieu reflects –
“Now it’s been over 25 years that I’ve worked specifically on birds. It’s allowed me to travel the world and do a lot of very neat projects so I’ve never regretted my decision.”
Twelve years ago, Mathieu and his soon-to-become business partner, Vanessa, set off on a walk in Vancouver and came back with an idea that quickly manifested as a field research station in Belize!
“We went for a walk and we still don’t know who said it but one of us said hey, let’s start a field station, but all of a sudden we were deciding where it would be!”
After his PhD, Mathieu knew he was interested in the biodiversity around the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico, and Vanessa had done several internships in Belize. Belize was attractive as a destination great biodiversity, high numbers of protected areas, the safety and it was English-speaking which made it easier to get North American universities involved to come down.
And two weeks after their walk, Mathieu and Vanessa had travelled to Belize to scope out the project – and four months later, they were back in Belize with all their stuff in cargo.
Although, like most beginnings, things were rocky early on, Mathieu and Vanessa persevered and today, Toucan Ridge is open for visitors!
“I mean, we knew each other, we were colleagues, but we didn’t know each other that well. And suddenly it was just us in the middle of the jungle, not knowing anybody.”
Slowly, they started building cabins, getting to know the local community and establishing long-term ecological monitoring programs – bats, a bird banding station and other projects in tropical ecology.
In hindsight, Mathieu now sees it takes much longer than either of them expected to see the progress of their work. He explains –
“Now that I understand how things work in the field station world, what I thought we would accomplish in about six months to a year, and it took us maybe a good five, six years.”
Although everything was much slower than they thought it would be, within six months of opening, they had their first groups – and within two years, Toucan Ridge was fully operational.
“On peak nights, there are people everywhere which makes it really fun. People all around the world mixed in with Belizean students and biologists, discussing their projects and being excited to be in the tropics – so I really like where it has gone.”
Visitors can take part in the ecological monitoring, community capacity-building and conservation education projects while at Toucan Ridge. They can also request to collect data on their own research topics – but there’s always plenty to do!
One of the main ecological monitoring projects has been running now for 12 years – the Toucan Ridge Bird Observatory – where participants collect data on transects using eBird or bird banding.
“I think that we’ve banded over 20, 000 birds – some migrants from North America that spend their winters in Belize, resident birds that are in Belize all year round and even some migrants from South America – so we get three distinct groups visiting the station.”
“We’re building up a long-term dataset on these birds – some of which are in need of conservation – and many of the neotropical residents – we know little about!”
And Toucan Ridge doesn’t just teach visiting students and interns, it also has a focus on capacity building within the local community – providing opportunities for Belizean, Central American and Caribbean people, especially at-risk youth, to build their skills and gain meaningful employment in ecological monitoring, sustainable tourism and organic farming. This capacity building has had a very positive impact on Belizean NGO’s, country wide research programs and work very closely with Belize’s Environmental Institute (UB-ERI) to follow the land management and conservation plan.
All of our staff is Belizean and “I’d say three quarters of our staff right now are young Belizean biologists or research assistants.”
Education is a huge component of the work done at Toucan Ridge. Mathieu explains –
“From the beginning, both Vanessa and I knew that we were educators – and found that to be just as important in conservation as research. So, we’ve always tried to combine both.”
Toucan Ridge hosts interns, university groups, high school students and on occasions, volunteers and education remains at the core of all ecological programs. The success of TREES and our conservation efforts has come from great contributions from our staff, volunteers, collaborators and partners.
ADVICE FOR ECOLOGISTS
Although Mathieu has experienced for himself the challenges of starting and sustaining a career in ecology or conservation, his advice is to persevere –
“I’d say never give up. It’s a little discouraging sometimes, especially in the first couple of years when we’re unfortunately still at a point where biologists aren’t paid their worth and I’ve heard it in some of your past podcasts as well that we have to watch out for burnout.”
“But I find for me, I try to keep hope and stay positive… It’s a journey and never give up. We need more of us doing this work. We need you!”
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Mathieu or learn about Toucan Ridge? Tune into the podcast or check out the website. You can follow Toucan Ridge on social media – on Instagram @treesocietybelize, Facebook, LinkedIn, TikTok and YouTube. You can also follow the Toucan Ridge Bird Observatory on Instagram @birdsoftoucanridge. If you are interested in volunteering, studying or completing an internship at Toucan Ridge, you can also get in touch via email.
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