In February of 2017, I had the tremendous opportunity of volunteering at the Belize Jaguar Project at Mountain Pine Ridge, in the beautiful Cayo District of Belize. Working alongside three other volunteers, I got quite the unique experience.
Our work was simple – we were monitoring Jaguars, along with other cats, such as cougars and margays, in certain areas, with the use of camera traps. Our days started early during the cool hours of the morning, dew still glistening on the grass and pine cones in the early morning sunlight. By seven we were set with boxes full of our basic equipment, clipboards, pens, markers, batteries, empty flash cards, and the like. With lunch/snacks, water bottles, sunscreen, and bug spray, we would set off in the truck by eight in the mornings, driving along bumpy roads into the dense jungle. And that’s when the fun begun!
Depending on what location or locations we were observing for the day, the five of us could split into different teams, with two people hiking through the woods to observe certain camera traps, while the other three would go around to different locations. The work was pretty routine-the first step was to make sure the camera traps in each location were working properly, by holding an index card with the current date on it in front of the camera for at least 30 seconds. After this, we would check the inside of the camera, turning it on to make sure that it had automatically taken a picture of us, and check to see how many pictures were on the memory card in total. We would then turn the camera off, clean the inside of it, and change the batteries if necessary before replacing the memory card with a new, empty one, and turning the camera back on. The next step was to ensure all the settings were in place; for example, putting in the right date, and having it so three pictures were automatically taken every fifteen seconds. Finally, we had to test to make sure the camera was working the way we wanted.
To test it, we had to close the camera, then once again stand in front of it with the index card for 30 seconds. If the camera was working correctly, it would automatically take three picture of us, and we could leave with our findings. Later after returning home, we could look over the pictures in order to see how many animals we managed to catch on camera. Of course we saw Jaguars, but also other animals as well-Mountain Lions, Ocelots, Gray Foxes, Tayras, and once or twice even a Tapir! Checking the camera traps wasn’t our only job, however. Some days we also did habitat assessment.
On days when we did habitat assessment, we would go out into patches of forest with tape measures and other tools to plot out potential areas to place more cameras. We trekked through greenery and climbed down cliffs to try and cover all the directions-using a compass and sticks to plot out our course. We would try and determine the covering of the ground, whether it was soil or leaf litter, as well as the layout of the area. All in all, this was a rewarding experience, and offered me more insight into conservation. Even though I didn’t spend a lot of time on this particular project, I’m glad I had this opportunity, and hope that the project will keep going for many more years, so that Belizeans and non-Belizeans alike can enjoy seeing these beautiful animals for a long, long time. Seeing how many Jaguars, and other wild animals, we managed to capture on camera gives me hope that they will thrive in the wild for years to come.