By Scot Menke, Field Research Assistant
Once our flight landed at the Belize International Airport around noon local time, the four of us: Michael Dobbins and the three field assistants walked out of the terminal to go and get the rental car, a 4x4 jeep, which is necessary for the muddied roads in southern Belize. After we loaded all of our bags and equipment into the SUV, we started on our way south.
We didn’t make it quite all the way to Bfree (the field station that the project is based from) that day though, because even though we had made good time in spite of the road conditions, we hadn’t reached camp before sunset, and driving the entrance road in the dark when its condition was unknown to us was decided to be an unfavorable plan, so instead we spent our first night in Belize at the Ya’axche ranger station near the Maya village of Golden Stream.
Around 8:00 am the morning of May 27th, after a quick check of the camera traps near the Ya’axche station we drove back towards Bfree and piled into Elmer’s (Bfree field station manager) 4x4 Toyota Tacoma. Thaddeus, Scot, and Sara all decided to ride in the back, thinking that the view would be better and that the cab was too hot; both assumptions were proven true, and Michael joined us in the back after stopping at the entrance checkpoint for a photo op with the crew. On the way in, the Bladen River was low so we decided to ford it with the truck, and after crossing the river we finally made it into Bfree. After we settled into our cabins, we started to work on analyzing some of the photo sets from the camera traps, until around 5:00 pm, when Michael announced that we were going to the observation tower for a lookout. After spending about an hour at the top and enjoying the beautiful view of the preserve and surrounding landscape, we headed back down and went to dinner.
The next morning, Michael took Sara out on the ATV with Conti to check some of the camera traps located in the Bfree preserve. Once they were back, it was time for lunch. After the meal, Michael decided that we would all go to the Blue Pool, an especially deep area of the Bladen River, where we all went swimming, and spent the remainder of the afternoon there to become immersed in the rain forest and its surroundings. It was really awesome to experience!
On the 29th, we all spent most of the morning working on interpreting and analyzing our individual photo sets, until around 11:00 am when it was decided that we were going to go spend some time birdwatching in the swamp near the research station. Once we got there, we found a canoe and decided to take it out, but Scot had to walk through knee deep mud to help launch the canoe, and almost fell several times (never mind the crocodile infested waters!). Eventually it was time to go back to the mess and have lunch, after which we worked on our photo sets until we decided to go back up the tower to enjoy the sunset. Later on after dinner, Sara and Scot went on a night hike with Conte and Elmer, and saw two tapirs - which is a very rare animal to see in the wild!
The next day was when we left Bfree, but not until after Michael brought Thaddeus and Scot with him on Conti’s ATV, which made for a fascinating seating arrangement, seeing as how four people were now sitting on an ATV at the same time. It worked out in the end by having Conti drive with Michael and Thaddeus sitting on the back, and with Scot laying in front of the handlebars - serving as a multi-functional hood ornament and spider web swatter. Once we got back, we grabbed our gear and loaded it into the truck, and drove back out to the highway, where we transferred into the jeep drove over to the town of Punta Gorda, where we spent the next day interpreting and analyzing our data and then attending a meeting with the Ya’axche Conservation Trust (a local NGO) and a representative from Panthera (a multi-national big can conservation NGO), before we went to dinner and then back to the hotel to work on our picture data sets.
The next morning, we left Punta Gorda to drive out to Placencia (a local beach town), where we spent the remainder of our time in Belize at the Maya Beach Hotel. Our time there consisted of lounging around on the beach and working on the photo sets and spreadsheets under the hot Belizean sun. After a day or two in Placencia, we went back to the airport and boarded our flight.
This trip was an amazing and unique experience to be able to participate in wildlife research in the field in such an awesome and remote location in the tropical rain forest. I hope I can come back one day and be a field assistant for one of the return trips.
My first trip to Belize in 2016 went great! The purpose of the trip was to search for potential camera trap sites, coordinate logistics with my in-country research partners, and to collect training samples for future remote sensing analyses. I started off my trip at the BFREE (Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education) field station. It's a 1,000 acre private reserve conveniently situated between several protected areas where I will conduct my research, which naturally makes BFREE a great base of operations for the area. It's located approximately 6 miles down a beaten dirt road off the main southern highway. On our way into BFREE the first night, we came across an awesome find! We saw a fer-de-lance crossing the road, which we naturally responded to by quickly jumping out of our truck and wrangling it into my pillow case. We decided to keep him overnight and show him to a student group that was staying at BFREE for a field course the next day.
I spent the next several days hiking around the BFREE property and surrounding protected areas in search for potential camera sites and training samples. The BFREE staff was amazing, and their head ranger, Canti, was very knowledgeable and was a great guide! The BFREE property also has an observation tower above the rain forest canopy, which was perfect for scouting out the terrain.
After a few days at BFREE, I went further south to Punta Gorda to work with another one of my research Partners, Ya'axche Conservation Trust. Ya'axche manages one of the reserves I'll be working in, and they also have a conveniently located field station at the southern end of my study area. Similarly to the beginning of my trip, I spent the next few days scouting out the preserve in search for camera sites and training samples. I also visited a nearby Maya village, Golden Stream, to begin possibly working with village residents on human-wildlife conflicts and village perceptions and attitudes towards conservation.
The next trip (May 2016) will be the official start of my dissertation project, where I will be spending several weeks setting up camera stations, sound meters, and conducting pilot resident interviews. I'm very excited to get things started, and I'll post more updates as they come along!