Continued Efforts for the Protection of Wildlife in Belize

November 3, 2016 News, Blog, Conservation

Belize May 2016

As the Canadian Exo-Terra Reptile Specialist, in February of this year, I was offered the opportunity (through HARI) to travel to Belize to help the Scarlet Six Biomonitoring Team and FCD (Friends for Conservation and Development) start a conservation project to help protect their local reptile species. Over the past few years, HARI had already been supporting these two groups and they expressed what a wonderful bunch of people they were and how much they could use my help! Scarlet Six began as a group of six friends who were determined to help protect the scarlet macaw from poachers in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve.

The Chiquibul is one of the world’s most pristine rainforests located in the Maya Mountains of Belize. According to Scarlet Six there is an estimated population of only 200 scarlet macaws remaining in the Chiquibul. This population is secluded from the ones existing elsewhere in Central America. Scarlet Six and FCD are now dedicated to helping protect Belize’s flora and fauna. Soon after, I was presented to Charles Britt and Roni Martinez of Scarlet Six and we set dates for my arrival in Belize to coincide with the onslaught of the rainy season.

My Arrival – May 20

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The star of the Chiquibul the Scarlet macaw (Ara macao) at nesting site

Our camp was located deep in the rainforest on the Raspaculo River. Each of the camps that Scarlet Six have established are strategically placed at the bottom of the trees where the scarlet macaws nest. This of course is to deter poachers from wanting to come climb the trees and steal the chicks. You could call them the “Guardians of the Scarlets”. Each day the team would depart from the camp (often leaving one person behind to guard the nest). The daily rounds were spent surveying the area and the other known nests where they did not have enough volunteers to stand guard. When surveying the nesting sites, Scarlet Six would “slingshot fire” a climbing rope over the highest branch and then climb up the rope to the cavity in the tree to inspect the nest. They would verify the existence or condition of the eggs and once the eggs have hatched to check on the chicks to ensure they will safely grow until they fledge from the nest. The team would usually survey two nests a day and return back to camp when the heat was at its worst. While we patrolled around the Raspaculo and Macal Rivers, I could also keep my eyes peeled for my scaly friends.

When I first arrived in the Chiquibul on the morning of May 20th, I could already see how dry everything was and it was obvious the rainy season had not yet started and that it was not the best time to observe reptiles and amphibians in their habitat. I also realized (while travelling with Luis Mai – just after 7am that morning – on the Raspaculo River) that due to the intense heat, the crocodiles would be spending most of their time in the water. I knew that for the duration, if I wanted to observe any of the morelets crocodiles basking in larger numbers, we would have to get out in the boat before 7am. We only had the chance to observe two larger crocodiles basking during my entire time there.belize-jesse

The morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) is known to usually reach an average length of 10 feet. I am reading now that the males can reach a max length of 15 feet, but from what Roni had told me after the trip and I trust his judgement, they do indeed exceed this length given the opportunity. Large species of reptiles have what we call indeterminate growth. Usually how big they get will depend on the availability and size of their prey. The other determining factor of course is leaving the species alone without hunting allowing them to grow. I guess that can go without being said. In the case of this species we would see indeterminate growth mainly with the males as their size exceeds that of the females. The males also develop a much wider head. I was at first confused as I thought that I was observing both American crocodiles and morelet’s as the females have a much more narrow snout in comparison to the males, but after the trip Roni had confirmed that there are only morelet’s in the Chiquibul. One day we may discover a record size morelet’s croc in the Macal River!

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Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii)

In the afternoon around 2pm while coming back on the Macal River we witnessed a large male basking and he soon retreated back into the water. They must come out for short periods of time to warm up just enough to get their core temperature back to where they prefer it to be. Larger crocodiles do not need to bask nearly as much as they retain heat much longer due to their mass. The male spotted could have easily been more than 10 feet in length. Albert Reyes (FCD) and Luis both mentioned that they usually see more big crocs basking on the banks. I asked when you usually see this and they answered when the river is higher. We have to assume that in the extreme heat they are retreating from this considerably. What we don’t see are the burrows they have dug just under the water’s surface on the edge of the riverbanks where they aestivate during these periods.

