This Work Has Perks

With all my exciting weekend travel and cultural discoveries to discuss, I haven’t written much about what I’m doing on the job. The truth is I spend most of my time behind a computer, analyzing satellite imagery and GPS data. Sometimes, though, I go into the field and collect data myself. Fieldwork days always prove to be interesting; over the past few weeks I’ve had some truly amazing experiences while working.

One of the issues that our Protected Areas Management team works on is human-jaguar relations. Although the jaguar population in Belize is healthy, they are threatened in many parts of the world and are highly susceptible to endangerment. They play an important role in Belizean culture and most people seem to respect the importance of protecting them. However, there are times that jaguars will start killing domesticated dogs or cattle, usually because they are ill or injured and cannot chase their normal prey. In these cases, Ya’axché and the Forest Department try to step in before farmers feel the need to kill the animal. (Check out this cute calendar we produced with information on how to live with jaguars)

A couple weeks ago, I accompanied our team to set up a trap to capture a sick jaguar that had been killing dogs. Though we didn’t get to see the jaguar, this was a pretty cool event to witness. First, we drove to a nearby village and bought a live turkey from a farm. We then took the turkey and an enormous wood and metal crate to various locations around the area, trying to find the most likely spot that the jaguar would hunt next.

When we chose the spot, at least fifteen men from the neighboring village curiously followed our vehicle down the road to where we would place it. They all offered to help move the crate — I got some great pictures of my coworkers and a whole crowd of Mayan men hobbling the heavy crate from the truck to the designated spot.

Once we were done, we left the turkey at the back of the trap with some water, “hid” the trap beneath some palm leaves, and went back to PG to wait and see what happened. Anti-climatically, we didn’t catch the jaguar — the Forest Department believes it recovered from whatever was ailing it because no more dogs have been killed.

Then, last Wednesday, we were invited to the Belize Zoo for the opening of a new jaguar exhibit. When we do succeed in capturing injured jaguars, they are moved to the Belize Zoo. I wish all zoos were like this. Most of the animals are rescued and all of them are native to Belize. Since it is located in the forest, the exhibits are much better approximations of the animals’ natural habitats than the vast majority of zoos.

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The lovely Gandhi quote displayed at the entrance to the Belize Zoo

Since we work with the zoo when dealing with injured jaguars, we got a special tour. We were taken back to see the sixteen jaguars that are being rehabbed but don’t have the behavior to be in public exhibits. These are amazingly beautiful and powerful creatures.

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The opening of the jaguar cub exhibit was also incredible. The new jaguar, Chiquibul, was found orphaned as a cub and is now six months old. In order to begin conditioning the cub to being around lots of people, the owner/founder of the zoo (pictured below in full jaguar print) allowed several people at a time to come into the cage with her.

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That’s right — I was in the cage with the baby jaguar! SHE WAS. SO. CUTE.

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LOOK HOW CLOSE I AM TO A YOUNG JAGUAR

Once I was done squealing myself hoarse, we continued our private tour of the zoo. All the animals were amazing, but the non-jaguar highlight was definitely the tapirs. Tapirs are the national animal of Belize, and they are both adorable and bizarre. They’re bigger than you might think–roughly the size of a cow when full-grown and weighing up to 500 pounds in the wild.

Their defining trait, though, is their nose. It looks like a cross between a pig’s nose and an elephant’s trunk. It’s hard to tell from pictures that the nose is prehensile and moves in an extremely strange way. I took a ton of terrible pictures to try to capture it and somehow still failed miserably. I was able to make this silly GIF though:

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goofy GIF of a goofy creature

If that wasn’t satisfactory, here’s a decent video that gives a taste of what a tapir’s nose can do. We got to feed one carrots, and the nose went crazy all over my hand. It was dope.

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I’m sad that this picture is blurry

Although all these animals are native to Belize, it’s very uncommon to see most of them in the wild. I was very happy to get to experience some of the animals that we are working so hard to protect, albeit in a zoo!

The next day I had yet another incredible work day. Our Community Outreach & Livelihoods team works with a group of farmers that have been granted the rights to farm in one of our protected areas as long as they abide by certain sustainability regulations. As such, they are each assigned specifically sized plots that we used GIS to design.

That’s where I came in. I loaded the files for the plots into a handheld GPS unit and headed out with two coworkers to meet the farmers. I then spent six hours marching through dense untouched forest in search of the coordinates of the edges of the plots. Eight farmers worked around me, clearing our trail with machetes. At first this was extremely nerve-wracking: what if I messed up and the plots were too close to the river? What if we veered too far to one side or the other and a farmer was cheated out of acreage? These people’s livelihoods depended on me being able to follow lines on an imperfect GPS!

Eventually, though, I got the hang of it. I started to retain a grasp on the land we were traversing and the men started to trust me more. Several hours in, we approached the river and saw an incredible, unbelievable thing: a bathing tapir! There he sat, a creature I had assumed I would never see in the wild, flicking his ears and looking positively relaxed! I couldn’t get a picture of the him, but I did get a picture of the group of farmers climbing into the river to gaze at him. My coworker who grew up here and works in the field every day was seeing a tapir in the wild for the first time — that’s how unusual it was!

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Everybody will drop what they’re doing to watch a tapir

The rest of the day was exhausting but satisfying. After weeks of sitting in front of a computer screen, it’s refreshing to get out to the field and be reminded what it is I’m working for. And of course, the occasional sighting of an exotic animal doesn’t hurt!

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