Monday, July 23, 2012

Last Field Day

The day began with a gorgeous, vivid sunrise. As I walked down to the main lodge building to get a cup of tea, I started to mentally prepare myself for the day. This would be my last full day in the field working on the Community Wildcat Conservation project. Unfortunately, the night before I had felt nauseous, feverish, and sore. By what could only be a work of God, I woke this morning feeling fine, even free of the back pain I had been experiencing for days. This was particularly miraculous due to the workload for the day. Our goal: to check all of our camera stations in Indian Creek and Eagle Produce. This is the most spread out part of our study area and involves the most hiking (through acres of Mennonite fields). Today, the work would not be possible without a vehicle. Lucky for Matt and I, our director Venetia returned the day before with the Jeep! Donning new rubber boots, we got an early start on what would be a long day in the field.

Our adventure commenced while visiting our first camera site. To set precedence for the rest of the day, a portion of our route had us knee deep in water. My new rubber boots afforded little protection against the ponds of standing water that now dominate the trails reaching the camera sites. Once each boot is filled with water, only then is it possible to walk with true abandon through each obstacle.

Progressing smoothly throughout the day, each camera site was checked and photos retrieved. Then suddenly we were stuck. Quite literally, stuck… in mud. The trusty Jeep Wrangler was up to its axles in a very deceiving substance. The path ahead appeared dry, when in reality it was akin to quicksand awaiting its next victim. My partner and I were now stranded in the far reaches of pasture land owned by one of our project participants, a Mennonite. After fruitlessly trying to free the Jeep, we used our Nokia phone to call for assistance. This was little help, as the one person that answered their phone was unable to come to our aid. There was little choice, we had to walk to find help. In the meantime, there was also a camera station that needed to be checked about 1000 km away. It was time to split up. I headed back toward the jungle's edge to retrieve the photos from the camera site and Matt headed toward Indian Creek to find help. I returned to a still stuck Jeep with newly socked socks, and waited. Perched atop the muddied vehicle I listened to my surroundings. A low rumble became audible in the distance, and I instantly knew it was a rescue. Flying toward the Jeep, at speeds I didn't know tractors could even reach, appeared my partner and our landowner Ben! It was comical how the tractor pulled our Jeep out of the mud, as if it were a toy car.

With a new sense of freedom, we continued on to finish the last two camera stations in Indian Creek. All that remained were two camera stations at the papaya plantation, Eagle Produce. It's about 4:30 in the afternoon when we reach the plantation, this allowed us just enough daylight to finish our work. We saved the best for last! The second camera station at Eagle Produce was flooded two weeks ago. Although it's only been somewhat rainy the last few days standing water drains very slowly from this clay filled landscape. The drive to the camera station was cut short by large ponds of water in the “road.” Continuing on foot was the only option. Carrying my trusty rake, I stepped into the water. As I walked, the water rose. With the rake held steadily above my head and the water level at my ribs I forged on. By this time, the sun is setting, and it's the most beautiful sunset I've seen in Belize. Sadly, without a camera, this moment was not documented, but will live on forever in my memories. We hurriedly completed our checklists at the camera site, which was partially flooded and almost completely dark. The return hike to the Jeep was the same as before, with one exception. Now lacking a sunset, our path was only visible by flashes of lightening. Just as the rain began we made it back to our vehicle to return for a late dinner at the lodge.

One epic day, and all I have to show for it is one picture of the sunrise. I had three blisters on my feet, countless mosquito bites, and wet clothes. I cannot imagine a better way to end my fieldwork in Belize.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Mucha Lluvia

In Washington we have many words to describe rain, since it is such a significant part of our daily lives. Whether it's pouring, misting, sprinkling, raining, showering, drizzling, coming down like cats and dogs or in sheets we take note of how Mother Nature drops water upon us. As a product of this culture, rain is a part of who I am. I will always appreciate the smell and sound of precipitation.

In Belize the rainy season has begun. These jungle rains are a far cry from the rains I know so well. When a storm breaks the temperature drops to a more comfortable heat, but only momentarily. They are accompanied by exciting bursts of loud clapping thunder and bright flashes of light. The rains soak everything quickly which makes working in the field all the more exciting. As if that's not enough fun, the rain brings friends, clouds of giant mosquitoes! Nothing can stop these guys, they're the Arnold Schwarzenegger version of the mosquitoes that I had become accustomed to.