Night of May 21

On the night of May 21st we decided to set out for a croc survey in the dark. We counted the crocodiles on a 3 to 3.5 mile stretch of the Raspaculo River. We used the standard method of spotting their eye shine with powerful LED flashlights. This method is used around the world for conducting croc population surveys. This is what I believe should be continued to be done going forward. More time needs to be spent at night counting the eye shines along the Raspaculo and Macal rivers all the way up to the Challilo dam. You could see quite easily that the construction of the dam has changed the landscape drastically. It was hard to tell if this has greatly affected the population or not. I would think that maybe it did at first, but by now the crocodiles could have already adapted to this change. This can only really be determined by monitoring the species from year to year. That night we counted 20 crocodiles, 70% of which were juveniles. A good sign from the previous season, but we do not know if there should be more. One other observation at night was that it was easy to tell if a croc from a distance was a juvenile or an adolescent/adult as when approaching them with the boat you would notice that the older ones would almost always begin to move and the juveniles for the most part would remain motionless.

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Hector Salazar climbing to inspect the scarlet macaw nest.

Day of May 22

While travelling to survey the scarlet nests I had Luis stop in an area where he said he had seen croc nests the previous year. We discovered one freshly constructed nest. I assumed the eggs could take only 65 days, but I am now reading that it could take up to 85 days until they hatch. This brings the hatching of the eggs to the first weeks of August. It would be interesting to monitor that nest regularly and closer to the expected hatch date during the first two weeks of August. Luis mentioned that he witnessed the croc nests last year that had become covered in water… Do the eggs survive when completely submerged? From what I know the crocs try to lay their eggs just before the rains begin so they will hatch just before the rivers end up too high. I am also reading that in other species flooding is a known threat to the nests.

Night of May 22

We decided to go out one more time to observe the crocodiles at night. We did not count them as we covered the same stretch of the river. We witnessed one juvenile crocodile that had captured a frog. I would presume this is the main prey items for the baby crocodiles during this time of year as all of the frogs were congregated by the water’s edge due to the dry season. On this night we went down one creek ,which name eludes me at this time where we followed a larger croc almost to the very end to try and get a close look at it. As we got closer we could see that this croc was a larger one and it suddenly disappeared. Hector Salazar and I were standing at the front of the boat and we shined our high powered LED flashlights into the water and saw the head of a very large male croc just below the surface only a few feet in front of us. The head sank deeper out of sight and the croc swam directly under the boat and we saw his bubbles come up on the other side. That night I barely slept in my hammock due to the extreme heat, humidity and the echoing sounds of the jungle. It was like sleeping on a busy boulevard in Manhattan. Not to mention I also had whirling thoughts of what else we could discover here!  Below I have listed other species I observed while in the Chiquibul:

Reptiles

  • Ghost anole (Norops lemurinus) Location: camp on Raspaculo River
  • Green iguana (Iguana iguana) Location: Raspaculo River
  • Brown Basilisk  (Basiliscus vittatus) Location: Scarlet Creek
  • Five Lined Skink (Plestiodon sumichrasti (formely Eumeces sumichrasti))
    Location: Scarlet Creek – Scarlet Macaw nesting tree.
  • Morelet’s crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) Location: Macal and Raspaculo river. Reports of sightings in Challilo Lake.

Amphibians

  • Marine toad (Bufo marinus) Location: Commonly found in all locations visited
  • Rio Grande Leopard frog – (Rana berlandieri) Location: Camp on Raspaculo River

There were many other frog species. This will be better documented next time around.

Arachnids

  • Golden Silk Orb Weaver spider – (Nephilia sp.) – Needed to study this specimen more closely for positive ID N. clavipes suspected. Location: Tree at beginning of trail to the Blue hole.
  • Tiger wandering spider (Cupiennius salei) Location: Camp on Raspaculo River
  • Tarantula species – This dark brown species is suspected by a few experts to be either (Citharacanthus merman) or a (Citharacanthus livingstoni). More photos need to be taken of the specimen for positive ID. Location: Camp on Raspaculo River

Iguana Project – May 23

On the morning of May 23rd, Luis Mai brought me out of the Chiquibul back to his home town of San Antonio to hand me off to the Scarlet Six’s director of field operations Roni Martinez. Roni then brought me to visit the Iguana Project in San Ignacio. The Iguana Project is a green iguana farm whose purpose is to help repopulate the wild. The species has become endangered in Belize due to the adults and their eggs being hunted for food. Upon examining the enclosures and the iguanas themselves, I made a few recommendations to their staff member to build some dark hideouts that could help the iguanas retreat naturally from the scorching heat. I had observed wild iguanas for the first time in the Chiquibul and noticed how they would scurry into their burrows on the river banks and cliffs.

