This month’s CRC Blog is written by graduate student Joe Kristoffer Partyka from Norway on his adventure assisting us to collect data in Payne’s Creek area in southern Belize for the Morelet’s crocodile countrywide population survey.
When you have been working in certain situations for a while you start to recognize patterns and see potential outcomes of your actions. Through these patterns you develop skills. Kind of like “I do this” then “that happens” and “I react like this”, bing-bang-boom, job done.When you know the patterns and your skills have developed over time you also build confidence. Being confident in your work helps when you need to improvise in situations where the pattern breaks. I am fairly confident in my work an in my colleagues after being in this business for some time. But Rudy gave my confidence a severe dent. Now let me tell you about Rudy!
It does not matter if you’re working in a super market or if you are a cop, or if you are like me and you work with animals. Patterns are there, skills develop if you practice and confidence builds to help with unusual events.
I have been in Belize for about two months now. I know that does not sound like enough time to develop any animal expertise but let me introduce myself before you judge. My name is Joe. Normally I work in a zoo in Norway, far away from the tropics and any wild crocodiles. However, I did have crocodilian experience before I arrived in Belize, not wild crocs, but a small and feisty collection back home in Norway. My work also brings me face to face with other large and potentially dangerous animals such as bears, moose and lynx, on a daily basis. Experiences which have over time made me quite confident in my abilities to read and react to animal behavior. Before my zoo work I have also worked and volunteered in a host of different animal related fields, which have added to my skill set and confidence.
Now, I’ve been work with the crocodiles in Belize for a little while. I’ve seen how they react to humans. And I have been in the water with them trying to capture them for our population surveys. I have been spending the last few months developing my skill set and building my confidence. All of this has been done with the supervision of some of the best of the best in the business, Marisa and Miriam from the CRC. Having them in the field with me makes me confident that what we’re doing and how we are doing it is as safe as it gets working with these animals. My confidence in them is as high as it gets, and there are no one I trust more in these situations.
But a recent visit to a very isolated population in Payne’s Creek made us all take a step back and think.
A few weeks ago, we rocked up at a field station in Payne’s Creek to survey a little-known population living in an isolated pond. All we really knew was that the local rangers told us that there are big crocs in that pond. There should be several 8-9footers as well as a 12-13footer one and a huge 14-15foot bull somewhere in there.
Looking at the maps we saw that the area we were going was surrounded by dense jungle on all sides, and the rangers told us that they are the only people going out there at all to do their patrols. This meant that these waters potentially harbored an almost unvisited population of large crocodiles. Jackpot!
We started off by hacking our way through 3km of windy jungle paths whilst dragging a canoe (tool of the trade working with aquatic top predators), being stung by plants and eaten by mosquitos.
After a few hours of hard work by a seven-person crew we arose at the promised land. A beautiful natural pond in the middle of lush rainforest
Our launch point was approximately the middle of the pond, so we decided to paddle south as soon as the darkness of night fell upon us. There we started our spotlight survey looking for the glowing red eyes of crocodiles in the dark with our flashlights.
Almost immediately after getting in the canoe we realized that the pattern we were so used to would be broken this night. The usually shy and timid crocodiles of Belize did not inhabit these waters. What we got instead was bold and curious animals swimming up alongside our canoe to check us out, 8 and 9foot animals who wouldn’t leave our side until pushed away with a paddle. No aggression, just curiosity for this big floaty thing with the weird monkeys inside. This was awesome! Our capture night was going to be SO easy.
We kept floating south until the pond narrowed. As we entered the bottleneck of the pond we saw him. Rudy. His head as wide as our canoe, his body as long as our vessel. Coming straight towards us. Miriam who had the front seat tried to speak to him, tried to hammer the side of the canoe to let him know we weren’t a croc, food or a threat. But he just came plowing through the waters towards us until he reached the front of the canoe. We all braced for impact as he approached, then for a good 2-3seconds he slowed down and just stared at us. Suddenly he slammed his huge head into the water right beside the canoe, nearly tipping us, and disappeared into the murky waters beneath us.
Now, again, I am not a specialist on the crocodiles of Belize just yet, but I will take Miriam’s word for it and say that what we just experienced was not common behavior in crocodiles in Belize. This is a population who have minimal experience with people. They are the largest thing in this jungle and have no predators to fear except other crocodiles. This crocodile saw something big and unknown in his waters and decided to give us a proper warning. If he DID want to flip us he could easily have done so. This was just a warning
The rest of the night we kept working from the middle of the pond and north. Taking Rudy’s warning into consideration we did not want to end up in an altercation with him at night time on his own turf in a canoe. Several times we had to move crocodiles out of our way as we were working, gently pushing them off with a paddle. Every capture we had one person on look out as several 8-10ft crocodiles would swim up and gaze curiously upon our activities. When we captured crocodiles, we brought them back to our base at the middle of the pond to take our measurements, and as we paddled down the pond several crocs would slowly follow.
At the end of the night as we concluded that we had enough data from our eyeshine
survey and captures, we swung our flashlights around one last time to see if we had missed anything interesting. There, at the very north tip of the pond a set of large eyes were glowing back at us. Someone larger than Rudy had awoken from his daytime slumber and had come out to patrol his area.
As we packed up we were all a bit excited from our newest experience. Our confidence had gotten a dent, but with the new found experience we can develop new skills which will make us an even more well-rounded crocodile research team.
Animals seldom follow a distinct pattern and working with professionals like the CRC makes you value their experience and their confidence when the regular pattern is broken.
You can never get completely confident in this game, because there will always be an element of uncertainty. When you get to confident you get comfortable and you get sloppy. And when you’re sloppy, accidents happen. Rudy reminded us about that…if anything, this field at least keeps you on your toes.
As for the isolated population, we will leave them alone. They are in crocodile paradise. Loads of food, nice shielded lagoon, and no human interference. They’re the apex predators in their environment, behaving like apex predators, as they should!