Capturing the Wild: Jaguars in Belize

October 31st, 2014

Commentary and photos by: Fabienne Lefeuvre

The native inhabitants of Suriname referred to him as a God. He is the third largest cat in the world after the tiger and the lion. The Native American called him ‘yaguar’ which means ‘he who kills with one leap’: the jaguar. The jaguar (Panthera onca) can be found in 18 Latin American countries. Today they are mainly concentrated between Southern Arizona and New Mexico to Northern Argentina, but are extinct in EL Salvador and Uruguay.

‘Junior’ resides at the Belize Zoo.

Males measure around 1.8 m (6 feet) long and can weigh up to 113 kg (250 lb). Females are usually smaller and lighter (100kg). They can reach sexual maturity at about two years of age, males at around four. Female jaguars can have a litter of 1-4 cubs at the time which, they would defend fiercely (even against their own father). Most jaguars have an orange colour coat with distinctive black spots which are unique to each individual and can be used by humans to identify individuals.

‘Junior’ resides at the Belize Zoo.

But others born black are called ‘black panthers’. This melanism is conferred by a dominant allele that gives that excessive black pigment on the jaguar’s coat, a biological mechanism called ‘ ghost tripping’. The spots are actually still present but hidden by the dark skin pigmentation.

‘Lucky Boy’ resides at the Belize Zoo.

These powerful mammals are opportunistic hunters. Highly muscular with very powerful jaws, they are efficient ‘stalk and ambush’ predators. They can kill huge prey such as cows, but their preferences usually center around deer, coati, peccaries, armadillo, capybaras, birds, small mammals and even snakes. Occasionally their diet includes fish or large river turtles. Jaguars can break open turtle shells using their strong canines and unlike other big cats such as lions, tigers and leopards that attack their prey at the neck or throat, jaguars often kill preys by biting through their skulls, between the ears.

Junior at the Belize Zoo.

Jaguars are solitary animals; their territory is about of 20 square kilometres which they mark with their waste or by clawing trees. Unlike most cats, jaguars like water and are actually good swimmers. Like most jungle cats, jaguars mainly hunts at night or twilight hours so scientists have the difficult task to guess their numbers in the wild. The recent use of camera traps has, however, contributed in better data collection and in having an overall better understanding of their location and behaviour.

Today their survival as a species is still at risk. It is estimated that there are only 15,000 individuals left in the wild. Jaguars suffer from habitat destruction and fragmentation due to human population growth, farming activities, illegal hunting and a decline in wild prey numbers (due to overhunting). This fuels the vicious cycle of human-wildlife conflicts, often forcing jaguars to prey on livestock.

A Threatened Species

Jaguars were widespread in the New World until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when hunting for sport and fur started to decimate their numbers. ‘Between the 1960′s and 1970′s, as many as 18,000 jaguars were killed each year for their beautiful coat’ according to the big cat conservation organisation Panthera. In 1973, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), brought the fur trade to an official stand-still. This species was then listed on Appendix I of CITES as ‘near threatened’ by IUCN.

Panthera onca is a near-threatened species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature organisation (IUCN) red list. Like many apex predators, their reproduction cycle is slow so the killings of adult jaguars has a direct impact on the overall population.

‘Edgar Hill-in Pine Hill –Southern Belize.

Human-jaguar conflicts are on the rise in Belize, as human population and farming activities are expanding. The Mennonite farmers claimed that a jaguar had threatened the life of a man on his horse-wagon and that several jaguars were roaming in the garden in day light.

Mennonite farm in Pine Hill- Southern Belize.

Mennonite farm in Pine Hill- Southern Belize.

Jaguars and Humans: A Fragile Co-Existence in Belize

Jaguars are facing an imminent threat in Belize; they often pay for trespassing on human settlements (especially farms) with their lives. In some rare cases their lives are spared; Mennonite farmers capture them using traps.

Field research undertaken by Dr. Omar Figueroa — a Belizean researcher from the district of Cayo — reports that there are most likely no more than 800 jaguars remaining in Belize.

Jaguar ’Edgar Hill’

‘Edgar Hil’ was named after one of his rescuer ‘Edgar Correa’ from the Belizean Forest Department and ‘Hill’ as the Mennonite farm he was found in was in ‘Pine Hill’ in Southern Belize.

Rescuing Jaguars

The Belize Zoo has been hosting more and more jaguars over the years such as ‘Junior’ (who was born at the Zoo), so many that its capacity is now limited.

Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.

Jaguars and other big cats, such as pumas, suffer from habitat loss and fragmentation all over The Americas. The welfare of the remaining free-roaming ones is under threat. The Belize Zoo strongly works to enforce the concept of the Central Wildlife Corridor which, in theory, would provide habitat for jaguars to roam north-south.

