Meeting Carnivore Outreach Challenges in Nicaragua and Los Angeles (Part 1): The Delicate Future of Jaguar and Puma Conservation in the Dry Forests of Nicaragua

The staff of Paso Pacifico and I are thrilled to have documented both a puma and a jaguar in the fragmented dry forests of Nicaragua near Rivas after just a few months of camera trapping.  However, this excitement was tempered by fear for the safety of these large predators due to an increase in conflicts with local livestock owners.  We are working with local livestock owners to protect their livelihoods while maintaining a sustainable future for jaguars and pumas of western Nicaragua.  This blog is separated into two parts with carnivore outreach being the connecting theme.

Part 1 (this blog) focuses on the recent detection of a jaguar and how successful outreach efforts may mean the difference between life and death for this individual, a recently discovered puma, and their respective populations within the Paso del Istmo (map below).  

Part 2 will compare the ecology and conservation issues facing Paso del Istmo carnivores to urban carnivores of Los Angeles while focusing on the role of youth outreach and citizen science in shaping the future of human-carnivore coexistence.

Background: Lessons Learned from 1st Field Season

We wrapped up our first field season in early 2013 in Colon, which was a wet, mosquito infested, and muddy rainforest (typical jaguar habitat).  We successfully documented a jaguar and we even captured an endangered Baird’s tapir on camera.  Our season 1 data suggested that at least the densest rainforest of the Paso del Istmo was supporting a diverse community of wildlife very close to the edge of Costa Rica.  However, we had camera traps stolen so we obviously could have done a better job at making sure more of the Colon community knew about the purpose of camera traps and goals of our study.   

We ended the first field season knowing that it was imperative to place a stronger emphasis on carnivore outreach before we moved our cameras to the more fragmented dry forests of Rivas, Nicaragua.  Unlike, the denser and more intact habitat of Colon where the community had knowingly lived with jaguars for many years, human-jaguar coexistence was a more foreign concept to the western dry forest communities.   Megafauna biodiversity was more of an unknown on the opposite side of the isthmus.  In fact, large carnivores were thought to be extirpated from that area due to fragmentation.   Therefore, an informal workshop and discussion, like the one we conducted in Colon, would not be sufficient outreach for the western dry forest communities.

In anticipation of a puma or jaguar detection, we knew that we needed to be proactive about making sure that a potential jaguar discovery was not met with an overwhelmingly negative reception.   Also, community empowerment through education would hopefully go a long way since jaguar and puma populations would possibly become more stable as Paso Pacifico continued reforestation efforts within the isthmus.  Therefore, we made outreach a large component of our study design when applying for grants for the following year. 

The integration of outreach programs had an immediate importance because there were a couple of carnivore attacks on livestock just before I arrived.  The atmosphere was understandably pretty tense and I felt a great deal of pressure with so much at stake.  We hosted a workshop as soon as I touched down in Nicaragua, followed by 4 more workshops.

I have gotten pretty comfortable with giving talks over the past few years but these workshops were humbling.  I was an outsider so I felt almost like a little kid speaking in front of class for the first time.  I mentally prepared myself for a hostile crowd but instead I was greeted by generally receptive people in each community.  More importantly it helped that I was endorsed by local Paso Pacifico staff who had local ties and were respected by these small communities.  

Also, growing up in a large family of “prideful” and tough Nicaraguan women taught me that a preachy outsider/stranger would not get very far in a discussion with Nicaraguans, especially when livelihoods were at stake.  Instead I shared advice in the form of interesting and useful facts.  But first, I explained that it was no coincidence that I happened to be Nicaraguan-American.  I made it clear that I specifically offered to help design and lead this project because I was proud of my Nicaraguan heritage and this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to help the amazing wildlife and people of Nicaragua in my own way.

Our Outreach Strategy

The workshops involved a pretty strategic design that focused on tapping into the local knowledge of the community, empowering residents and livestock owners with basic knowledge about local carnivore ecology and livestock husbandry practices.  This information was critical for keeping their livelihoods and local carnivores safe, especially because nearly all the land within our study area (jaguar habitat) was privately owned.  A huge priority throughout this process was to strengthen bonds and gain the respect of the local community.  After all, the bottom line was that I could capture as many photos of charismatic endangered species as I wanted but this did nothing for carnivore conservation if the local community didn’t value or respect these species.  In other words, their livelihoods were at stake, before and after our research was completed, not ours. 

We hoped that a few people would begin appreciating big cats as much as we did by the end of the workshop but we knew that was not our main mission.  Instead, our goal was to make even the livestock owner with the biggest grudge against big cats able to understand that it was in the best interest of his livelihood to refrain from killing or even attempting to kill a jaguar or puma.  A couple facts that resonated were that wounded (e.g., shot) predators were more likely to kill weaker and slower prey (i.e., a fat cow) and that if someone killed a jaguar that was not a livestock killer that person just killed a predator that was protecting its territory (your pasture) from an injured or older jaguar that may move in and attack cattle.  

Step 1-Introducing Community to Local Carnivore Ecology:

Going from village to village setting up our presentation, which sometimes required using our own generator for electricity.  

We started each workshop with an introduction to local carnivore ecology (e.g., important role of predators within local food web, dependence on natural prey, habitat connectivity is important for these wide-ranging species) and the main differences between jaguars and pumas.  We gave them the basics and included some cool facts that grabbed their attention and provided good advice for preventing conflict (e.g., ambush predators that prefer to travel and hunt in thick vegetation).  For instance, pumas kill their prey differently, feed on prey differently and typically go after smaller prey species than jaguars.  Click here to read about a great example of a puma hunting small prey. 

Step 2-Carnivore Species Identification and Livestock Protection:

In this photo I am introducing the community to local carnivore tracks including how to tell the difference between the wider jaguar track and the narrower puma track. 

Part of gaining trust is being an open book, sharing all knowledge and tools at your disposal to enable the community to change their livestock management practices based on facts.  For instance, instead of saying that cougars and jaguars never attack livestock we tell them what increases and decreases the likelihood of their livestock being attacked.  We knew that this would be the most popular portion of the workshop due to local priorities and the demand for knowledge and tools for alleviating conflict.  We then showed them how to identify the culprit through track identification, carcass remains, and a variety of techniques that have protected cattle under similar situations.


Step 3-Community Mapping:

At the conclusion of each presentation, we provided some refreshments and worked together with the local community to map out their villages and neighboring open space.  The mapping exercise usually started with breaking the ice and getting someone to volunteer to be the first drawer.   The first features drawn were either the main road or river to provide a nice point of reference, which were usually followed by the mapping of schools, farms, and livestock grazing areas.  Finally, we asked them to point out where they’d seen livestock attacks, where people had hunted native prey species, and where people had killed or sighted a carnivore.  We usually used this discussion as an opportunity to request permission on people’s property.  The map helped guide where we set up camera traps and reforestation efforts. 

I was looking on as the community enthusiastically mapped out their village while examining the map for the best places to set up camera traps.

Step 4-T-Shirts!!!:

A simple but effective technique we used to encourage more attendance and participation was to offer t-shirts at the end in exchange for their participation throughout the process.  The t-shirts also ended the workshops on a happy note and jaguar t-shirts are great advertisement for human-jaguar coexistence.

 

Taking these photos were particularly proud moments because most of these people went from being very unfamiliar and wary of local carnivores to being directly involved in carnivore conservation.

Taking these photos were particularly proud moments because most of these people went from being very unfamiliar and wary of local carnivores to being directly involved in carnivore conservation.

It was a busy trip because we also had 32 camera traps to install but we made it work thanks to teamwork between Paso Pacifico staff and very accommodating communities within our study area.

