Bamboo Chicken, Kinkajou and Baird’s Tapir: Belize’s Most Fascinating Animals

by Gisselle Hernandez

With verdant rainforests and thousands of acres in protected areas, Belize’s wildlife is a key feature that continues to pleasantly surprise visitors. Not only does the small Central American country boast the first jaguar preserve in the world, but it’s also home to unique animals most have never come across. Belize continues to be a blend of exotic fauna and fascinating animals — some we are lucky enough to see in the flesh at  The Belize Zoo. Still, many strange furry or feathered dwellers can be spotted when either hiking in the rainforest or with eyes aimed below when atop the summit of a Maya site. 

Baird’s Tapir.

Belize Zoo tapir feeding carrots

Feed tapirs at The Belize Zoo! Photo by Duarte Dellarole

Also known as the mountain cow, tapirs are large vegetarian mammals that roam at night, munching on leaves and fruit. These forest dwellers are the national animal of Belize and weigh an average of 300-500 pounds. The tapir’s odd appearance might be explained by the face that its closest relatives are the rhinoceros and the horse. Tapirs are mostly solitary creatures, except for mothers who are accompanied by their young. Indeed, Belize’s national animal is one of its most fascinating animals, too. 

Howler Monkey.

Boisterous howler monkeys await! Photo by Duarte Dellarole

Its nickname is “nature’s alarm clock” which should already tell you everything you need to know about these guys. Howler monkeys are commonly found all across Belize, in the dense rainforest, and often near rivers or creeks. These loud primates have a grating, often startling scream, hence their name. You can see them up close at the Community Baboon Sanctuary in the Belize District or when hiking through the jungles of Western Belize. 


The elusive jaguar. © Takuto Kurosawa, Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Often confused for a leopard, due to similar spot patterns, the jaguar reigns as one of Belize’s “big five” of large cats. A high concentration of jaguars exists in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, the world’s first jaguar preserve. While these cats are elusive and nocturnal, now and then nature hikers come across them. If you want to have a one-on-one experience, you could always book an animal encounter at The Belize Zoo.

Scarlet Macaw.

scarlet macaw trees belize

Photo Courtesy: Roni Martinez

With a polychromatic smattering of feathers, Scarlet Macaws look even more beautiful when in flight. You can easily recognize this endangered species from its red, blue, and yellow plumage. Often found in the trees at Red Bank Village, Scarlet Macaws are magnificent birds of the parrot family. They can often be found flying in pairs or small groups, calling to each other in hoarse-like voices. 


Perhaps the cutest yet weirdest-looking animal on the list, the wide-eyed kinkajou shares similar looks to a lemur.

These mammals are called “nightwalkers” and are closely related to raccoons and coatimundis. They can often be seen snacking on sweet fruits, flower nectar, and insects. This is where they earn the nickname “honey bears.”

If you’re out on a night hike, keep your eyes peeled and your flashlight trained on the tops of trees where they might be clinging on getting a midnight snack. 

Green Iguana.

The scaly, bright green iguanas are a radiance to behold when in their presence and yet another one of Belize’s fascinating animals. These critters are humorously nicknamed “bamboo chicken” in Belize and can easily grow up to seven feet in length, making them the largest lizard in the country. There is an entire rehabilitation center for these reptiles in San Ignacio Town at the Green Iguana Conservation Project.

Travelers can book a day tour at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel and learn more about this species. Guests are even able to hold and pet the green iguanas, making for great photo ops. 

Whale Shark.

The gentle giant is a large reason why many enthusiastic divers make their way to Belize between March and June. This is Whale Shark season, where the mysterious creature can be spotted near Gladden Spit Marine Reserve — if you’re lucky. Whale Sharks are practically harmless, but swimming alongside them still feels monumental and life-changing. Many are adamant about crossing the encounter off their bucket list book repeat trips around the Full Moon during this time for a chance to witness the marine spectacle. 

Editor's Note: This article was first shared on November 11, 2021 and was most recently updated on February 14, 2023.

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