The locals seem to embrace the rainy season. Multiple times when I have asked someone “Como esta?” the response I receive is “Mucha lluvia.” Apparently, a lot of rain is a state of being in Belize! I find this almost comical, but love the energy and optimism that I have seen in the people here.
The rainy season is also the slow season for turistas. This means that activity at the lodge has slowed greatly, leaving it a much quieter, relaxing place. In ways it is also easier to get work done, with less distractions and less people on the wifi connection (that fades in and out with the weather). In heavy down pours I can even be caught with an umbrella, and in the field my “Rite in the Rain” notebooks are my best friends!

Hopefully this early bit of the rainy season will prepare me for my return to the states! Who knows what the weather will be like in the Pacific Northwest upon my arrival. In just two weeks I will be flying home! This concept doesn't quite seem real yet and there is still much to do here in Belize!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Cats!

One of the objectives in the Wildcat project is to gain information about some very elusive creatures. Our main targets are 5 cat species! Just for fun, here is an introduction to each cat (in size order), and an excuse to post photos of each! (All of the following photos are taken with our infrared camera traps)

Panthera onca is the third largest feline in the world! They are solitary animals, and have large home ranges. They often travel during the day, and hunt at night. Each cat can be identified by it's spots (rosettes), like a fingerprint. Being a large, biologically and anthropologically significant animal, much research has been done with Jaguars. The population in Belize is currently healthy, but all over the world the survival of the jaguar is being threatened by habitat fragmentation.

Puma concolor is a cat of many names! Here in Belize we simply call it a Puma, while in the states it's called a cougar, lion, mountain lion, or panther. They are solitary animals, and feed on medium to large prey. They have adapted to many habitat types and therefore have the largest distribution throughout North, Central, and South America. Go Cougs!

Leopardus pardalis is a much smaller cat, comparable to a golden shepherd. Like the Jaguar, this cat is also spotted, with some differences (the spots tend to turn into somewhat striped pattern on the neck). Like the larger two cats, the Ocelot spends it's time on the ground, not in the trees.

Puma yaguarondi is a cat of mystery. Not much is known about this felid. It is smaller than the fore-mentioned Ocelot, but still larger than an average house cat. Solid in color, they have two phases, a red and brown.

Leopardus wiedii is the smallest wild felid in Belize. The Margay are nocturnal and live in the trees. This makes them very difficult to find, and as such, little is known about them. They are also spotted, have extra long tails for balance, and extra large eyes for nightvision.

Belize is an ideal location for working in the natural world. The diversity here is astounding, whether it be plants, mammals, or birds . I find it very interesting that the Jaguar and Puma coexist on the landscape, since they rely on a similar prey base. Also interesting is the fact that so little is known about two separate cat species.

Now, I would like to take a moment to introduce one of my favorite furry friends, with a series of photos obtained at one of our camera trapping sites!

El Jefe (The Boss)
Even the big kitties need a catnap!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Things That Bite

May I present to you, a post dedicated to the creepy crawlies and such critters that make life oh-so interesting here at Lamanai. Despite their size, the things I will call “bugs” in general, have a not so small influence on life in the jungle. These pint sized miracles of nature come in many shapes and habits, and are very skilled at infiltrating any location where they don't “belong.”

Las hormigas. Ants. Depending on the type, a single one can get you to scrambling to get your hand up your pant leg, or have you wishing to drop your pants completely, as you're covered with hundreds before you've even realized you've disturbed their home. On one particular morning, heading into a new area to install a camera station, I was unaware that I would be introduced to the second type. Working with a Mennonite landowner named Jacob, my partner and I ventured out into a forested area surrounded by swamp. After choosing a spot for our camera site, we began to clear the area of unwanted vegetation. As fate would have it, on the very tree that was slated to have a camera on it, there was a nest, an abandoned termite nest. Once this nest was knocked to the ground, it's current inhabitants, unbeknown to us, were eager to let us know that they did not appreciate the new location of their home. Within seconds they were everywhere, covering us head to toe, and I mean head to toe, they were on my hat! These ants were small, and had a mean little bite, that stung. This was not a particularly painful bite, just an annoying one, especially when occurring simultaneously all over one's body. There was only one solution. Fire. Jacob had the brilliant idea of smoking out the ants. Although this method allowed us to quickly finish our work, we were still finding ants on us hours later.