Jaguars in Captivity

Reports show that jaguars that had been previously translocated had travelled back to their initial territory, so once a jaguar is captured it can never be released to the wild again.

Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.

A Zoo with a Natural Environment

The Belize Zoo was founded in 1983 by an American biologist who was hired to look after native wild animals used in a wildlife documentary. She decided to rescue the animals, as they could no longer be released into the wild. The zoo is spread over 29 acres, and is home to more than 150 animals of about 45 species, all native to Belize. The natural environment of Belize is left entirely intact within the zoo, the dense, natural vegetation separated only by gravel trails through the forest. The zoo plays an immense educational role in Belize, allowing locals to meet the most charismatic and endangered animals in the world, hopefully raising awareness of the environmental damage that we cause and hopefully will bring people together to become better green ambassadors.

Jaguar ’Edgar Hill’

The presence of big cats in zoos can be seen as educational; and jaguars tend to live around ten years longer in captivity than in the wild. However, the space in the enclosures could however never match the jaguars’ normal territory of 20 square kilometres.

Many jaguars seen on farming lands in Belize are killed on site.

Conservation organisations such as Panthera work around the clock in Latin America to protect dense forests and set appropriate corridors between national parks for jaguars (such as the Jaguar Corridor Initiative -JCI ) . The purpose of the JCI is to connect jaguar populations throughout Las Americas to protect the genetic balance of the Panthera onca species. To date, research shows that there are no recorded sub-species of Panthera onca throughout the stretch of Latin American countries. This genetic continuity is unique to this big cat species.

Junior resides at the Belize Zoo.

Southern Belize is one of the last strongholds for jaguars in Central America. It is the most well forested region and represents an important natural corridor for other big cats as well.

Santa Lucia: a Gem amongst Ecuador’s Cloud Forest Reserves (Photos)

October 29th, 2014

Photo Essay and Commentary By: Etienne Littlefair

The time is 6:30 am, a faint glimmer of light is just breaking the horizon revealing gnarled epiphyte laden trees still dripping from the rains that had passed through earlier in the morning. In the distance the piercing call of a Wattled Guan cuts through the morning air. I think to myself how lucky I am, as the remnant cloud cover seems to evaporate away leaving a crisp, still morning. Perfect conditions for viewing the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek that I had torn myself away from the comfort of my cabana and hiked through the forest in the hope of witnessing. The first sign of Cock-of-the-Rock manifests as a rustling of wings, the shake of a branch and then a startlingly loud call from just above the foliage blind concealing me from the lek site. Tense with excitement, I patiently wait whilst the sun continues its ascent, all the while more birds flock to the scene and enter the fray, a song and dance where male Cock-of-the-Rock compete for the right to mate.

A male Cock-of-the-Rock astride his mossy perch.

This early experience during my stay at Santa Lucia was to set the scene for three weeks of immense joy and wonder inspired by the natural world. In my time at Santa Lucia I conducted herpetofauna surveys as part of a team of ecologists from various universities working with Operation Wallacea, a UK based conservation charity. This opportunity gave me many insights into Ecuadorean life, and hammered home the need to protect remaining primary forest habitats.

Santa Lucia is a cloud forest reserve situated in the Ecuadorean province of Pichincha, close to the small town, Nanegal. The reserve is owned and run by 20 families within the local community whose economy was historically based on agricultural produce, particularly sugar cane. Following a government act granting legal protection to the forest in 1988, the local people had to adapt their land use in order to maintain their livelihood and income. In the late 90’s the construction of an eco-lodge situated on a high panoramic ridge began. The mission statement of Santa Lucia is ‘to create jobs and other benefits by means of a well run ecotourism business which allows us to conserve the forest and which respects the values of cooperative members and those of the community.’

My first view of the lodge upon arrival, the lodge itself was constructed using materials from the forest, and much of the excellent food served at mealtimes is grown at the lodge.

The excellent vegetable patch, panoramic veranda and forested backdrop.

The lodge today is set up to cater for all manner of eco-tourists, those who wish to spend day and night prowling the forests in search of elusive species, and those who wish to relax and soak in the scenery. As well as catering for tourists, the lodge has a purpose built field laboratory and facilities for lecturing making it a fantastic base to conduct field courses and research forest ecology.

The stunning views from the lodge showcase the beauty and fragility of the Andean cloud forests within an increasingly human dominated landscape.

The reserve spans a wide altitudinal band from around 1500m to 2450m above sea level. The location and altitude of the reserve makes Santa Lucia a key area for Spectacled bears, a species classed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Santa Lucia is part of an initiative to form a ‘bear corridor’ facilitating seasonal movement of Spectacled bears from lower cloud forest areas into the higher páramo zone. A long term and on going study conducted by Dr Mika Peck of Sussex University aims to recognise individual bears within the reserve using facial markings discerned from camera trap images. This work allows population estimates to be made.

