In 1983, after a wildlife film-making project she was working on fell apart, Sharon Matola found herself in Belize, Central America, with a menagerie of homeless native creatures. She scrounged some land, wrote a sign on a piece of wood, and the Belize Zoo was open for business. Suddenly, she became “the zoo lady”, responsible for housing, feeding, cleaning and maintaining the health of the 20 animals.
The “office cat” was a jaguar, and there was a baby tapir in the bedroom on several occasions. It looked chaotic, but Matola, who has died aged 66 of a heart attack, was scrupulous about animal husbandry and determined that Belizeans would have a chance to learn about their tiny nation’s biodiversity.
People started showing up to help and eventually there was a team of dedicated, paid staff including Celso Poot, now a senior leader at the zoo, who recalled how Matola encouraged local youngsters like him to study for a degree and undertake postgraduate work. Her friend and fellow conservationist Lee Durrell, widow of the naturalist and author Gerald, Matola’s childhood hero, often hosted young researchers from Belize Zoo at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s academy in Jersey.
Matola threw herself into fundraising. She could pack a cocktail dress and a pair of heels into a knapsack, ride her Kawasaki motorbike to a soiree in the capital, Belmopan, or Belize City, schmooze some donors and be back in time for the night round at the enclosures she individually designed for each animal, many of whom were dumped, injured, at the zoo’s front door.
Today there are more than 170 animals in the Belize Zoo and Tropical Education Centre, including coatis, ocelots and Harpy eagles. April the tapir, who arrived after hunters had killed her mother, was so popular that she ended up on the country’s banknotes and stamps. For many visitors, meeting April was the first time they had seen the country’s official national animal. A special party takes place at the zoo every year on 27 April, which is designated National Tapir Day in Belize and World Tapir Day globally.
Matola told me she owed a debt of gratitude to British soldiers posted to Belize for jungle training who helped by digging paths and renovating enclosures at the zoo in their time off. She went on to have a DJ slot on British Forces radio.
The animals enjoyed much better conditions than Matola, who lived in a modest, small wooden dwelling with an outside toilet. Her only luxury was a pool she had dug, which she shared with a small crocodile.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Sharon was the second of three children of Janice (nee Schatoff), an executive assistant, and Edward Matola, sales manager for the National Brewing Company. After school, she went into the US airforce, which gave her an early introduction to Latin America when she was sent to Panama for jungle training. She then studied at New College of Florida, graduating in 1981 with a degree in biology and environmental sciences, with a focus on mycology and animal behaviour.
She was looking for an escape from studying mushrooms, and a brief early marriage to a dentist, when she saw an ad: “Girls wanted to dance in Mexican circus. Good pay. Much travel.” When the ringmaster found out she had studied big cat behaviour, she was given her own act with the tigers.
Later, when the call came to help out on a wildlife documentary in the newly independent former British colony of Belize, she upped sticks and went to work for the film-makers Richard and Carol Foster, who were to become firm friends.
She remained in Belize, taking nationality in 1990, and was still training animals and birds at the zoo until two weeks before her death. A consequence of her work in which she took pride was changing the mindset of a generation of Belizeans who once would have thought nothing of hunting and killing animals such as jaguars and snakes. She also acted as animal consultant on films made in Belize, including The Mosquito Coast (1986), starring Harrison Ford, and National Geographic’s Tales From Belize: Paradise on the Edge (2000).
Matola was internationally recognised for her research on Ara Macao Cyanoptera, the scarlet macaw, and her concern for its riverside nesting sites led her to spearhead the attempt to reverse a controversial decision to build the Chalillo Dam on the Macal river. Bacongo, an alliance of NGOs, eco-tourism pioneers from the nearby Chaa Creek Resort, and others, including Ford, believed the dam would harm the macaw and put other animals and communities downstream at risk, and Matola embarked on a gruelling five-year campaign.
It was the first environmental case to come before the UK privy council, the appeal court for Belize. The Belizean government and the multinational company Fortis went to great lengths, even trying to remove the matter from the jurisdiction of the privy council midway through the hearing. Losing the case in 2004 was probably Matola’s greatest disappointment.
Her battle on behalf of the wildlife of Belize was the subject of Bruce Barcott’s book The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird (2009). The zoo is now in the hands of a capable board, which has pledged to ensure its survival.
She is survived by her sister, Marlene, and brother, Stephen.
• Sharon Matola, conservationist and zookeeper, born 3 June 1954; died 21 March 2021