Chiquibul Forest… the largest protected area in Belize. A pristine forest harboring many of Belize’s majestic creatures such as Scarlet Macaws, Tapir, Kinkajous, Jaguars, and my favorite- Morelet’s Crocodile. About 20 years ago, a survey of Morelet’s was conducted on the Macal River, but since then, the demographics, size, and stability of this crocodile species has been unknown. As research and conservation efforts increased over the years to examine the biodiversity of Chiquibul, a need to study the Morelet’s in this region was warranted.
I was contacted by Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand from the Belize Wildlife Referral and Clinic (BWRC), whom also is on the board of Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD) (which co-manages Chiquibul in collaboration with the Belize Forest Department (BFD)) about a year ago on performing a crocodile survey in Chiquibul. I of course agreed in leading such a survey. Wasn’t too long afterwards I secured funds for the excursion thanks to friend and colleague Shawn Heflick’s Canada CrocFest. Seemed like everything was going smoothly- funding secured, equipment obtained, babysitters croc training for BWRC, FCD and BFD, babysitters acquired, international croc colleagues confirmed, permit received… Everything just seemed flawless, but then we finally hit a bump on the road, quite a big bump actually that would affect our research greatly. The boat engine broke. Mechanics couldn’t fix it, and we weren’t quite sure if there was time to get a new one that would be approved in enough time by FCD director. This all came upon us days before heading out into Chiquibul. I stayed positive, as always, and kept telling myself it’s either going to get fixed or we can make it work. No matter what happened, we were going to Chiquibul.
March 30th rolled around and we were on the Final Countdown to Chiquibul. Shawn flew in – first thing he says to me “Where’s your belly!!!” as the last time I saw him I was 9 months pregnant and about to pop! We rolled into San Ignacio and met up with Valerie Garcia, a Guatemalan crocodile researcher whom I had been in touch with over a year about croc conservation and research in Guatemala. She had been working with crocodilians for a year, and I thought this would be a great experience for her. Additionally, the methods for Chiquibul followed the methods provided by the 2012 meeting among Belize, Guatemala and Mexico to perform a nationwide Morelet’s Survey in each country to assess the conservation status of Morlet’s throughout its geographical range, so I thought this would be a good “prep” to perform the nationwide surveys for all of us.
March 31st, Thursday morning- boat motor still not functioning. We remained positive as we at least knew there would be 2 canoes. We discussed our strategy during breaks and lunch throughout the day as I led a Crocodile Training for FCD, BWRC, and BFD. We talked croc biology and ecology, we discussed crocodile management/human-crocodile conflict, and we practiced how to capture crocs via catch poles or fishing pole and treble hook. It was a great day, and a lot of the participants got the hang of “catching the croc.” At the end of the day, as we were prepping our gear to head into Chiquibul the next day, we received the dire news that we would not have a boat, only canoes for our survey. I took a deep breath knowing that we wouldn’t be able to accomplish much, but looked at the positive and figured we could still accomplish and catch some crocs. And knowing Shawn, I knew we would still have a great adventure and make the best out of this situation.
Friday morning couldn’t come any sooner as I was sooo excited about the unique adventure that was about to unfold on us. It was a hot day, about 42 degrees Celsius, and the group was going to have to split in 2 to get to the camp: either paddle upstream for about 3 hours with gear in a canoe, or walk about 4 hours in the forest with gear on back. Shawn and Giselle from BWRC canoed upstream with 2 FCD rangers, and the rest of us walked. I do owe Shawn as I volunteered him that day… paddling in a canoe in the sun mid-day (you are the best Shawn!!!! And I’m not looking forward to the payback). As we arrive to basecamp, we are surround by a plethora of trees, camping underneath a Scarlet macaw’s nest. A chorus of birds were singing as the sun was setting soon. I was in my heaven- no sounds of traffic, no inhalation of black fumes, no concrete in sight- nothing but green and the sounds of nature. The heat, the 4hr hike was mute- being in this environment gave me a surge of energy and excitement and I couldn’t wait until the sun was completely set so we could set out to observe this unknown population of crocodiles.
Following the instructions laid out by CONABIO during the 2012 Tri-Country agreement and meeting, nocturnal eyeshine surveys were to be performed prior to capture and tagging crocodiles on a different night. So we set out looking for crocs, and we saw 3 within meters of our camp. Juveniles, subadults, adults- oh my! We saw various crocs of various sizes, fat and healthy! And these animals were definitely curious of us as they are not use to seeing humans. The rangers who were paddling were full of excitement as they learned about the crocodiles and how to perform these surveys- one of the main goals of this survey is to initiate an annual monitoring program of crocodiles in Chiquibul (along with initiating the nationwide Morelet’s survey in Belize). There were some nerves for the non-crocodile specialist people getting up-close and personal with some of these crocs, but the nerves soon turned to excitement and respect. After a couple of hours, we turned around to head back to the camp. It had been a long day for all of us, and many of us were in need of a good night’s sleep.
As we got back to camp I realized I was in need of a shower, badly! Shawn and Valerie were in the same smelly boat as I apparently so we decided to venture out to take a bath.
Interestingly, we had to get back into the canoes, paddle about 100m to a creek. The air was cool and crisp and I knew the stream we were about to bathe in was going to be VERY cold. But I was going to have to suck it up. Shawn headed to the stream first. I believe the words, “It’s fucking cold!” came out of his mouth. Then it was my turn- I do NOT do good with cold, and I’m pretty sure I screamed like a banshee as I bathed and poured cold water on my body. As refreshed as I felt, I contemplated about taking any more baths the rest of the weekend (don’t worry, I did!).
Exhausted, but at the same time adrenaline is running through my veins as I’m loving the adventure thus far. Closing my eyes, nothing but silence with a few crokes and chirps of frogs and insects. And then the chorus of snoring begins from fellow campers, the one sound that for whatever reason I can not sleep through. I guess I can’t even get away from that sound in nature….
Come back tomorrow for the Chronicles of Chiquibul Part II- same croc time, same croc channel!