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!!!