Jodi Broughton, a TIDE volunteer for the past couple months, camped out at TIDE's Private Protected Lands (TPPL) in March and wrote this awesome blog about her experience
Last week I had an opportunity to go out with TIDE rangers to some of their protected lands. After initially being invited by Mr. Eugenio Ah, Assistant Terrestrial Manager, I had a lot of second thoughts. My list of why NOT to go kept growing, nearly keeping me from walking out the door. But two things made me do it: The desire to see a “day in the life” of a TIDE ranger to help find more funds for their programs, and the hope of seeing cat or tapir tracks.
Santiago Cucul and Louis Ishim pick me up at the TIDE dock at mid-day and we cross the sea over to the entrance to the Rio Grande River. The red mangroves lining the entrance eventually give way to black mangroves and a greater mix of palms, trees, and other vegetation – all playing their vital roles in the brackish mix of fresh and saltwater. We stop at the ranger station to grab Mr. Ah, food, and supplies (machetes are a must; chainsaw just in case), then transfer to the smaller river boat.
Passing the dock for the exclusive Bel Campo Lodge, we see lands that TIDE has replanted with fig and cotton trees, then later river banks that are eroding next to corn fields – a stark contrast. I then get my obligatory snake sighting out of the way: A 3-foot black tail snake slithering across the river. Hmmm, between the snake sighting and my new knowledge that crocodiles do indeed inhabit this river, I don’t think I’ll be swimming when I get to camp.
The TIDE rangers stop to talk to folks fishing on the river, letting them know the TIDE Private Protected Lands boundaries, that iguana (aka “bamboo chicken”) season is closed, that commercial fishing is banned but subsistence fishing is ok – just not with nets. I’m impressed with their calm and approachable tone, even while they firmly state the rules. As we continue up the river narrows and the vegetation closes in more. Santiago has to slow the boat down as logs that should still be submerged provide navigational challenges (dry season peak is still nearly a month away).
I’m loving being in the sun yet staying cool with the breeze from boating and enjoying all the sights: towering trees, including a species of dogwood with lovely pink flowers and several giant cotton trees with bromeliads and vines draping down; lots and lots of cohune palms; fig leaves eaten off by hicatees, endangered Central American River Turtles; hanging vines; birds such as ibis, kingfisher, boat- billed heron, and more. The iguanas are numerous - most of them females getting ready to lay their eggs – and they make distinct trails along the riverbank.
Around 4 pm I see it: The head of a big cat bobbing in the water. We speed up to get closer but it quickly swims to the other side and bounds up the wet river bank. Oh wow....My heart is pounding. Was it perhaps a jaguar? “YES!” all 3 rangers say. I have a few tears in my eyes – I’m just that surprised and in awe. (The rangers are not, however, so in awe with me because I couldn’t get my camera out in time!) We pull up to the bank where it got out and indeed find a couple of tracks to confirm that was a jaguar, likely a young one. (Belize has a total of 5 cat species, so I wasn’t sure if it really was the elusive jaguar). I’m stunned - I was just hoping to see tracks and got to see the actual animal . . . what a gift!
We get to “camp” – a small clearing in the jungle – an hour later and pass gear from the boat up the steep hillside. Louis graciously sets up my hammock for me and the guys make sure I’m in the middle so I feel safe (chivalry really is nice once in a while). The hammock is a pretty cool contraption – basically a tent, with a floor, mesh sides, and a separate rain tarp – just all hanging between trees instead of on the ground. I dig a latrine (oh, this feels so much like backpacking in the Cascades - hard to dig around roots!) while the guys set up the rest of camp.
As it gets dark, we start making dinner. Mr. Ah busts out all the stuff to make tortillas, which were delicious but I could have eaten just about anything by the time they were ready. Still an impressive feat on a whisperlite stove! And he steams eggs in a banana-like leaf, another impressive feat. I’m starting to feel nervous about sitting on the ground and what might be found crawling beneath the leaf litter (no Thermarest chair to be found here). While it’s kind of a bummer that the sweat is still running down my face, I’m very pleased the mosquitoes aren’t bad. In fact, I’ve had far worse camping at home in the summer!