Puma Discovery Very Early On

I was personally thrilled that we detected a puma because this is the second time I have documented a puma in a surprising location, which speaks to the elusiveness and adaptability of pumas throughout their range.  The puma was a surprise to many because it was documented on the edge of one of the main fishing villages in the region.   Unfortunately, some local livestock owners had horses killed by a puma just before we arrived so the word spread about a puma in the nearby forests.  On the plus side, the community was at least knowledgeable of its presence for many years due to random sightings, so the presence of the animal in the region did not really take too many people off guard.  My personal impression is that a history of puma stories, sightings, and the smaller size of Nicaraguan pumas compared to jaguars potentially limited the amount of surprise and local fear.  Unlike jaguars, pumas are not an endangered species; however they are also vulnerable to local extinction due to habitat loss and persecution by livestock owners.  For instance, a puma was killed just outside our study area just before I arrived.  Fortunately, the photos below were taken after the reported death of a local puma.

Jaguar Detected (Well-fed Male or Pregnant Female?)

Jaguars had not been seen in this region for more than 30 years prior to our footage.  Therefore, their presence inevitably sparked a much stronger reaction from the local community.  Honestly, I still hadn’t learned my lesson from finding a puma in the middle of Los Angeles, so even I was a little skeptical that we would document anything bigger than a puma and a few ocelots.  I thought the degree of fragmentation in the area, more restrictive habitat requirements, and larger space and resource needs of the jaguar compared to pumas would be too much for jaguars to overcome.  Nonetheless, I was still hopeful because it would mean just as much to this ecosystem as the presence of P-22 means to the health and importance of the Griffith Park ecosystem of Los Angeles.  The entire isthmus was also disregarded by some biologists as an important linkage or habitat for jaguars so that also added some extra incentive to heavily survey this potentially critical linkage for jaguars and other carnivores.  The video has been passed around to a few biologists and veterinarians because it also might be a pregnant female.  A pregnant female would increase the conservation significance of the jaguar footage as it may be the beginning of a new population.  However, we are waiting to get more footage to attempt to confirm the sex and pregnancy status of the individual. 

Just before we collected the footage, there was a horse killed that had characteristics of a typical jaguar kill (large kill bite to the back of the head).   We quickly came together and used both local knowledge and lessons learned from neighboring countries and distant places about human-carnivore compensation programs to devise a plan to mitigate tensions between livestock owners and cats.  I hope our efforts created the foundation for a sustainable peaceful relationship between large carnivores and livestock owners in this region.

First documentation of a jaguar in over 30 years within the dry forests of the Paso del Istmo. 

Conflict Mitigation

Prior to the recent detection of the jaguar, we received information of a horse that was killed by a large predator.  I will spare you the cell phone video but it had pretty typical signs of a jaguar kill such as a bite and severe damage to the back of the skull.  Instead of killing prey through suffocation, jaguars kill their prey by crushing the skull.  They also use their strong bite force (strongest of all cats) to pierce through turtle shells and caiman skulls.  Also, pumas in Latin America are smaller than pumas out here in the United States and rarely go after large prey such as an adult horse.  In any case, the livestock owners (community just outside current sampling area and workshop outreach) were discussing whether or not to kill the jaguar.  We started creating a compensation program and then had to quickly implement and advertise the program once we detected a jaguar video on one of our camera traps.  We researched previous compensation programs and consulted with local Nicaraguans to come up with a fair compensation amount.  Unfortunately, there have been more attacks but fortunately Paso Pacifico has been proactive about getting the news out first before the news spread too far with a negative undertone.  Instead Paso Pacifico worked closely with news stations to make sure the news was spread with a positive spin (i.e., endangered species, maybe beginning of new population).  Also, being open about the jaguar’s presence further strengthened our connection with the local community. 

In addition to the compensation program, Paso Pacifico has worked with the local government to reach out to the affected communities about the compensation program and human-livestock protection techniques by offering workshops in affected communities.  In order to receive payment, the livestock owners are required to sign a contract that prohibits them from killing any jaguars or promoting the capture or death of a puma or jaguar in any way.  Finally, we also reward land owners if we capture camera trap photos of jaguars or pumas within 5 kilometers of their property after there has been an incident.

View our advertisement for our compensation program here.

The responsiveness of the communities to our conservation efforts and advice has been inspirational.  I am also impressed with how knowledgeable both adults and children are with local nature due to their dependence on the local environment for food and income, despite having an education system with limited resources.  In my next blog I will be discussing some striking similarities between carnivore conservation issues in my study site in Nicaragua and issues facing carnivores in Los Angeles, despite the distance and social/ecological differences.  I will also talk about the role of Paso Pacifico’s junior ranger program and how youth outreach and citizen science may have the biggest impact on the future of carnivore conservation. 

Please consider supporting our conservation efforts and Nicaraguans by donating to Paso Pacifico.

 

 

First Photographic Evidence of a Bobcat in Debs Park: Another Surprising Carnivore Discovery in L.A.'s Urban Ecosystem

I am proud to announce that I have confirmed the presence of a bobcat in Ernest E. Debs Regional Park (Debs Park), located in the Repetto Hills within the Montecito Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.  This discovery sheds some light on local carnivore ecology and offers L.A. an additional ambassador for L.A. wildlife and urban parks.

 What and where is Debs Park? 

 Debs Park is definitely on the radar of many Angeleno hikers and urban nature lovers but it definitely deserves more attention.  The city park is approximately 280 acres (.44 mi2/1.13 km2) within the densely populated and predominately Latino neighborhoods of northeast LA.  As a reference, Griffith Park, home of a small bobcat population and one trailblazing puma (P-22), is about 4,310 acres (6.73 mi2/17.44 km2). 

The Audubon Society recognized the importance of this valuable natural resource and built the Audubon Center at Debs Park.  The center was built to establish a permanent Audubon presence in the park that would help the park reach its true potential as urban wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation space for the local community. 

 How did the photo come about?

 One of my roles at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County is to map L.A. wildlife in underrepresented and under-served neighborhoods in L.A.  Also, carnivores and other nocturnal species are poorly documented in the urban core of Los Angeles.  Audubon Center staff and dedicated birders have done an excellent job at keeping track of the birdlife in the park via eBird and iNaturalist but I wanted to see what nocturnal predators were using the park.  Although the park is pretty small, isolated, and crisscrossed by human trails, I knew that the park had great potential for supporting some pretty cool carnivores.  I know that few unoccupied habitat fragments remain for territorial carnivores in urban Los Angeles so any suitable habitat with a potential connection to larger habitat has a good chance of harboring an adaptive and lucky carnivore.  Also, I can now only discount a few L.A. urban wildernesses as potential carnivore habitats after discovering P-22 in Griffith Park.  In this case, the glimmer of hope for habitat connectivity comes in the form of a concrete channel called the Arroyo Seco.   

 The Arroyo Seco is a seasonal waterway that connects the San Gabriel Mountains to the Los Angeles River confluence near Elysian Park.  I approached Jeff Chapman, Audubon Center at Debs Park, about potentially setting out some camera traps in the park hoping that some wide-ranging predators reached the park via the Arroyo Seco.  He invited me during the summer and fall but I had to unexpectedly delay the camera deployment because I had to use the camera traps for surveys in Griffith Park, leaving zero to spare for Debs.  I finally freed up three of my camera traps a couple weeks ago and got in touch with Jeff with perfect timing.  Jeff told me that a couple of his staff members saw a bobcat.  I was excited because the sightings were from credible sources; however, they were not able to capture any images of a bobcat with their own camera traps.  I volunteered my camera traps and spent a few hours searching for three camera trap locations with good potential for bobcat activity.  A couple obstacles that I faced were that most of the best drainages and canyons were overrun with human activity and it was my very first visit to Debs Park, which made it unfamiliar territory.  Thanks to a combination of careful placement and luck, I got bobcat pictures on all three camera traps that I set up throughout the park.

