Human conflict is the primary cause of a worldwide decrease in the wild big cat population. In the case of the jaguar, conflict with cattle ranchers, poaching, car collisions, and habitat fragmentation and/or destruction all pose a significant threat to the species’ very existence. Wildlife research and conservation have become a necessary practice crucial to the jaguars’ survival. However, feline species are notoriously difficult to study in the wild as they are very elusive and often nocturnal. They also occur at low densities, are wide-ranging, and often inhabit some of the harshest, most forbidding environments.
Dr. Marcella Kelly, the Zoo’s global conservation partner, has dedicated her life’s work in securing a future for big cats. She is a pioneer in non-invasive field monitoring techniques—in particular, camera trapping, genetic scat sampling, and habitat sampling. Her innovative camera trap technique uses motion-sensitive cameras to capture animals on film. Individuals are then identified, and their capture history data is then statistically analyzed to estimate their population status in the wild.
Dr. Kelly’s research has produced the first density estimates of jaguar populations in the small Central American country of Belize. I was fortunate enough to travel to Belize at the end of October and volunteer as a field assistant to her long term Jaguar Project. My weeklong stay was centered at two of her five field sites: the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area in the northwest and the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve in the south central part of the country.
Dr. Kelly was finishing up her seasonal study in the Rio Bravo area, so the goal was to retrieve the cameras and get them ready for set up in the Mountain Pine Ridge area. The majority of my stay was focused at the Rio Bravo study site, a tropical lowland rainforest comprised of 24 field stations, with each station containing two cameras. Thus my machete-wielding adventure consisted of trekking about seven miles a day, traversing through waist deep water, with GPS to locate the camera traps.
Once found, the data was collected (number of pictures taken, battery life, camera type, date and time) and the camera was dismantled. The ever-so-important SD card was stored in a dry plastic bag (since it was the rainy season), and all 48 cameras were hauled out of the jungle. It was not unusual to carry about 30 to 35 pounds of work gear and essentials (water bottles, bug spray, rain gear) as we would hike to at least two stations before returning back to the work truck to unload. Just to do it all over again!
After spending four days at Rio Bravo, the project leader and I drove four hours south to the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. With an elevation of 3,300 feet, it offered a bit of a respite from the hot and humid lowlands. There, we serviced and cleaned the cameras and had a little bit of time to review some of the SD cards. The images that the SD cards caught were absolutely amazing! While it picked up an abundance of prey (tapir, peccary, coatimundi, currasow, deer), it also captured four of the five feline species (jaguar, puma, ocelot and margay) of Belize! It was thrilling to see the conditioning of the cats, all of which looked to be in prime health.
To top it off, we also found time to visit the Belize Zoo. Jutai, our resident adult male jaguar at Big Cat Falls, was rescued from the wild in Belize when he was found orphaned in a citrus orchard at approximately four months of age. He grew up and recovered at the Belize Zoo for three years until 2007, when Philadelphia Zoo became his permanent home.
My stay in Belize was an unbelievably rewarding experience. and I learned so much about the indigenous plants and wildlife. I also learned a lot about the country and its people and local customs while I stayed with a very welcoming Belizean family during my time in the Rio Bravo area. Although zoo keeping is a very rewarding and gratifying profession, I had a strong desire to contribute to an in situ conservation project. And I would like to sincerely thank The Philadelphia Zoo and Dr. Marcella Kelly for giving me this wonderful volunteer work opportunity to fulfill my “call of the wild.”
By Jen Robertson, KeyBank Big Cat Falls Keeper