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A Nurse Shark at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve , Belize .   | Photo Credit: AFP

Just a stone’s throw away from the coast of Belize, brightly coloured tropical fish mingle with sharks, manta rays and sea turtles around a sprawling reef beneath the waters of the Caribbean.

The Mesoamerican Reef, an underwater wonder world whose survival was considered to be at risk for years, may now be removed from UNESCO’s list of threatened World Heritage Sites, thanks to bold steps to save it by activists and the Belizean government.

Second in size only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Caribbean reef was named to the prestigious World Heritage List in 1996, but placed on endangered status in 2009 because of Belize’s plans to allow oil exploration nearby.

The warning also encompassed the mangroves that help protect the reef and serve as a breeding ground for many of the hundreds of fish species that inhabit the area. That spurred activists into action. They organised an informal referendum in 2012, in which 96% of Belizeans voted against offshore oil exploration, choosing the reef over the potential economic gains for the country.

As the threat to one of its top tourist attractions began to sink in, the Belizean government adopted a series of laws to protect the reef. It came just in time for this week’s UNESCO meeting in Manama, Bahrain, where the UN body is due to consider removing the reef from its list of endangered heritage sites.

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