What's the Big Deal? 

 Bobcats are solitary and territorial species that require on average between 1.5 km2 (females) and 3 km2 (males) of space to find adequate resources.  Although the park is smaller than most bobcat territories, it is larger than most city parks and acts as the local urban community's major link to nature.  Also, the picture validates the preservation of small fragments of habitat that historically have been disregarded as valuable carnivore habitat, especially if they are possibly linked to larger wildernesses.  From an urban bobcat conservation standpoint, the presence of this bobcat is helping us learn about the potential value of small habitat fragments linked by the Arroyo Seco, the need to study the value of the Arroyo Seco as a wildlife corridor, and the ability of bobcats to adapt to the urban landscape.  Although this bobcat may not reach the fame of P-22, hopefully the Audubon Center, the Natural History Museum and other urban wildlife outreach institutions can use this bobcat to raise awareness for urban bobcats and L.A. wildlife. 

How long will it stay in the park?  Are there more bobcats in the park?  These are all questions we hope to answer with continuous camera trap monitoring of the park.  However, what I do know is that opportunities to connect park poor and under-served communities with nature are limited so let's make the best of it!!!

This has been an exciting week of game-changing camera trap discoveries so stay tuned because I will be revealing another important carnivore discovery very soon!!

What's on P22's menu?

Have you ever wondered what P22, located in Griffith Park, is eating?  This is understandably a common question since he is a large carnivore living in a small park within the heart of urban Los Angeles.   In fact, he is more urban than any other mountain lion known to exist.  Local residents are only accustomed to sharing their backyards with smaller predators that don’t get any larger than coyotes.   However, mountain lions are relatively new members of the Griffith Park wildlife community and local residents and carnivore biologists are equally curious about what prey species he’s ambushing in Griffith Park.  I went on a gruesome scavenger hunt to figure out what he has been eating recently.  I am excited to now share a glimpse of what L.A.’s favorite mountain lion is dining on. 

A Little Background

Like all cats, mountain lions are strictly carnivorous (only eat meat), and locally, prefer deer to sustain their large bodies.  Their diet is one reason they are less adaptable to urbanization than a carnivore that is both smaller and omnivorous (eats plants and meat and so has more options in urban areas), like a raccoon.  Based on what we know from kill-site analyses conducted locally by the National Park Service (NPS) in the Santa Monica Mountains over the past decade, we know that local mountain lions are specializing on deer but do opportunistically pick off the occasional small prey item (e.g., coyote, raccoon).  To date, NPS has visited a few of P22’s kill-sites and have only found deer kills, which is a testament to the health of the Griffith Park deer population.

Mountain lions will cache large prey like deer, and often feed on it for several days.  They may drag it a few meters from the location of the kill and to cache it, cover it with dirt and leaf litter.  They will return to the site of a kill for multiple nights and repeatedly hide it until they finish feeding on the prey. During the day, they find a daytime resting location (day bed) not too far away from the kill site (generally at least several hundred meters away from the cache site).  If they kill a smaller prey species such as a rabbit or raccoon, they will usually consume all of it at once instead of caching the prey.  

Biologists use the GPS collar information to identify potential kill sites. Presently, biologists are able to access real-time GPS collar data through a website that remotely accesses collar data for each collared mountain lion.  The collars regularly send the data to the website via satellites or cell-phone tower transmission, like sending an email via a smartphone. 

Once biologists have the data, they look for GPS locations where the mountain lion has remained for multiple hours (more than 4) or returned on multiple consecutive nights.  However, even with pretty accurate GPS information it is not as simple to find these locations as it seems. The kills are never directly on human social trails. So, some obstacles that often make finding the kill difficult include poison oak, a pack of coyotes having the carcass away in multiple directions, thick vegetation, and especially difficult terrain.

Finding a Carcass in a Haystack

This past weekend, Laurel and I went out with a GPS and a few maps of potential kills made this past month.  We strategically parked in a location that was close to most of the kill sites.  We usually are able to hike to within 10 meters of the location, at which point we need to just walk around and not only look for bones or a buried carcass but also use our noses to narrow down the location.   Although, you never know exactly what the carcass is going to look like or exactly where it will be hidden, you can usually count on smelling the relatively fresh kills.  I definitely smelled all 4 of the kill-sites before we found them.  The carcasses were either found in deep ravines or on steep hillsides that required a great deal of bushwhacking mostly through poison oak.  

Wildlife CSI

Once we found the kill sites, we recorded data including the date we found the kill, the prey species, the exact kill location, sex of prey (when possible), and an age estimate of the prey if possible.  For deer, we had a guide to age deer by their teeth shape, definition, and degree of wear.  

Laurel recording data at the second kill site. 

We went to a total of 4 kills sites, which took us approximately 4 hours of hard work. We quickly found the first kill site, but only found the rumen (deer stomach).  We looked for the rest of the deer carcass for a while but coyotes must have dragged the body of the deer that was killed far away.  To be honest, I doubt we would have even found the rumen if it wasn’t so smelly because it was dried up and brown like the surrounding leaf litter. 


The second carcass was harder to find but Laurel finally found it deep at the bottom of a ravine.  Laurel shouted out to me with excitement!!!  “It’s a coyote!!”  I then told Laurel that it was the first documented P22 kill that wasn’t a deer, which added to the excitement.  However, this excitement was tempered by a little concern because mountain lions that consume urban coyotes are at risk of consuming a big dose of rat poison that has accumulated in the coyote over time (i.e., coyotes eat multiple rodents exposed to rat poison).  Nonetheless, I think it is amazing to imagine a large carnivore like P22 over-powering and even consuming another skilled predator.  I took a bunch of pictures of the remains that were barely identifiable without the semi-intact muzzle.  This was a pretty gruesome sight but surprisingly it wouldn’t be the messiest scene we’d encounter.

Next we visited another site nearby, which was a pretty classic scene.  Of course, we smelled it first and Laurel spotted the remains before I stumbled across them.  The rumen was again the first item to be discovered along with a couple bones before Laurel found the larger set of bones further away.  Again Laurel’s announcement was full of glee but she held in the details so I could totally take in the scene first-hand.  It was an overturned deer ribcage and skull with antlers attached.   It reminded me of a classic western movie scene at the point in the movie when death was looming.  It would’ve been awesome to see P22 take down such a large mammal!!

The fourth and final carcass of the morning was supposed to be the easiest to find but turned out to be the toughest due to tricky terrain, dense vegetation, and unavoidable poison oak.   Laurel again was first to spot the carnage at the bottom of the poison oak infested ravine.   I have seen plenty of raccoon road kill scenes but this scene seemed more intense.   It was a big raccoon with bloody limbs spread all over the place.  It seemed as if P22 and maybe later some coyotes attempted to consume almost every morsel of available meat to the point where it seemed like the carcass was turned inside out.  The very distinct raccoon hand-like paws were left intact, which made the scene pretty memorable.  Although it wasn’t a deer, it was equally interesting because it was an uncommon mountain lion kill to walk in on.  It is a rare opportunity to walk in on small prey because the mountain lion doesn’t stay very long or leave many remains which makes it hard to notice.

Why bushwhack through thick vegetation and poison oak to find smelly P22 left overs?  No, not because Halloween is a month away but because as the most urban mountain lion known to exist, P22 is providing invaluable insight into mountain lion ecology.   This scientific information can be used to help educate wildlife managers and biologists about mountain lion feeding ecology, prey-preferences in smaller urban parks, adaptations to urbanization, and conservation concerns (e.g., exposure to rat poison via ingesting contaminated urban coyotes).  Equally important is that this scientific information translates into educational information that dispels myths about urban mountain lions such as seeking out pets or becoming dangerously habituated to human subsidized food resources.  P22 is telling us that he is retaining the same natural behavior of his more rural counterparts and going after deer and other natural prey in the wildest patches of the park.  These grizzly (awesome) scenes also may provide a sign of hope for Griffith Park remaining a functional urban oasis.  However, the park may not remain sustainable without promoting human-wildlife coexistence and using proactive management to keep key areas wild.

