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!