Spectacled bear. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Threats to Spectacled bears include habitat degradation and direct persecution by landowners. Bears will occasionally venture into agricultural areas and feed on crops, which leads to conflict. Sadly in some areas bears are shot purely for sport. It is hoped that establishment of the bear movement corridor may help to alleviate human bear conflict. 18 additional species of medium to large mammal have been caught on camera within the reserve including such oddities as the Andean Wolf.

Puma. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

Jaguarundi. Image credit: Dr. Mika Peck

The staff of Santa Lucia are passionate naturalists, a fact made evident by the level of knowledge and skill displayed in the field. The reserve manager, Noe () is a particularly knowledgeable ornithologist. A highlight for any birder is the presence of Andean cock-of-the-rock, of all birds, amongst the most charismatic and sought after species inhabiting Andean cloud forests. There are also around 12 species of hummingbird present including the dramatic Booted racquet-tail and Violet-tailed Sylph. In total 405 bird species have been recorded in and around the reserve.

Whilst the birds and the large mammals are perhaps more evident and certainly better known within the reserve, the reptiles and amphibians are certainly their equal in beauty and mystery.  They also fulfill many important roles in the ecology of the cloud forest. At Santa Lucia I identified 13 species of amphibian including the Emerald Glassfrog (Espadarana prosoblepon), the bizarre Pinocchio rainfrog (Pristimantis appendiculatus) the endangered Goblin Rainfrog (Pristimantis sobetes) and perhaps most significantly Eugenia’s rainfrog (Pristimantis eugenia). Eugenia’s Rainfrog being a species closely associated with bromeliads and known from only a handful of cloud forest sites within an altitudinal range of around 300m.

Pinocchio rainfrog – (Pristimantis appendiculatus)

Goblin rainfrog – (Pristimantis sobetes)

Eugenia’s rainfrog – (Pristimantis eugenia)

Emerald glassfrog – (Espadarana prosoblepon)

I identified 13 species of reptile within the reserve. Some highlights included the Elegant Snail Sucker (Dipsas elegans) a species endemic to the Western Ecuadorean Andes, the Giant groundsnake (Atractus gigas) a very rare, and likely Ecuadorean endemic snake first described in 2006. Also present and fairly abundant are at least two species of Anole, the Gem anole (Anolis gemmosus) and the larger Equatorial anole (Anolis aequitorialis).

Elegant snail-sucker – (Dipsas elegans)

Giant groundsnake – (Atractus gigas)

Gem anole – (Anolis gemmosus) dewlap close up

Gem anole in situ – (Anolis gemmosus)

Equatorial anole displaying its impressive dewlap – (Anolis aequitorialis)

For me, this final image of a fast flowing stream, a prominent feature in the Santa Lucia landscape, reveals something of the character and mystery of the reserve.

With continued investment from both tourists and research groups such as Operation Wallacea and Sussex University, gladly, the local community, the forest and the wildlife of Santa Lucia are likely to prosper long into the future. The reserve is one of the most successful and promising examples of sustainable community based conservation that I have had the pleasure of visiting and contributing to. I thoroughly recommend a visit to Santa Lucia for anyone with a love of nature and the outdoors.

Visit the Santa Lucia website to find out more.

 

 

Reporter’s Journal: A story sans words

October 10th, 2014

Special Reporting Initiatives photographer Dominic Bracco II tries to capture the aquaculture scene at Liangzi Lake.  A local fishfarmer attempts to capture his own view.  Dominic’s photos will appear with Erik Vance’s reporting on the demand for sustainable fisheries products in China.

Photo credit: Shouqi Xie

Reporter’s Journal: It isn’t a beluga

September 30th, 2014

Special Reporting Initiatives Fellow Erik Vance gets up close and personal with a finless porpoise housed at Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan, China.  Vance and his colleague, photographer Dominic Bracco II, are reporting on the market for sustainable fisheries in China.

Photo credit: Shouqi Xie

An armadillo the size of a golf ball

September 26th, 2014

Rica just after birth. She was born the mere size of a golf ball. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Meet Rica, the baby three-banded armadillo.  Rica is a tiny new arrival at the Edinburgh Zoo born on August 24th and weighing in at just 81g or roughly the size of a golf ball.  She was born to proud parents Rio and Rodar who only arrived at the zoo in March of 2014.

“This is the first birth of any armadillo species at Edinburgh Zoo and it is amazing how quickly little Rica is growing up! She is just amazing to watch; always full of energy and scurrying about her surroundings like a perfectly formed miniature of a fully grown three banded armadillo,”  Gareth Bennett, Senior Presentations Keeper at Edinburgh Zoo, said in a statement. “For her first few weeks she could not quite roll up into a perfect ball because of her huge claws and softer, smaller shell, but she has now grown into her shell and can quickly pack herself into the tightly sealed ball which adult three banded armadillos are known for.”