Ticks. With little experience with ticks upon my arrival, I've gotten to know these little blood suckers well, or rather they've gotten to know me well. Usually, when you think of insects in the jungle, you probably think of extra large bodied, exotic bugs, this is quite the opposite for ticks. The ticks here are tiny and very hard to find! They cling to a persons' body, and wander to any location they find suitable and latch on often in hard to see/reach locations! So far I can count on my hands how many I've found on my body, and hope to keep it that way!

Leaf-cutter Ants
Others. Of course, there are plenty of other biting nuisances. At any given time I have multiple swollen bumps on my body, caused by mosquitoes, doctor-flies (given this name because you can't feel them as they cut you open) chiggers, and spiders. There are always new attack sites, before the previous ones have healed, leaving my body somewhat spotted with different secessions of scabs. No, being in the tropics isn't all glamorous. I'm not complaining though! At least I don't have stories about the varying poisonous plants!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Glass Half Full

Halfway. Belize has been my home for 6 weeks, now. Saying 6 weeks sounds like such a small amount of time,“a month and half” sounds quite a bit longer! I am so fortunate to be here, and at this small milestone I am glad to still have a month and a half more.

For the project, we've installed 9 new camera sites in the study area (now totaling 20 sites). All expanding the camera trapping grid in various strategic directions.
To the South: on Carlos' property (actually all forested, of which he uses to hunt), and on the papaya plantation, Eagle Produce. Both were big steps in expanding our grid further south, where we hope to meet up with another camera trapping gird in the protected Programme for Belize lands.
To the East, into Mennonite lands: we've gained 3 more participating landowners, two of which have two camera locations, and 1 of which with one camera location. At our arrival, we had one currently participating Mennonite landowner. Building these relationships has been significant to accomplish, and very rewarding (one landowner, Jacob, even dropped off a gift of three large papayas and kettle corn at the lodge, muy sobroso!).
The Wildcat project is unique in that we are working within the community, in what we call a human dominated landscape. Many studies similar to ours lack the dynamic of installing equipment on private lands, whereas they can place cameras in an organized manner (on public/protected lands), we must be opportunistic, ask permission, and seek out individuals to build relationships with. This type of experience in the realm of conservation is rare in the States, where public involvement in research is a new concept. This opportunity is priceless, and I'm glad I have a month and half to continue working with all the people I have met here.

The Road to the Ruins and Lamanai Outpost Lodge

Personally, I've fallen in love with this country. Staying at the lodge has been amazing (of course), and I'm ecstatic to call it home. Many guests become jealous when they hear that I've been living at the lodge for 6 weeks, and have more time to come! I love the small town atmosphere everywhere you go. Everyone knows everyone, and I'm constantly waving and wishing others to have a good day. The lodge staff are great, they are personable to everyone they meet, and work so hard to accommodate all guests, including the long-term ones. I thoroughly enjoy getting to know them, seeing them each day, and the thousand genuine thank yous they continue to receive from me.

Reaching halfway has caused me to look back on my time thus far in Belize, and momentarily I was sad. I've become somewhat attached to the people here, and take pride in working with the Wildcat project, to the point that I don't want to consider leaving just yet (don't get me wrong, I've come to miss home quite a bit now too). Then I realized, I still have 6 more weeks! There is no need to fret about leaving projects unfinished, and brand new relationships behind, at least not for a while! The glass is half full! I will keep working, and enjoying my time in Belize, up until the very last day!
Morning view from the lodge!

Monday, April 30, 2012


While working in the conservation field things don't always run smoothly. There will be issues with equipment, with the weather, but most importantly there will always be issues with people (not to mention, if it weren't for people, there probably wouldn't be a need for conservation in the first place). Humans have always done their best to control or alter their surroundings for their benefit. Unfortunately, these actions have often been at the misfortune of the surrounding wildlife. Much work is done to mitigate human-wildlife conflict, usually by eradicating the “problem” and paying the victim. It is for this reason that the project that I'm working on is so unique. We are working with people to create a positive attitude toward cats. The model we're following is conceptually new; meaning we have a lot to learn.