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Jesse in the Belize Bird Rescue clinic donating some much needed Prime and a Fluval filter to help keep their feeder fish tank clean!

Belize Bird Rescue – May 23, 24 & 25

Halfway through the trip I was brought to the Belize Bird Rescue where I would be spoiled by the very generous hospitality of the founders Nikki Buxton and Jerry Larder. I was amazed by their beautiful property where they care and raise baby parrots and other birds that have been orphaned, injured or confiscated from poachers. My time spent there allowed me to get some much needed R&R, heal a bit from the dozens of tick bites and get some laundry done. On my second evening there, Charles Britt and the remainder of the Scarlet Six team I had not met had stopped in. This allowed time for me to become acquainted with the U.S. based members and discuss plans for my potential trip back to Belize in 2017. After a few days of rest I was ready for the next leg of my journey in Belize’s “Crooked Tree”.

Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary – May 25- 28

That day, Nikki gave me a lift to hand me off to the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary’s site manager Derick Hendy. I stayed in the Crooked Tree’s visitor center with Derick Hendy for the nights of May 25th and 26th. During the day we were accompanied by park wardens Wilhelm Gillett and Steve Tillett. The Crooked Tree is funded and ran by the Belize Audubon Society.

My time in the Crooked Tree was a frustrating one. I was unaware that there are humans living within it. All understandable once you are educated on the history of the area, but the wildlife there appears to have a sad fate. It is hard to tell how much the locals affect the wildlife, but if the population of people is steadily increasing then the impact on the local wildlife will be evident. Belizean’s are reported to be poaching parrots, killing crocodiles out of fear (not even using the meat or skin), slash & burning and the amount of visible trash in and around the water’s edge had me concerned.

2nd-map-belizeThe water levels were extremely low and it made it difficult to get anywhere in their skiff. We spent the better part of a morning trying to find a way to drive to Spanish Creek through a savannah. The trail was thick and their pick-up truck’s capability was limited for this type of use. We could not reach Spanish Creek where it is known to have a much larger population of crocodiles. We decided to verify the access to another river. We ended up borrowing a lighter and older aluminium rowboat and a 15 hp motor. We were able to load this into the back of the Belize Audubon Society’s pick-up truck and transport it to Black Creek as this was the only accessible river with enough water in it. From what I can see on Google maps we covered almost 2.5 miles and counted 74 morelet’s crocodiles which again the majority were juveniles from last season. I did observe some visible signs of their burrows on the sides of these banks. The banks were more natural here with plenty of grasses and shaded by trees. We did observe slash-and-burn fires set by the local farmers to clear the brush along the banks of this river. If this increases steadily it could affect the nesting areas of the crocodiles.

On the night of the 27th Derick Hendy brought me to his home in Orange Walk. I stayed over that night as Derick drove me to the airport to fly home the following day.

Conclusion and Photo Journal

My experience in Belize is one I will never forget. I made some amazing new friends and saw some incredible and wild places. I plan to return to Belize to continue helping their conservation effort, but in the meantime I dream of sitting in the camp on the Raspaculo River at night watching the fire beetles swirling around in the air above our heads. I hope to go back in 2017!

Jesse De Luca

About Jesse De Luca

Like most kids, Jesse De Luca was fascinated by dinosaurs when he was a boy. His interest in pre-historic animals eventually evolved into a passion for reptiles and amphibians. When he was just 5, he kept slider turtles as a hobby. There is no doubt that his passion for herps, which is shorthand for reptiles and amphibians, runs deep. He says his greatest joy is to observe herps in their natural habitat. Today as Rolf C. Hagen Inc.’s (Canada) National Reptile Specialist he travels around the country to educate hobbyists and pet shop staff about the proper and responsible care of herps.

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Hagen Avicultural Research Institute