 

Discovering the Griffith Park Mountain Lion (P22): Looking Back One Year Later

Background: As many of you know, in July 2011, my team (Griffith Park Connectivity Study) began an ambitious camera trap project to answer the following general question: "Is Griffith Park an island?" To answer this question we strategically placed camera traps at possible corridors that might allow wide ranging large mammals (e.g., deer, coyote, etc.) to enter and exit the park in search of mates and adequate food. Cameras were also placed in open space on the edge of the 101 freeway (both sides) to figure out what type of wildlife activity occurred at the edge of the open space adjacent to the freeway. Basically the two sets of cameras allowed us to ask the following two main questions: "Are wildlife approaching the edge of the park near possible corridors, if so, which species? Are species using freeway overpasses and/or tunnels to enter and exit the park, again if so, which species? On February 12, 2012 at 9:15 PM, we collected the ultimate evidence to prove that Griffith Park was not an island, via a mountain lion photo. The discovery of this mountain lion remains one of my proudest moments as a wildlife biologist and as an Angelino who grew up on the edge of Griffith Park. 

Mountain Lions Unlikely Residents of Griffith Park: As an under-studied park, the idea of studying the unknown was extremely exciting and made carrying heavy urban camera trap equipment (aluminum posts, steel post pounders, steel camera trap lock boxes, bolts, etc.) up steep and seemingly endless hills in the dry heat well worth it. Based on previous surveys, we knew there would be a good chance we'd capture a glimpse of a few bobcats and maybe even a gray fox if we were extremely lucky. However, documenting a mountain lion in Griffith Park seemed almost entirely out of the question, as if surveying for a mountain lion in Griffith Park was as ridiculous as hoping to document the chupacabra or bigfoot. Griffith Park is further away from bigger habitat that mountain lions are known to occupy. Unlike mountain lions, smaller and more adaptive coyotes and bobcats were the largest carnivores known to be able to take advantage of smaller patches of habitat in between Griffith Park and larger open spaces further west and north. As a result, the journey was thought to have too many physical barriers (i.e., freeways, roads, etc.) for a mountain lion to reach Griffith Park than a bobcat or coyote from a smaller patch of habitat (e.g., Stone Canyon, golf courses) at the edge of Griffith Park.  More specifically, a mountain lion would need to cross the 405 freeway (8 lane freeway), a matrix of urbanization, and finally the 101 freeway (another 8 lane highway) before reaching Griffith Park.  In fact, the 405 freeway (first obstacle) already claimed the lives of two mountain lions.  Also, unlike smaller and more adaptive urban carnivores (e.g., bobcats and coyotes) that adjust their habits to adapt to urban areas (e.g., den in backyards, hunt for rodents in residential areas), mountain lions are considered near-urban carnivores because their behavior is not different from their more rural counterparts, such as mountain lions in Yellowstone or Yosemite. Instead, mountain lions only pass through residential areas out of necessity or out of desperation to leave the territory of a larger male in search of territory of his/her own or a mate. Otherwise, they stay in the most remote areas of urban parks and specialize on hunting deer. In short, finding a mountain lion in Griffith Park was very unlikely because Griffith Park was thought to be too small and isolated from known mountain lion territories.

The Discovery: On February 29, 2012, my field assistant and I went to check on our 13 camera traps (swap memory cards, check batteries, etc.) as we normally did every 2-3 weeks. I had been pretty disappointed with photos from recent camera checks because we had not captured a bobcat on camera in quite a while. I started looking at photos from the two bobcat hotspots of our study area near Lake Hollywood. I was super anxious to see a bobcat, which resulted in a few nerdy butterflies in my stomach. At first, I was quickly going through coyote and deer pictures and then I came across and passed a picture showing the image of the massive hind-quarters of a mountain lion (displayed below). I froze and then I nervously went back to make sure I didn't hit the delete button. I gasped and stared at it for a while, astonished at the size of the animal's tail, body, and paws. I then kept going through the photos in the memory card trying to see if my mind was playing tricks on me (i.e., spent too much time in the smog and Sun) and it was just a Great Dane that got loose late at night and stood very close to the camera. However, I knew what it was from the beginning and I came to terms with it. Then I thought, "You should probably call somebody. Who should I call? I should call one of my collaborators!" I started frantically looking for my cell phone and I could not find it anywhere!! I then shouted an expletive as I realized that I left my phone in my car. I reached my phone after a quick jog to the car and got in touch with my two collaborators, Erin Boydston (USGS) and Dan Cooper (CEM, Inc.). I could not get a hold of them at first so I left an excited voice message and anxiously awaited a call back. Erin happened to be officemates with National Park Service (NPS) biologists, Seth Riley and Jeff Sikich who study and track mountain lions in the LA area. A few days later, the NPS decided that they wanted to try and trap and track what is now known as the most urban mountain lion to exist.

First P22 photo that I encountered while reviewing photos that I had just retrieved from the field. Although the photo does not show his face, this close-up photo was very "in your face," providing me with a big shock. This photo was taken a few days after the first photo even though it was the first photo I discovered. Notice that he does not have a collar or ear tags in this photo.

First photograph of a mountain lion in Griffith Park. Although this was the first photo taken of him, I actually did not find this photo until quite a while later after I got over the first photo I discovered of him. This is the only camera trap photo that showed his face so that is also why it is the most famous photo of P22. Finally viewing his face for the first time was very memorable. Notice that he does not have a collar or ear tags in this photo.Griffith Park Mountain Lion Captured, Given a Collar and a New Name: Although Griffith Park is the south eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountain range, Griffith Park is not part of the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area that is under the jurisdiction of NPS. Griffith Park is managed by the city of Los Angeles making Griffith Park unfamiliar territory for NPS biologists. Jeff Sikich requested the help of Erin and me to help him find a relatively wild and inaccessible section of the park to set out traps. We showed him a pretty wild patch of Department of Water and Power (DWP) property that was off-limits to the public.  Jeff set out traps and monitored each trap with a camera trap that sent him a text message as soon as the remote camera was triggered.  I became less and less optimistic that the mountain lion was going to be captured. As each day passed I felt that there was a small window of time that the mountain lion would be here due to the small size of the park, from a mountain lion's perspective. I volunteered to check them since I lived very close to the traps. The night before Jeff was going to show me where the traps were set I got a call at around 2:30 AM from Laurel telling me that Jeff got a photo of the mountain lion via text message indicating that the trap was sprung! I am a night-owl so I was just about to go to sleep. My wife (then fiancé) and I quickly got dressed and headed over to the DWP site. We all quietly headed into the property with our flash lights and head lamps. There were no trails, the terrain was kind of slippery and steep, and I did not have a lamp which made the hike a little tougher for me. At least that is the reason I tell people and my ego why I awkwardly fell down during the initial hike.  We arrived to a flat area near the location and Jeff went ahead with a couple interns to make sure the lion was actually in the trap and then tranquilized the mountain lion with a blowdart. The rest of us waited around talking softly amongst each other to pass the time. Laurel then spotted a perfect bobcat track and we took a bunch of pictures of it to keep our minds busy. An intern returned to give us an update saying that it was blowdarted and that they were waiting for the drugs to take effect. Jeff then came back to retrieve us and we all headed to the cat to help Jeff take samples and collar it before it was released. The obvious thing on people's mind was that we needed to work quickly before the lion woke up. Almost everybody was given some sort of task such as writing down data/notes, taking the animal's temperature, taking blood samples, saliva samples, tick samples (if any), fecal samples, administer IV fluid, weigh the cat, measure the cat's body, measure the teeth, take pictures, activate collar, and attach collar. I helped with various tasks from helping take blood, helping administer IV fluid, and holding onto the collar screws until Jeff was ready to fasten the collar. The entire experience went by extremely fast but I soaked in every second. The lion was then carried to a location on the edge of thick vegetation before it was given a wake up drug.  We all anxiously waited a safe distance away taking pictures as we watched him slowly wake up. He groggily awoke, stumbled a bit, and then vanished into the dense vegetation without looking back once. I had been to one other mountain lion capture and release and it always struck me how these big and powerful animals couldn't wait to get away from humans fast enough, no matter how dazed they felt.  After that moment, he would forever be known as P22 or Puma 22, representing the 22nd mountain lion the Santa Monica Mountains National Park Service biologists have captured.