The conflict that I'm witnessing firsthand, in the village of Indian Church specifically, is that jaguars are coming into contact with humans, livestock, or pets. Here are two recent examples:

Just a couple days ago a local man approached Matt and I about a calf of his that went missing. Having heard about our camera project, he was seeking help. Matt went out to his land to see the “kill site,” where not much was found. Once it was clear to this landowner that we could not pay him compensation for his calf, we only pay for photos of jaguars, the man became angry. He said he held no respect for us, the project, the government, or conservation. He vowed to shoot the jaguar that got his calf. And shoot a jaguar he did. There is no way to know this was the same cat that got his calf, or that a cat even did. Nevertheless, we received news that he shot a female jaguar, one that had two cubs at that.

Today, another local man was working near the jungle, and he had two dogs with him. The dogs caught the smell of a jaguar and took off barking after it. As the story is told, the dogs then treed the cat. The cat retaliated, injuring one dog badly, and killing the other. As the man approached the cat took off. We were notified, and geared up, hoping the find the dead dog and place cameras on it. By the time we were searching the jungle only spots of blood could be found. The cat must have returned for the kill. Again, we fear that this man will find a shoot a jaguar.

Indian Church is just a small piece of the puzzle here. My theory is that there are two factors at play increasing the probably of human-wildlife conflict concerning jaguars. First off, the Wildcat program has been in motion since 2010. This had a positive affect on the jaguar population, as landowners gained monetary benefit from photos of cats, causing less hunting of the cats, therefore increasing the population over the last few years. All the while, the Mennonite culture is gaining more and more presence in the landscape, buying and clearing land for monoculture farming. This destruction of habitat is forcing a healthy population of cats into less and less habitat than before, increasing the density of the cats, increasing the resource competition between cats (pushing them to attack cattle that now graze on their previous habitat), and increasing the probability of human-wildlife conflict.

This situation is disheartening, but I can't let it get me down. Our work will continue! We finished a new week of camera checks last week, using the ATV (the jeep is still out, with an unknown time of return). Got some great photos, especially one in particular of a jaguar, walking perfectly through one of our camera stations. The lodge became a place of great energy with the welcoming of a 45+ group of people interested in bats. Just last night, I was introduced to Eliot Greenspan, the author of Frommer's Travel Guide for Belize. I got the chance describe our project to him, and to personally ask him for travel recommendations for the rest of the country, assuming that I will one day have some time off to see other sites.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

One Month... Already?

Indian Church, Belize has been my home for and entire month now! The Wildcat project is still moving forward, although it feels as though our momentum is waning, we've moved into our “permanent” residence here at the lodge, and we had the opportunity to get cameras on a new calf kill.

About a week ago, while waiting to meet with landowners, to do camera checks, we received urgent news that our landowner George found a kill site. He had lost three calves (vaquitas) in three days. This was the first one he was able to actually find. We had no choice but to reschedule our meetings for a little later, so we could get to George right away (he is Mennonite, and his mother is in the hospital in Orange Walk, he was on his way to see her when he found the kill). For the project, we opportunistically place cameras on kill sites knowing that cats will return. This particular kill site is very, very close to a kill site from December of last year, on an adjacent landowner's property. This is an interesting pattern, and we're curious to know if this is the same jaguar. We got everything set up, and finished out our week of camera checks. This was our first week checking cameras without our Director Venetia to guide us. It went well enough, somewhat bumpy, but we learned quite a bit that will make things smoother next time.

The very next day we were checking cameras in the Mennonite village of Indian Creek, including the kill site from the day before, of which we did get photos of a jaguar! On our way home our luck began to fade. A terrible grinding noise started coming from the rear passenger side wheel of our Jeep Wrangler. After making it back to the lodge safely, we removed the tire and saw the source of the grinding noise. Something had shifted the axle bearing causing a domino effect of shifting, forcing parts out of alignment. Basically, we need a new axle bearing, and it's going to be a while until we get one, and it gets fixed. Now I realize how much we depend on the Jeep to do our work.

