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.