Great to talk about what drew each of the rangers to work at TIDE, what they like about being a ranger, what the challenges facing the Maya Mountain Marine Corridor are. Santiago used to do electrical work and was moving often, from PG to Placencia to Belize City to Caye Caulker to San Pedro. He’s recently married and has two babies now so being with his family in PG makes him happy, even though the ranger schedule is 2 weeks on and 1 week off. His face lights up as he talks about being in the jungle. “I love camping: Hearing a jaguar roar, hearing a tapir stamp its foot, just being out here,” he said. Louis used to work in SATIIM as a community promoter and came to TIDE because of his love of animals and his desire to protect them. He’s a member of the CLP Hicatee Research and Education Group, doing important monitoring work for the endangered hicatee on the Rio Grande. Louis loves the terrestrial angle (TIDE spends more of its budget and manpower on protecting the Port Honduras Marine Reserve), is learning GPS and how to apply it in his work. Another computer or two for the TPPL rangers would help them hone their GPS skills and help enter biodiversity data collected.
Getting situated in a hammock must take some practice. Hope I can actually fall asleep. I did bring a small pillow and thank goodness I brought earplugs. While the noise of the jungle at night is already intense, snoring men is another sound all together. I didn’t sleep great but better than I expected. 5 am wake up call. No coffee or breakfast but grabbed a power bar as we headed out in the dark to the biodiversity monitoring transect line. As I tromp through leaves, palm branches, sticks, etc. in my low-top shoes with my i-phone flashlight (filling in for my broken headlamp), I’m deathly afraid of stepping on a snake or falling in one of the many holes left by uprooted palms. No problem for the guys – they are used to it!
It’s starting to get light as we reach the transect line, where we stop at 6 marked stations for 10 minutes each. Louis looks for and records mammal tracks and signs – another jaguar track (and cat scratches along a fallen log), tapir tracks, squirrel and other few others. (Remote-sensing cameras that were part of a Panthera project have captured images of all of these animals on the TIDE Private Protected Lands last year). I recorded birds that Mr. Ah identifies by sound. He has an incredible ear, perhaps due in part from working for Belize Audubon for many years. I enjoy knowing he’s visited my home state of Washington when doing an internship at Mt. St Helen’s National Park (while attending University of Idaho on scholarship through US AID). His passion for conservation is infectious! He feels that both law enforcement and education are important tools for preserving biodiversity. “Without biodiversity, there is no conservation. And for biodiversity to happen, we need law enforcement,” he says. All his kids are growing up learning about nature. Even his 4-year-old grandson can name many of the trees on his farm. It is on the 35-acre cacao farm that he applies his 23 years of conservation experience to agro-forestry, which he hopes is his part of mitigating climate change.
We wrap up our last station while hearing white- collared manakins in their lek courtship ritual. These tiny birds are impressive with their vocal displays. Back to camp (wow, so much easier when it is light for a quick breakfast, coffee, then packing up and back down the river to the TPPL ranger station. This time I’m noticing the garbage that piles up in front of logs from the villages up river. Plastic water bottles dominate the debris.
I’m so grateful the guys allowed a squeamish girl along on their trip but feel guilty for getting to go home and shower while they pack up to hike inland 12 miles this afternoon to another biodiversity monitoring site. Sorry guys!
All of TIDE’s rangers work incredibly hard: Long hours and long times away from their families, unpredictable and rough conditions, dangerous people and animals. These women and men are on the front lines of protection; keeping the biodiversity of southern Belize intact. If you feel like making a donation, the TIDE Private Protected Lands rangers in particular need:
TIDE’s Private Protected Lands (TPPL) are a biodiversity hotspot in the region and home to a number of species considered at risk of extinction by the IUCN including the Baird's tapir, jaguar, Yucatán black howler monkey and white-lipped peccary. In addition to these at risks species, there are a number of game species present and areas with significant rosewood cover in the TPPL which incentivize illegal entry into and extraction from the area. The 23,000 acres of land is divided in four non-contiguous parcels and a patrol team of three rangers is responsible for managing this entire area.