Life After Capture as P22: Since he was collared and named P22 we learned that he did indeed come from the Santa Monica Mountains (genetic results) meaning that he must have crossed both the 405 and 101 freeways to get to Griffith Park.  So far, the NPS' GPS collars indicate that he mostly uses natural areas and remains in remote and inaccessible sections of the park during the day. He travels mostly at night and feeds on deer. Even after receiving intense media coverage (all local TV stations, LA Times front page, etc.), a song, music video, documentary, and even multiple twitter accounts, P22's life after capture has not really changed. Except for being captured again by Jeff to replace a faulty collar, he continues to nocturnally roam Griffith Park undisturbed. The media coverage of P22 was briefly intense and has continued sporadically ever since. When P22's story hit the front page of the LA Times, the media interviewed the National Park Service and my team (Griffith Park Connectivity Study) with questions of all sorts, which was exciting, rewarding, and a little stressful. As a local biologist that is somewhat connected to this special story, I feel responsible for maintaining a positive image for P22, the ultimate living ambassador for Griffith Park wildlife and urban mountain lions. I use the word living because the only other equally famous urban mountain lion is the mountain lion that was sadly gunned down in a Santa Monica office park just before the P22 story hit the media.

P22's Value to Urban Wildlife Research and Conservation: My goal is to continue to use camera traps to catch glimpses of P22 to check on his health but more importantly capture the moment when the now approximately 4 year old male decides to leave the park in search of a mate and a more spacious territory. P22's situation is unprecedented for mountain lions so every bit of information we can gather while we have the chance is extremely valuable for future urban carnivore management and conservation. Also, as this mountain lion continues to live incident-free near humans in the most urban mountain lion territory known to date, he proves that even the largest and most controversial urban carnivore species can coexist with humans when given enough space and a healthy ecosystem. Our Griffith Park Connectivity Study camera traps continue to monitor wildlife corridors on both sides of the park and we are about to begin phase 2 which will involve intense monitoring of open space on the east side of the park. Meanwhile, myself and other biologists continue to be impressed with how well P22 has been able to adapt to the park and that he has decided to stay for so long. Initially, his arrival to the park was the ultimate sign that Griffith Park was well-connected to the west which was very informative in itself. P22 continues to exhibit natural behavior (e.g., avoiding people) and stay healthy (e.g., finding enough deer) after being in the park for over a year, which is the ultimate evidence that Griffith Park is a healthier ecosystem and critical oasis for wildlife than once thought. Hopefully the P22 story and information revealed from our research will convince people that humans can peacefully coexist with wildlife if they treat LA's remaining urban parks with respect.

 
Griffith Park Connectivity Study (Griffith Park Camera Trap Research): Donate to the Friends of Griffith Park (Att: Griffith Park Connectivity Study) 

National Park Service local Mountain Lion Research: Donate to the Santa Monica Mountains Fund

 

 

 

Jaguar Re-Captured and Endangered Tapir Photographed by Camera Traps in Western Nicaragua

The first phase of research ends on a very good note with the re-capture of a jaguar captured months earilier in a different region of the Colon forests of southwestern Nicaragua. Fortunately the previous set of photos were of the same side of the jaguar walking in the same direction.  We matched up the jaguar's unique rosatte and spot markings (like fingerprints) with the previous set of photos.  The discovery of only one jaguar in this portion of the study area makes sense because jaguars are solitary and territorial big cats that defend large areas. Also, lake Nicaragua acts as a formidable boundary limiting the opportunity for overlap with other neighboring jaguar territories. The first phase also ended with the discovery of a Baird's tapir along with more documentations of ocelots, jaguarundis, tamanduas, coatis, agoutis, pacas, armadillos, rabbits, opossums, skunks, and raccoons. 
 
Aside from the jaguar re-capture, the discovery of Baird's tapir is most exciting because they are the largest mammal of central America and sadly listed as an endangered species by IUCN's Red list.  These fascinating animals live in dense jungles close to water.  They are great swimmers and can even use their long and flexible snout like a snorkel with the rest of their body submerged.  Their only predators are adult jaguars and American crocodiles.  Tapirs have even been known to use their big size to survive attacks from jaguars and crocodiles.  Tapirs may seem related to elephants because of their large prehensile snout but they are actually most closely related to horses and rhinoceroses. Similar to jaguars, habitat loss is the main threat to their survival but they also have been known to contract diseases from livestock, illegally hunted for food with minimal penalties from authorities.  Also, their gestation period lasts a lengthy 13 months and the single offspring stays with the mom for up to two years (born with stripes and resemble fuzzy watermelons).   Therefore the combination of a low recruitment rate, habitat loss, disease and some hunting pressure makes them very vulnerable to extinction. We hope habitat protection and restoration for jaguars will also benefit the endangered Baird's tapir.  It is definitely a gift to get a photo of this endangered species because you hope it won't be the last photograph and that such information will help preserve it for future generations.

The cameras were removed this week after 4 months of intensive surveying. We began our survey with the most contiguous and wild section of the study area so we could estimate what to possibly expect for the remainder of the more fragmented study area. Although the cameras documented a great deal of biodiversity, the majority of the photos have been of local farmers, cows, dogs, and even poachers, which provided us with a sobering reality check.  The take home message is that enough biodiversity and connectivity remains in this section of the corridor. Therefore, we are hopeful that the species we've documented, especially wide ranging indicator species are resilient and adaptive enough to persist in the portions of the study area further up the isthmus. Finally, it is clear that the time for restoration, habitat protection, sustainable livestock management, and especially local outreach education is NOW.

We are in the process of raising more funds to support the continuation of monitoring of the remainder of the corridor and also to invest in the implementation of equally (if not more) important outreach education to the local community. These programs would not only educate the public of the monetary and intrinsic value of jaguars and biodiversity but also educate locals how to coexist with jaguars while still making a living.

The first phase of this project again would not have been possible without the hard work and local knowledge of our camera trap monitor Marvin, Colon community leaders, local guides, and Paso Pacifico rangers. Together, they helped us find the best camera sites in Colon, protected cameras, and even recovered some stolen camera traps. We also greatly appreciate the generous donations of the Los Angeles Zoo, U.S. Forest Service Institute of Tropical Forestry, Ruckus Roots, Petridish, and generous donations from the general public. I know we just past the holiday season but please consider donating (http://pasopacifico.org/catalog.html?Vl=10&Tp=2) or even sharing the link to this blog so that this project can continue with a minimal delay. Thank you for your support.