Luckily, this hasn't stopped us! We even got a new camera station installed, expanding our camera grid further south! Thanks to our newest landowner, Carlos, who: picked us up, took us to his property, showed us around, allowed us to set up two cameras, and brought us back, we were able to move forward, and take a step closer to enlarging our study area all the way to the protected lands! We are also excited for what we will see on his land, since he has a large portion of forest that he only uses for hunting right now, and he has personally has jaguars following him.

In other news, we finally have an office space! This has made work at the lodge quite a bit more conducive, at least as far as working with data, which we've been doing a lot without access to the Jeep. Lucky for me, the day we were moving in, I started getting sick with something. My throat became really sore (tonsils hurt like crazy), and that night I'm pretty sure I had a fever; it was an odd feeling to be shivering when the temperature here never drops below 70 degrees or so! I checked the back of my throat with a flashlight and saw white dots on my tonsil. I know the symptoms of malaria and although malaria is rare in this part of Belize it's still a possibility. I consulted my personal expert on strep throat via text message, my best friend Aschlee, since she's gotten strep many times. I've come to the conclusion that I had strep throat, and thanks to finding some local ginger root (a cure-all out in the jungle), I am feel almost 100% again!

Life goes on here at the lodge, we've had news of more calf kills in the village of San Carlos. Matt went out on his own, since I was recuperating, and only found bones of two different calves. Now we're in the midst of trouble shooting next week's camera checks without a vehicle, and a few details of cataloging our photo data, oh so much fun! I feel as though we've accomplished a lot in the last month, and to be honest it has flown by. It's hard not to feel like we're loosing steam since we'd really like to get some more camera stations up and build relationships with new landowners for the project, but aren't able to.

Eventually the Jeep will be fixed though, and this week (after we make it through our camera checks, please cross your fingers it goes well), some researchers are coming to the lodge to study bats, and we will hopefully have the chance to help them out!

At the end of the day though, I'm pretty blessed to be in a place like this! Fieldwork rarely involves living at a “resort” where I can end my day with a cold Belikin Beer. Belikin is brewed at the Belize Brewing Company in Ladyville, Belize. They have four brews, two of which I have tried: Belikin Beer, and Lighthouse Lager. I definitely prefer the classic Beer over the Lager, and have yet to try their Premium Beer, and Stout (not sure if I can send you this Nathan).

Note: I apologize for the lack of pictures on here, so far I haven't been able to load them, but if you want to see photos I have had success loading them onto Facebook, and more should be coming soon!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Settled in?

I have now been in the Lamanai area for 2 weeks! I can't believe that! I love the Indian Church Village. Time has gone by so fast, it feels like it's been only a week. Each day has been something new, meeting new landowners, setting up new camera trap stations, new words in Spanish to remember, a new schedule. I love the variety! At the same time, so much new makes me crave something familiar. Humans are such creatures of habit. I've realized how much I appreciate having people near me that know me well, and know exactly what I'm saying, even when I'm not speaking. I find that I often remind myself that I am in Belize! Then I'm back in a state of awe, and consciously absorbing every minute (some would say second, but Belize time is much slower and doesn't work that way!).

I'm beginning to get settled in, in different ways. For the last few nights I've had my room to myself, which allowed me to spread out, and doing so made me feel more like my stay here is more than temporary. Matt and I are waiting to move into the cabana that will be our permanent room while we're here. The lodge has been remodeling and updating this room for us. It has a big common room with a big table, for work, two bedrooms, a storage room that we can lock our equipment in, and a big bathroom. This will be great, we can finally organize all our stuff, and I can stop living out of my suitcase!

Understanding Spanish is getting easier each day, and the more I pick up, the more I use. I really need to force myself to use it! I tend to keep quiet when I'm not sure of what I'm saying (imagine that, me... quiet). I'm getting used to the new faces and names. I'm getting to know all the roads in the different towns, and who lives where, and who's related to who.

Our director, Dr. Venetia Briggs, has gone back to the states, leaving the project in the hands of Matt and I. We're definitely not alone, the lodge owner, and many landowners are exceedingly willing to help. So far things have gone smoothly, and we've made more progress than we had expected in the last few days!