Little Rica, along with her parents, is certainly an ambassador for some very noble conservation work supported by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in the Brazilian Pantanal. The Giant Armadillo Project, lead by conservation biologist Dr Arnaud Desbiez, aims to establish the first long-term ecological study of giant armadillos in the Brazilian Pantanal wetland.  Mongabay has covered the work of Dr. Desbiez and The Giant Armadillo Project in the past, including a touching piece on the caring maternal nature of the species and the first photos of a baby giant armadillo.

Both the three-banded and giant armadillo are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, with ongoing exploitation and habitat loss and degradation as reasons for their decline.

Showing her true size. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Getting closer on her roll. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

Rica and her mom. Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh Zoo.

 

Reporter’s Journal: Bomb Harvest

August 6th, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

Porters sort and tally a week’s worth of landings from a bomb fishing crew before carrying the catch to the docks in Makassar, Indonesia. Each plastic basket is worth Rp. 100,000 ($8). The full tally for this boat was Rp. 18,800,000 or $1404. The porters get paid a percentage for shuttling the catch to shore and selling the fish to wholesale distributors in the city.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: A Wood & Glass View

July 31st, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

Wood and glass goggles used by traditional divers throughout Sulawesi. Though produced near-exclusively by the Bajau sea gypsies, “traditional” goggles are commonly used, regardless of ethnic group, when spear-fishing, cyanide fishing or collecting sea cucumbers, groupers or fish killed with bombs that are detonated underwater. However rubber recreational dive masks are becoming more prevalent.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: Times are getting dark

July 29th, 2014

By Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative Fellow Ruxandra Guidi. Photo by Roberto Guerra.

Photo copyright (c) 2014 SRI Fellow Roberto Guerra.

This is the season of hurricanes and heavy storms. But the archipelago of Kuna Yala, located south of the hurricane belt, is typically spared the damage and strong winds that hit islands further north in the Caribbean, year after year. In recent years, however, rains have forced the people living in these islands — an estimated 30,000 — to start making drastic changes to their way of life.

The first time we visited the island of Usdupu in October of 2009, the water came down daily, flooding the narrow dirt paths that connect all the thatched roof homes. Kids played in the brown water half-naked, without a worry in the world. But some of their parents spoke to us about being unable to cook with charcoal on the floor, as is their tradition, due to the persistent flooding. Others showed us how they were using cement debris and even trash to create landfill on the edges of the island, which is on sea level.

But then, we also noticed other, more profound ways, in which the flooding seemed to be affecting the Kuna.

One of the traditional songs performed by their wise elders, or sahilas, described their collection of islands as “coconuts resting firmly on the sand” that would never disappear, regardless of the weather. Yet starting in the Fall of 2008, after a series of giant waves flooded most of the islands, the sahilas had began singing a new song. “Why are our mothers crying?” the lyrics went. “It is because of the hurricanes and earthquakes. Times are getting dark. Who is causing this?”

Changing weather patterns, sea level rise, and man-made climate change are three new modern-day concerns that the Kuna have had to grapple with. Sahilas, men, women, and young people alike have attended information workshops focused on these issues, and the  Congreso General Kuna, the indigenous territory’s highest authority, tackles things like adaptation and mitigation on a regular basis.

This July, we’ll be returning to some of these islands to find out more about the challenges faced by the Kuna. As it turns out, the well-preserved mainland forest — that’s less than a mile away from these islands — may be an important part of the solution.

 

Reporter’s Journal: Infant Shrimp

July 2nd, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye.

A technician checks on week-old shrimp larvae or nauplius, at the world’s largest shrimp and mollusk broodstock center in Bugbug, Indonesia. The center hopes to become a major supplier inexpensive and healthy “parent” shrimp to Indonesia’s domestic shrimp farming industry, to reduce reliance on pricier and occasionally disease-ridden imports from abroad. Indonesia is one of a handful of shrimp-producing countries unaffected by the outbreak of Early Mortality Syndrome, which has decimated farmed shrimp in top-producing countries like Thailand, China and Vietnam over the last two years.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.

Reporter’s Journal: Fishermans’ Wives

June 27th, 2014

Photo copyright (c) 2014 Melati Kaye

Fishermens’ wives negotiate a price for freshly caught sardines in Negara, a town on the shores of the Bali Strait. The strait is about to become Indonesia’s first region to be managed under an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management.

This photo was taken by Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Initiatives fellow Melati Kaye, who is reporting on the state of the fishing industry in Indonesia.