 

Gray Foxes Photographed in Griffith Park: A Mysterious and Overlooked Urban Carnivore

Local Angelinos are just beginning to get used to the fact that bobcats and a mountain lion live in Griffith Park. Some locals are even still amazed that raccoons, skunks, and coyotes are thriving in the park. Now Angelinos can begin wrapping their heads around the fact that a population of gray foxes still remain in the park.   
Gray Fox Basics:
Gray foxes are fascinating Canids (i.e., belong to dog family) that are one of only two Canid species that climb trees.  The only other tree-climbing Canid is the Raccoon dog of Asia.  Their hooked claws allow them to climb trees to escape danger or to find a home high up in the cavity of a tree.   They are monogomous and do not live in packs like coyotes.  Similar to coyotes, their omnivorous diet (fruit, small mammals) and adaptable behavior allow them to take advantage of urban and wild settings of North, Central, and South America.  Gray foxes seem to either thrive in very spacious natural areas or very isolated or small fragments of habitat without coyotes.  The key to their survival seems to be the density of coyotes and the amount of natural hiding places (e.g., shrubs, trees) available to hide from predators (e.g., bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions), but especially from coyotes. Coyotes are larger and have been known to displace or directly kill gray foxes because of their overlapping diets and habitat preferences in urban areas.  For instance, they were very common in a study site I worked at in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California, where coyote density is not as high as Griffith Park due to the amount of space and woody ecosystem.  However, they seem to not be as common or totally absent from isolated urban parks I worked at in Orange County that supported dense coyote populations. 
 
Local Gray Fox Situation:
 We are excited to inform Griffith Park supporters that the Griffith Park Connectivity study camera traps documented a gray fox.  Prior to this, the Griffith Park Natural History Survey discovered tracks in 2007 and then Laurel Serieys of UCLA accidentally captured one in a bobcat trap in 2010 during her bobcat disease and anticoagulant study.  Due to a scarcity of research, it is unknown exactly why they are rarely seen or seemingly absent from entire LA and southern California urban wildlands but high coyote density and a scarcity of woodland habitat may tell most of the story.  Based on reportings by LA Zoo staff of a mating pair in the LA Zoo and an additional documentation by citizen scientist, Matt Whitmire (http://griffithparktrailcam.com/page/5), we know at least three patches of habitat where they continue to exist.  The most logical oasis for gray foxes in Griffith Park is the LA Zoo because coyotes are excluded from the zoo for the safety of animals on exhibit.  However, bobcats and gray foxes can easily enter zoo property.  Outside of Griffith Park, gray foxes are known to live in the remainder of the less isolated mountain ranges of the LA area (e.g., Santa Monica mountains, San Gabriel mountains, Verdugo Hills, etc.) as well as some isolated fragments in LA.  An orphaned gray fox was even discovered in a gutter in South Central LA!!!  Some gray foxes seek refuge from coyotes in smaller urban parks and man-made/manicured habitat like orchards or golf courses where they face protective farmers and landscapers that use rat poisons or other lethal means to protect their property.  The handful of urban gray fox studies suggest that gray foxes prefer the interiror of natural areas and that even urban gray foxes require access to some open space with native habitat.
 
Although we feel very fortunate that Griffith Park is still vast and healthy enough to support gray foxes, it is unknown how many are left or if the population is sustainable.  At the moment the resources are not available for scientists to do a LA or Griffith Park Gray Fox study but hopefully the opportunity for such an effort will come around sometime soon.  Meanwhile dedicated local citizens are purchasing their own camera traps and utilizing social media such as http://griffithparktrailcam.com/ and http://www.cougarmagic.com/ to document gray fox and urban carnivore behavior and presence in the LA area with the intent of introducing the urban community to the amazing urban wildlife LA has to offer. 

 

 

 

 

Jaguar Crossing Up Ahead: Jaguar Caught on Camera in Western Nicaragua

 

Well....we did it!!!  Our hiking, crawling, climbing, and swimming in search of ideal jaguar habitat and travel routes has paid off!!  After 2 months of continuous sampling in the El Toro forest of Colon (southeastern end of our study area) we have photos of a jaguar!!!  The photos may be a little blurry but couldn't be more beautiful and unmistakable.  Marvin, our talented and hard-working field biologist, just returned from checking the cameras in the field.  Kim (Director of Conservation Science at Paso Pacifico) greeted him in Managua and they eagerly skimmed through some of the photos to search for jaguars and other cool mammal photos.  I was in southern California frequently checking my emails throughout the day while doing field work, hoping for good news.   Of the 26 cameras that remain (1 destroyed, 3 stolen) we knew that this camera would be one of the first cameras that should be checked.  We have high expectations for this camera location because we found jaguar prints on the game trail directly in front of the camera.  Despite the recent killing of some jaguars in the Colon area these prints gave us hope that at least one and hopefully more would soon be discovered by our camera traps. 

 

Needless to say, our work is not done.  There are more corridors to survey in the Paso del Istmo and many struggling wildlife populations still to discover.  These jaguar photos along with future photos will prove that these corridors are very deserving and in need of conservation attention.  Such attention would also benefit the struggling communities that share their backyards with these big cats.  We would be able to teach them the economic, ecological and intrinsic values of a local jaguar population and how to coexist with these beautiful and important top predators.  The largest cat in the western hemisphere is being put to the test but is managing to hang on in areas where they are seemingly on the brink of local extinction.  However, it is uncertain how much more habitat loss and poaching the populations can endure.  Camera trap research is one of many conservation efforts we owe to the resilient jaguar and Paso del Istmo of Nicaragua.

 

This work would not be possible without the generous donations by the Los Angeles Zoo, U.S. Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry, and generous people who care about the struggling wildlife and people of western Nicaragua.  We have nearly exhausted the initial start up funds for our jaguar study.  Please help us continue this important research by clicking here and donating.  Thanks for continuing to follow my blog and my conservation efforts in Nicaragua and Los Angeles.

First round of pics are in: No jags yet but off to a great start!!!

When I left Nicaragua, we only had 9 of the 30 camera traps on hand.  Nonetheless, our team was still very anxious to see what we got so far.  Our field-savvy biologist recovered some initial photos from Colon.  Although no jaguars yet, we did detect a couple very interesting wild cat species.  We discovered the ocelot and the jaguarundi!! "Jaguar-que?" or "Jaguar-what?" is the typical response or else I get a look of confusion when I tell people the news. These two small cat species are similar in size and specialize on hunting prey smaller than themselves such as small mammals, birds, fish, crabs, frogs, insects and lizards.  They both use their sleek bodies and camouflage to blend into the forest undergrowth as they stalk their prey.  Once they get close enough to where they feel they are as close as they can get without being noticed, they quickly pounce on their prey.  They both specialize on hunting on the ground and are comfortable climbing trees and swimming but the ocelot is known to be an exceptional climber and swimmer.
 
Some Other Cool Differences are the Following:
Lineage: Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are the largest members of the genus Leopardus which includes other central and south American small spotted cats such as the margay, Geoffrey's cat, and oncilla.  In fact, ocelots closely resemble margays and oncillas with size being the main noticeable difference.
Jaguarundis (Puma yagouaroundi) are the only other members of genus Puma besides mountain lions (Puma concolor, a.k.a cougar or puma).  Yes-this odd-looking cat species is the most closely related to P22 in Griffith park than any other cat species! (Side note: pumas are not considered part of the genus belonging to big cats (Panthera), and one main characteristic the puma doesn't share with the big cats is that it can't roar).  Unlike the ocelot, the jaguarundi's appearance is probably the most unlike that of a cat more than any other cat species.

Physical Features and Behavior of the Jaguarundi and Ocelot:
The most obvious difference is that the jaguarundi comes in one of two uniform colors, either chestnut brown or a greyish black.  The jaguarundi also has a distinctly weasel or otter-like elongated body and long tail.  The jaguarundi's ears are also pretty round and small in proportion to the rest of the body.  As a result, it is also known as the "otter cat."  

