Earlier this year, I happened across an interesting article from Vice Magazine about women conservationists saving the world, one croc at a time. As it turns out it was Belize’ very own Dr. Marisa Tellez, and Miriam Boucher who are at the forefront of advancing wildlife technology in the country.
Crocodile Conservationists Placencia Belize
I decided to reach out to Marisa Tellez of Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) with a few questions to find out more about TK-421 croc and the satellite tracker.
What are you looking to or have you already found with the satellite tracker?
The satellite tracker is to help us and the Forest Department (FD) understand the dispersal movement and behavior of crocodiles over time and season to assist us in conservation efforts (what habitat do they utilize more so we can work towards its preservation) as well as minimize human-crocodile conflict. For example, if crocs like to gather in one area of a lagoon a certain part of the year, we can inform community members to be cautious when spearfishing or swimming in that area that time of the year
Additionally, we have worked with internationally known crocodile behavior expert Flavio Morrissey from Florida in regards to negatively reinforcing crocs who have been slightly habituated to humans to determine if these animals can be released back in the wild. Conservation biologists have used negative reinforcement on several predators around the world; tigers in India, Polar Bears in Canada, and Cougars in the US for example. Instead of now euthanizing these animals or throwing them into captivity, they can now remain in the wild given they have learned to be weary of humans. In partnership with FD, our negative reinforcement program is working using scientific methods and verifying process with international croc behavior experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)/Species Survival Commission (SSC) Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG). One of more than 100 species specialists groups operating under the auspices of the SSC & IUCN, the world’s largest consortium of conservation organizations and agencies, the CSG works closely with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora and other international intergovernmental bodies to promote crocodilian conservation and legal trade that does not threaten the survival of crocodilians). This furthers the CRC mission in providing the education needed to learn how to co-exist with these animals as there is much-misguided information, false facts, and sensationalization about these animals through movies, tv shows, and misinformed media.
Are there times of the year when there is more crocodile activity in Belize and do they tend to be more active at night?
Crocodiles tend to move more around the rainy season. If we look at the CRC wildlife call database, the majority of “problematic” croc calls come during the rainy season as that is when crocodiles begin to move around, using flooded areas as highways to get from one water body source to the next. And side note… seeing a crocodile swimming, or a crocodile basking in your backyard is NOT a problematic crocodile. The word “problematic” has been thrown around way to much over the years and subconsciously tells people you CANNOT live alongside with crocodiles. The majority of the time the real problem is people feeding crocodiles directly or indirectly, or harassing the animal (the majority of croc attacks in Belize and in this region are related to feeding crocs).
Crocodiles are more active at night, and in certain areas, it appears they are now very active way late into the night/early morning. Why? It’s because humans are less likely to be out and about during this time – a testament that the croc species (at least on the mainland) DO NOT want to be around humans and would rather be left alone. Some scientific studies have come out stating how more and more (diurnal) species are now shifting their temporal behavior and becoming more nocturnal to minimize human contact. Humans lack of tolerance towards wildlife is affecting the behavior of wildlife in certain areas of the world. In the Placencia Lagoon, we have seen a shift in crocodile and manatee behavior given the increase in boat traffic and human presence.
How much do trackers cost?
The initial cost of a tracker is $6,010BZ, as that also includes the set up of GIS software. After that, it is about $5,000BZ… not including the $40BZ per month for software use.
Can you monitor crocodiles in real-time, with precise location information on the crocodile movements?
There is a delay in monitoring crocodiles in real-time given the satellite. The transmitter’s signal to the satellite is about every 4 hours, so you get an idea of where an animal is.
If so do you plan to implement publically viewable online tracking maps so residents living with crocodiles could note movement patterns?
Even if we could do this, we wouldn’t as too many illegal hunters utilize scientific technology like this to hunt animals. It’s becoming a real problem thus why the CRC gave a general area for our satellite croc TK-421 (Star Wars reference). Only FD, CRC, and Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) knew of exact coordinates of our croc given it was released in the Payne’s Creek area in Toledo.
What data will the satellite provide on crocodile management and what kinds of patterns are you looking for?
The TK-421 was a male American croc that was habituated to people via indirect feeding. We took TK in as he was a perfect candidate for negative reinforcement – a small adult male that was not territorial and not illustrating signs of a TRUE problematic crocodile. With the satellite tracker, we were able to assess TK’s movement, in addition to his interest in heading back to where he came from down south. Luckily, TK preferred his new home AWAY from humans and is staying in the Payne’s Creek area. TIDE rangers have not seen him (although we have seen him through our tracking) which provides us some evidence our negative rehabilitation program is working (as Flavio said, not only will they be scared of human voices, but dog barks as well!)
Are Morelet’s still a threatened species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list?
Morelet’s crocs are currently not a threatened species and considered “least cncern” but conservation dependent. They have illustrated signs of recovery in Belize from past exploitation in which hunters (foreign and domestic) almost wiped out the species and other crocodilians throughout the world for the fashion industry demand in the early 1900s. Given the recovering population, and the growing human population, CRC is now working with the FD to create the 1st conservation and management action plan for the species. The first official meeting is set for June 25, where particular NGOs, such as TIDE, SACD, FCD, and BAS, as well as international experts, will discuss the data collected by the CRC during the countrywide Morelet’s crocodile population survey the last few years. The American crocodile is under threat, and the CRC will lead the same type of survey in meeting in a few years to create a national action plan for that species as well. With these action plans, the goal is to ensure species survival, while also mitigating human-crocodile conflict.
How will tracking crocs in Belize provide long term benefits to the survival of the species?
Tracking of crocs will give us an idea of preferred habitat, allowing us to preserve key habitat that will not only ensure the survival of the species but also of other wildlife in crocodilian habitat.
If the tracking patterns show it will you do a future collaboration with another country?
We are already in discussion with colleagues from Mexico and Guatemala in a trans-national tracking program. In particular, Mexico has done an amazing job in their conservation efforts with crocs, and now that the habitat is hitting carrying capacity, we are likely starting to see the movement of crocs from Mexico down into Belize (we are seeing similar patterns around the world). Additionally, many of the crocs we see as Morelet’s or Americans are actually hybrids, so my colleagues and I are interested in seeing how hybrid movement and habitat use may be different than that of the parental species.
In the case of relocated crocodiles, I have read they use the sun, sight, smell and magnetic fields to navigate. Magnetic fields are a big one (like birds- they are all descended from the same common ancestor after all!). Relocation of crocs, particularly of large adult males who have a territory well established is difficult to relocate as they do go back. However, females, as well as young males or less established adult males are willing to relocate and define their territory. When we say relocate, we are discussing more than 30km. Anything less won’t work.
About the Crocodile Conservationists
Flavio Morrissey has been working with crocs for over 30 years and is now a consultant to zoos internationally in regards to husbandry practices, target training, as well as consults state governments in regards to “problematic” crocs. He is considered the leading expert in crocodilian behavior in the world, and a member of the IUCN/CSG.
David Hilmy is the Biology Manager of the Kutunza Translocation Facility in southern Belize and assisted us in the negative reinforcement program.
Marisa Tellez was appointed Sub-regional Chair of Central America and the Caribbean for the IUCN/CSG. See full credentials of, Marissa, Miriam, and Grecia on the Crocodile Research Coalition website.
I will leave you with a few pictures of the monumental event courtesy of Marisa Tellez.