Here are two small anecdotes that I really enjoy:
One evening while helping one of the guides here at the lodge with his GPS, he saw my facebook profile picture (of me standing on top of the High Temple, smiling). He said, "who's that gringa?" (the female form of the word gringo, aka white folk), my response, "me, of course, don't I look like a gringa?" He replied, "No, you look like una chica de bosque!" This made me pretty happy actually, that he would say that I look like a jungle girl. I guess I am settling in!

Just this evening, Matt and I were walking around the town of Indian Church, finding the local landowners we need to check cameras with next week, when we were approached by someone asking to talk. He is the son of one of the landowners that we work with, and associated us with the wildcat project. There is a problem in a town that's pretty for away (half a day drive, which in a small country, is far), where a large jaguar is killing livestock, pets, and even children for food, and this is not the first time we've heard about this cat. This man was asking for help, hoping that we could tranquilize the jaguar and move him somewhere else! Sadly we haven't gotten to the trapping portion of our project, and only have permits to work in our current study area. We did however, promise to make contacts with people who could possibly help, but it was great to be associated with this, as if we are the local jaguar biologists.

So for now, things are going quite well, and the project is moving along! I'm kept quite busy, and luckily haven't had too much time to think about how much I miss home, family, friends, and especially pets.

Friday, March 23, 2012

My Adventure Begins


As most of you know, I am now in Belize, working as a Field Assistant for a wildcat project. To give you a little better idea of what this really means, here's some background.

I am stationed in an area called Lamanai (Mayan for submerged crocodile, the name for the Mayan temple very close by). This is located on the east side of the New River Lagoon, which is 28 miles long, freshwater and home to many exciting creatures like the Morelet Crocodile (Crocodylus moreleti) . Working for the Lamanai Field Research Center (LFRC), myself and one other intern Matt, have been given the charge of maintaining a camera trapping grid and creating methods for organizing the subsequent data. This will involve a lot of data entry, looking at photos and sorting them, identifying individual jaguars by their spots, and most of all working with the landowners to continue building relationships and set up more cameras.

Now, be prepared to enter a scene straight out of a movie. I arrived at the airport in Belize City, excited but also pretty tired from my travels. I was greeted by someone holding a sign that said my name on it, along with the name of the other intern. At this time I met Matt, who is 25 and from New York. Next our adventure began, we rode in van for 45 minutes to a boat launch, from here we traveled by boat on the New River for over an our to reach the Lamanai Outpost Lodge. It felt great to be flying across the water, cool air blowing, getting increasingly deeper into the jungle. At the lodge we were greeted by one of the directors of the LFRC whisked up to the dinning hall for lunch. The food here is amazing, it's a gourmet combination of Mayan and Yucatan dishes. The lodge is surrounded by a landscaped garden filled with native vegetation, providing homes to Howler monkeys, Fer De Lance snakes, many many birds, lizards, insects, and more. The cabanas are picturesque with dark wooden walls, and thatched palm leaf roofs. These kinds of accommodations are far from common for Field Assistants, and I am very grateful to have a mattress to sleep on, hot water for showering and delicious food made for me three times a day. This lodge has got it going on, the guests usually stay for 4 day stints, participating in a number of great activities (from crocodile encounters and hiking Mayan ruins, to sunset cocktail cruises).

I am astounded at the beauty, and diversity of this place. There is something to see everywhere you look. Many beautiful plants, flowers, birds, butterflies, and snakes. It's an ecologists paradise, making this a great experience for the beginning of my young career! So far I've learned in much much more detail what my goals will be with this project, visited a couple camera sites, swam in the lagoon, released a baby crocodile, taken the tour through the Mayan ruins of Lamanai, made tortillas from scratch, and had a trip into Belmopan, the capital of Belize. I'm doing my best to absorb all the knowledge about the plants and animals I can, and try and refresh on as much of the Spanish language as I can too.

It feels amazing to be doing exactly what I want to do, especially in such an amazing place!

Sorry for the lack of picture, they'll be coming soon, I hope! I have plenty, and will probably do another post just on the Mayan ruins, but the species of greater internet signal I require is elusive in the jungle :)

Hope all is well to those reading this post!