The ocelot is known in Nicaragua as "tigrillo" and is also known as the dwarf leopard because of its beautiful black markings.  The undercoat can range from reddish brown to greyish but all have unique black markings (rosettes, spots, stripes).  I hope to use the distinct arm-band on the ocelot's left front leg to see if we re-capture him/her on the same or another one of our camera traps.

Hours of Activity: 
The ocelot is primarily nocturnal (active at night) whereas the jaguarundi is primarily diurnal (active during the day).  The detection of jaguarundis was exciting because it is less popular than jaguars or even ocelots, offering me the excuse to learn and share interesting facts about this fascinating species.  I was even inspired to name our new black kitten "Rundi" (short for jaguarundi) because we discovered her at a local shelter the same day I discovered the camera trap photo of the jaguarundi.  Her tail also seems longer than the average kitten, making her an exceptional cat just like the jaguarundi.

Some other notable mammals that we captured on camera so far include agouti (small rodent), rabbits, armadillo, and local Nicaraguans.  The other camera traps are almost all installed so a ton of exciting photos should be coming in soon...

Western Nicaragua Jaguar Project: Officially Off the Ground

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!!  As a proud Nicaraguan-American, I am proud to write this post about a trip I made to Nicaragua to attempt to assist the wild cats and people of Nicaragua. I am giving scientific support to Paso Pacifico (www.pasopacifico.org), a conservation organization that aims to protect jaguars and other threatened wildlife while also strengthening rural communities.  My 2-week trip to this troubled paradise was complete with delicious endemic cuisine (e.g., gallo pinto, nacatamales, cacao, etc.), trouble with customs, earthquakes, frequent rainstorms, deep mud, loud monkeys, and jaguar tracks.  

I arrived in Nicaragua (08/26/12) on the first of many hot and humid mornings with nervousness and excitement.  I was nervous because my collaborator Kim Williams Guillen (Paso Pacifico Conservation Research Director) arrived with 21 camera traps with fears of customs seizing our cameras.  Unfortunately my fears were met as the cameras were not only seized but were not released until a couple days ago (09/19/12).  Everyone expected trouble with customs but not 3 weeks of trouble.  Fortunately, we had a back up plan and 9 camera traps that made it through customs (after a hefty payment) during a previous trip.

Needless to say we pressed on.  We spent a couple days in Managua (capital of Nicaragua) in hopes that the cameras would be released within a couple days.  Most of the waiting wasn't in vain because we educated the local community about bats at a presentation at the Masaya Volcano and purchased some remaining equipment such as batteries for cameras and plaster to make casts of carnivore prints that we happen to find.  We finally had to move on and begin training the local field biologist (Marvin Chevez) and start the fieldwork.
 
 
We made the 2 and half our drive to the middle of the Paso del Istmo corridor, picked up the field biologist, a couple of local machete wielding park guards, and immediately went into the field to start working.  Unfortunately, we were unable to make the trip before the rainy season and it hit us with full force to the point that we had to pull ourselves up slopes with vines and crawl on our hands and knees in search of good camera trap locations (good jaguar habitat).  We were in search of wildlife trails, tracks and scat of cats and their prey, riparian corridors, wildlife funnels, and riverbanks.  Our guides hacked through the forest as Kim navigated and I looked for good jaguar habitat where the cameras would eventually be placed.  Worked moved slowly as we were getting used to the wet and muddy terrain that would literally suck off your rain boots every other step.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the good habitat we found were in large patches separated by agricultural areas (e.g., plantain, rice fields) and cattle pasture.  Luckily many of these patches are still linked together by intact riparian corridors with some canopy covers.  What was also helpful was that Paso Pacifico had a strong presence with their staff actively reforesting many of these denuded patches.  Another great sign was that the patches had signs of jaguar prey such as turtles, deer, and peccary.  There were also many sightings of tamandua (tree-dwelling anteater) capuchin, howler, and spider monkeys, which are good indicators of habitat connectivity.  We located around 14 camera trap locations and then it was time to move to the flooded jungles of Colon where jaguars are known to still occur.

We planned to take a boat trip to Colon but it turned out that boats were unavailable at the time and we had to travel to Colon on horseback.  So we creatively packed our equipment (9 camera traps and accessories) and luggage onto these poor horses.  2 hours later we arrived and the next day our toughest fieldwork began.  In order to reach the first big patch of jungle we had to hike for a long way through the town of Colon and rows of plantain and rice fields before we reached the forest edge.  Throughout the research trip along the corridor we had been interviewing property owners and locals about whether they've seen wild cats and their feelings about conservation.  Nicaraguans are generally happy to talk, very friendly, but pretty blunt about their opinions.  In the middle of the corridor we were pleasantly surprised to hear about basically no conflict with jaguars or pumas but we were disappointed to hear that many people were convinced that they didn't exist in the area anymore.  The story quickly changed when we reached Colon.
 
The locals in Colon were very familiar with jaguars or "tigres" as many of the locals called them.  There was definitely a mix of perceptions of the jaguar ranging from respect, intrigue, fear, and anger.  We heard stories of cattle being killed and even people being killed by jaguars.  The good news was that the locals seemed to be very open-minded and all of them kind of understood the economic, and to some degree, intrinsic value of protecting the jaguar population.  Also, it was good to know that one of the main community leaders was very determined to keep Colon wild but at the same time he did not have a notion that the community would join the jaguar conservation band-wagon without an economic benefit or compensation for their lost cattle.  Nonetheless, it felt good to meet people and introduce our project goals to them.  We even had a small meeting with local leaders and ranchers where we shared human-jaguar conflict mitigation tips and spoke to them about how their unique wildlife and nature would boost tourism
 
Throughout the trip we navigated through deep mud, water up to the chest and navigated around venomous snakes, smashing hundreds of mosquitoes the entire time.  After searching for prints, scat, and any jaguar sign for days, we finally found some prints.  Needless to say we were very excited and relieved and the mosquitoe bites and muscle aches hurt a little less at that point.  The section we encountered the most jaguar sign was called El Toro and was where we found all of our ocelot, tapir, peccary, deer, and jaguar prints.  I finished off the trip scouting and GPS marking as many future camera trap locations as I could.  We ended up installing all 9 cameras that we had on hand in Colon.  The Paso Pacifico biologist Marvin will be checking the camera traps this Saturday and will be setting up the remainder of the camera traps this week.
 
I look forward to sharing some Nicaraguan carnivore or at least large mammal photos in the near future.  Fingers crossed amigos!!!


 

Levees and tree removal-disastrous effects

A research article I wrote with Dirk Van Vuren and John Draper was just published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. The paper is relevant to both wildlife management and human safety nationwide in areas at risk to floods. The study examined whether removing trees and shrubs from levees would influence burrowing mammal presence and density on levees, species considered to be threats to levee structural integrity (create holes in levees). Army Corp and FEMA plan to remove all trees from all levees of the United States. One of their main arguments for removing trees is that they argue that conversion to grassland habitat would discourage burrowing mammals from occupying levees and aid in the management of these pest species. Our results actually suggest that converting riparian levee habitat to grassland may actually attract burrowing pests to levees, further compromising the structural integrity of levees. This is a highly controversial topic right now as many organizations and agencies are strongly opposing Army Corp's plans to devegetate all levees of the United States. The main reason for the opposition by these organizations is that increasingly rare riparian habitat is critically valuable to a large amount of species. 

Beyond habitat destruction, the consequences of tree removed and increased burrowing mammal populations leads to yet other problems.  Once burrowing mammals move into a levee area, anticoagulant rat poisons are used to try to control the rodent populations.  Thus, beyond tree removal and habitat destruction, we additionally enter toxic chemicals into the ecoystems to further try to control those small mammal populations.  Those toxic chemicals move up the food web, and we exposed the predators that consume the burrowing mammals too. 

Is Barham Blvd. a Popular Wildlife Crossing?

