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From “Space” Gators to River Crocs

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November was a jam-packed month of excitement that started with gators… yup, alligators.  November started with me heading to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to give a presentation on my collaborative project with the NASA ecology department investigating blood parasites in alligators on the KSC property. Although my research is preliminary, the data is thus showing that this population has the highest prevalence of blood parasitism recorded in American alligators.  Why is that?  Is it something environmental influencing the increase abundance of the intermediate host?  Is something effecting their immune system thus impeding their ability to rid of infection?  More research needs to be pursued, and we are hoping to use some of the knowledge and background of the other present scientists to answer these questions.  It was great mingling with some of the leading scientists in the crocodylian world, and realized I had become part of team to further crocodylian research that can lead to some innovating technology for research as it pertains to climate change, eco-toxicology and conservation. Looking forward to my research at KSC, and looking forward to bringing some of that knowledge and technology to Belize to assist in my conservation efforts with Crocodylus acutus and Crocodylus moreletii.  

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After I came back from Florida, my brain was already in croc capture mode.  Several days before returning back to Belize I received a message from the Savannah Belize Forest Department station that a croc had made a new home in someone’s pool and they would like for us to assist in the capture.  I sent Karl to go check it out, and he replied to me that this croc had a plentiful food source of frogs around the area, and that this pool was much bigger than previously believed.  He tried capturing it via chasing it in a kayak but this crocodile was too spooky (this crocodile was not aggressive to the owners, but of course the owners just wanted it removed so that they may reclaim their pool and not fear a dip in the pool).  So the day after I returned from talking “crocs in space,” I headed out with Karl to put out a trap to catch the croc (I apologize that I can not get into detail about our traps, but we have found that poachers or people who want to do harm to the crocodiles read such posts to get new ideas to get crocodiles. We have met “poachers” in the area who have mentioned they get their ideas from what they see or read on social media). And I would like to point out that this pool was about 1 acre…. more like a mini-lake to me!

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Savannah FD rangers with Dille

So the croc took our bait over night, and the next morning we were back at the property.  We had to chase the croc a wee bit prior to securing some rope via the kayak. As we neared the edge of the pool at the stairs to pull the croc up, Karl’s shorts got stuck in the kayak and he just rolled into the water – I died laughing as not all croc captures can go smooth and sometimes you just need to laugh to shake off the stress.  So we successfully snared the 5ft croc, and taught the Savannah Forest Department (SFD) rangers all the different morphometric measurements we take that provide us some idea about health, and how this data can be useful for any recaptures.  SFD did a fabulous job in helping us restrain the croc and taking the measurements- absolute naturals.  It was a relatively easy and smooth capture with some interesting new information from the workers at this house was presented to us:  the poaching of crocodiles is increasing in the local market, mainly for the growing Asian community as they believe crocodiles are a natural aphrodisiac.  We are currently working with Forest Department and Wildlife Conservation Society to alleviate poaching of crocodiles, but unfortunately this may be a long battle.

But poaching is not the primary focus for us at the moment, education is.  Unfortunately, many locals do not know it is illegal to kill crocodiles, or they were mis-informed or poorly educated into fearing the crocodiles.  Fear is not how you get communities to co-exist with nature.  It’s about respect, and most importantly, knowledge!  We are working hard to try and conduct some type of outreach each month, and trying to undo years of mis-informed education by other organizational or media outlets.  So imagine my face when we head to the Sittee River to release this crocodile named Dille (means crocodile in Danish), and our friend David Hilmy from the KEEP (who came by to assist us) pointed out the Mayan

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Morelet’s Crocodile

woman washing her clothes on the one good area for re-release.  Again, there seems to be more of a natural hatred than appreciation of crocodiles due to lack of education or mis-information, so we thought we were going to have to call SFD and tell them we need a new location for re-release as we can’t release this croc here.  But before turning around, I approached the woman. I explained to her that this crocodile was NOT an aggressive crocodile, that it had just got lost and made home in a pool.  I mentioned that this croc has a natural fear of people, and re-confirmed that this species (Morelet’s crocodiles) are NOT man-eaters.  And then she said something that made my jaw drop. “I’m not scared of the crocodiles.  I lived with crocodiles all my life.  See over there (as she points upstream), there is a 10ft crocodile.  We leave him alone, he leaves us alone.  I’m not afraid of crocodiles, and I teach my daughters to respect them, but not fear them. They were here before us, and I’m sure they are good for the river.”  My smile went from ear to ear.  The Mayan woman was eager to learn more about the crocodile so that she may tell her daughters.  She asked to watch the re-release and I said “Of course!”  I told her that we were re-releasing Dille from a method I learned YEARS ago when working at Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge during my PhD.  Increases safety for both researcher and croc.  

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Morelet’s Croc hanging out at the Sittee River

The croc was released and we said our good-bye’s to the nice lady.  She thanked us for the educational talk, and we told her not to hesitate to contact us if a problematic crocodile ever surfaced. She smiled as if to tell me, “That’s nice, but us and the crocs are doing ok.” Our interaction made me think that since we have moved to Placencia, we have not removed ONE problematic crocodile.  Yes we have answered the calls, but after educating people, we have not removed one.  To me, that’s success because people are realizing seeing a croc swimming does not mean it is a problematic crocodile- it’s a crocodile being a crocodile.  People are quickly understanding how to co-exist, and that’s a great step forward into rebuilding that bridge between man and nature.