As part of our Griffith Park Connectivity study, my collaborators and I recently decided to seek out new crossings to monitor.  We are still awaiting permission to post some cameras at crossings along the 5 and 134 freeways on the east side of Griffith Park.  Meanwhile, I placed a new camera on the east side of Barham Blvd. and immediately got some great photos of wildlife actively heading towards Barham Blvd.  For those of you that aren't familiar with this area- it is VERY urban Los Angeles, and this potential wildlife crossing we are interested in happens to be right next to Universal Studios in Hollywood.  This area also abuts the 101-freeway- a major 8-10 lane freeway the bisects Hollywood.  So, we were very surprised to find one of our radiocollared bobcats using a little patch of habitat that likely required he cross Barham Blvd. to get there.  The GPS-collared bobcat was triangulated near Barham Blvd. so this may be a potential crossing location.  The west side of Barham leads to Universal Studios property.  We can not confirm whether the animals are crossing until we are able to put a camera on the other side but there is strong indication that they are heading that way.  The photos below show coyotes and deer going in and out of open space on the east side of Barham towards Barham Blvd.  Recently, there were deer sighted by residents that live near the camera so I was happy to get some deer in my camera trap.  Although the hole in the fence seems too low for deer to cross through, they clearly aren't deterred. 


Paso Pacifico and Nicaraguan jaguars need your help!

As some of you know, I will be launching a jaguar conservation project in Nicaragua this summer with Paso Pacifico, a conservation NGO. Our project is currently being featured on PetriDish which is a site that raises money for science projects all over the world.  Please check out our project page created by Paso Pacifico to raise money and educate people about our study. You will find an outreach video, pictures, researcher bios, and project info. We need to reach our goal in 60 days or else we don't get anything! Please donate and/or share the link with any jaguar or wild cat enthusiasts that you know and encourage them to also share our site via facebook, twitter, email, phone, passenger pigeon, whatever....

Please go to
PetriDish.org to view our project page.  We are offering gifts in compensation for pledges, including photos, cat track casts, and more!

Thanks to all for your time and generosity.

Carnivores communicating through scent.

 

Bobcats are solitary (live alone) whereas coyotes are social (live in groups) but both species are territorial.  Although coyotes and bobcats are capable of fighting to protect their territories, these species avoid fighting at all costs.  Injury is serious for predators who rely on their bodies to protect themselves and to capture prey for themselves and sometimes their offspring.  Instead, carnivores mark their territory with urine to define and communicate the boundary of their territory to competitors.  Their acute sense of hearing and scent not only help these predators find prey but also to communicate and avoid risky conflict. These species have distinct individual scents that usually do not go unnoticed by other individuals of the same or other species.  Shown in this entry are a sequence of photos of wildlife communicating through scent within the span of about 3 hours. 


Catching Cool Carnivore Predatory Behavior on Camera!

Carnivores are elClick on image to see larger photos. usive species that tend to be nocturnal (active at night), especially in areas with a great deal of human activity (hikers, dogs, car traffic, etc.).  Aside from a few bold coyotes begging for food, unnatural behavior brought on by people feeding them, we are usually asleep or far away when urban carnivores are roaming around.   So glimpses of these species are usually rare unless they are on TV or dead on the side of the road.  Further, the only behavior people are likely to see is watching the animal running away. Fortunately, camera traps are so noninvasive that wildlife ignore the camera as they go about their daily life, which means camera trap photos sometime provide images of carnivore behavior rarely seen by humans.  The photos I discovered on my camera traps placed as part of the Griffith Park Corridor Study (see 'Projects' page for more info) revealed amazing predatory behavior.  Click on the photos to see the displays of predatory behavior for yourself!


Carnivores Hunting, Transporting, and Caching (i.e. hiding/storing) Prey: Why is the predatory behavior of carnivores so interesting, and amazing to catch on camera?  Carnivores are killing machines.  They are born with some of the ability (speed, strong sense of hearing and smell) and equipment (sharp teeth, claws, etc.) to be good predators but some of the behavior is learned. Predators learn these behaviors by watching their parents hunt, play fighting with siblings, and by practicing on smaller prey and working their way up to bigger prey.  Another tool in their arsenal is that predators are always on the look out for prey and develop what is called a "search image" of these prey species in their brain, which allows them to quickly zero in on prey within a sometimes cluttered landscape.  Rabbits and rodents reproduce often and can reach high population numbers quickly, at which time they can become pests and damaging to the plant communitiy unless their populations are surpressed.  Predators are crucial in keeping these populations down to healthy levels.

So as you can see coyotes and bobcats are excellent hunters and do not need handouts from people.  In fact, feeding carnivores like coyotes and raccoons is illegal mainly because it can lead to human-carnivore conflicts.  These conflicts can lead to the lethal removal of the habituated coyote or an entire pack.  Although the main purpose of the study is to see if wildlife are able to get in and out of the park, it is nice to know that these cameras are giving us a glimpse into the natural daily behavior of an urban carnivore.

 

Meet Miguel Ordenana!

I am a local wildlife biologist working with Cooper Ecological Monitoring, Inc. I am a native Angeleno who grew up just outside of Griffith Park. After leaving LA to pursue a master's degree in ecology at UC Davis, I have returned back home to pursue biological research locally. I am very passionate about carnivores, urban wildlife, and environmental outreach to the urban community, especially inner city youth. Laurel has invited me to blog about my work on the Griffith Park corridor study (see 'Projects'), as well as a jaguar study that will eventually be taking place in Nicaragua.


To introduce my work, I've identified a few key themes that will likely be integral to future blog posts. Here they are:

Is Griffith Park an Island? Along with Dan Cooper, M.S. (Cooper Ecological Monitoring, Inc.) and Dr. Erin Boydston (USGS), we are using camera traps (motion/heat triggered cameras) to study whether urban carnivores and deer can enter and exit Griffith Park via corridors (e.g. Mulholland bridge) or if the park is an island surrounded by a sea of urban development. Griffith Park is the largest urban park in the country and an oasis for urban wildlife. However, larger mammals like mule deer and territorial carnivores need more space than what Griffith Park can provide to sustain healthy populations. They need more space to find enough food, mates, and for young to be able to disperse and find territory of their own. Although Griffith Park is technically the eastern end of the Santa Monica mountain range, it is surrounded by major physical barriers such as the 5, 134, and 101 freeways. Therefore, it may be totally isolated from the rest of the Santa Monica range to the west and Verdugos/San Gabriels to the north.

Using Camera Traps to Measure Wildlife Movement and Activity: With permission from local land agencies and Cal-Trans, we have placed cameras at the few potential wildlife corridors (e.g. bridges) that cross over or beneath these major freeways. Some cameras are placed in open space at the edges of these crossing points to measure wildlife presence and activity near the edges of the corridors. The remainder of the cameras are located at bridges and tunnels to see if these are indeed functional corridors for wildlife.

One of many cool pics I've gotten through my camera work so far on the GP corridor study. Here is a bobcat with a fox squirrel in it's mouth taken just near the Ford Amphitheater near the Ford theatre bridge over the 101-freeway.Wildlife Approaching the Edge: So far we are capturing a great deal of wildlife activity on each side of the freeways, especially on the east side. However, there has not been any proof of animals using the corridors, so stay tuned!

Why Use Camera Traps?: Camera trap pictures are date and time stamped concrete evidence of wildlife presence and can even be used to measure wildlife abundance in a specific geographic location. These useful wildlife tools are relatively cheap and require little human effort to monitor as they silently monitor elusive species. These cameras are so non-invasive that we can occasionally get a glimpse of rarely seen or documented wildlife behavior (e.g., predation, communication). Stay tuned for my next blog entries where I will share some fascinating carnivore behavior caught on camera!