The police came upon the dead manatee. A piece of the tail, its flippers cut off, and specific cuts in the skin revealing the fat and how it was to be portioned… all signs that this manatee was being prepared to sell to specific buyers.

Did your heart just drop? Feelings of sadness, with a quiet breath saying “poor animal,” while also thinking you hope justice will be served- did all that just come across your mind, and more? Would you say the same for a sea turtle? What if this was a dolphin? How about for a crocodile? Because it wasn’t a manatee, it was a crocodile.

Pest, vermin, man-eaters usually comes to mind when people think of crocodiles thanks to the dramatization you see on the television programs that are supposed to be the cheerleaders and supporters in regards to wildlife and conservation, visually teaching the truth and facts, yet at times these programs illustrate harassment, lack of scientific integrity and over-the-top (and many times dumb) interactions with wildlife that subconsciously puts images in people’s head that only furthers the lack of tolerance and fear, that many times leads to senseless killings of animals, especially predators. Additionally, this misguided information and visualization can lead to the not-so-fuzzy warm feeling people get inside when they see a croc versus a panda, thus the lack of empathy when crocodiles are killed illegally or maliciously.

I understand that predators can be dangerous; I understand that they have taken livestock, pets; I understand people have been severely hurt or killed by crocodile attacks. However, many times these attacks are not the fault of the animal, but the fault of people: overfishing, overhunting their food, habituating the predators to people through direct feeding, or simply ignoring the Do’s and Don’ts living alongside wildlife. Humans unknowingly are the cause of many negative interactions with wildlife, yet our ego can at times make us blind to the facts.

Majority of wildlife DOES NOT want to interact with humans given the majority of our interactions with nature are negative- and they know this.  In non-covid times, the closeness to humans was (and still is) a necessity out for survival for many predators- they don’t want to go onto an open farm and kill a sheep; they don’t want to possibly open themselves up to being harmed by trying to take a dog from a yard; predators take the risks to eat and survive. As I tell kids, think of the story of Aladdin… why did he steal that apple with the monkey Abu? Because he was hungry and needed to eat- he was in survival mode. Why did that jaguar attack the sheep? Why did the croc attack the dog? Because we overhunted their primary prey and it was hungry and needed to eat – necessary actions to survive in their harsh world that we humans created.

And of course there are those instances crocodiles (and predators in general) attack and there is no reason. The reason simply could be that we humans are considered part of the prey menu, especially for those croc species that are considered “man-eaters” (like Nile and Australian crocodiles). But your chance of getting attacked or killed by a crocodile is so minimal compared to the chance of contracting malaria, dying in a car crash, or being killed or severely injured by your own species (aka humans) via war, gang violence, etc. So why such fear and hatred towards crocodiles (and other predators)? Shouldn’t your fear and screaming be directed towards mosquitos or cars? A paper I came across years ago written in the 1960s had an interesting point of view for our fear and hatred towards some predators- colonialism.

Colonialism- so many people refrain from the word, it makes them feel uncomfortable, and it can even be considered taboo. But why? It’s a part of human history, and the effects of colonialism continue to impact various societies today, possibly impacting how certain societies and communities view nature around them, views that may differ from their ancestors. “Alligators [crocodiles] of large size infest most of the inland lagoons, and provide good sport at the out-stations.” This was a quote from an 1890 report from a British general in Belize (or known as British Honduras at that time). If we go back in time with a flashlight and shined across the Placencia Lagoon (and many other areas in Belize), it would have been a sea of red eyes- crocodile eyes that is. This quote illustrates the lack of respect for nature in a foreign land, not like how the first people of the land respected crocodiles.

The Maya revered crocodiles as they believed crocodiles were connected to the gods, connecting the three realms of the world: the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. Briefly, the Maya believed the gods utilized crocodiles to communicate to them at the start of the rainy season via the calls of hatchlings (rain = water = symbol of life = heaven). Crocodiles were of course connected to the earth given their status in the food web (the general dogma of predators keep an ecosystem in balance). Additionally, the Maya would look for crocodiles in bodies of water because crocs would only be in locations of good fishing, so they believed the gods gave them crocodiles to guide them to food and unknown water sources. Finally, crocodiles guided the souls of the dead to Xibalba given crocs were, and still, found in caves. If a croc was seen in a cave, it was believed the croc was waiting for the soul of someone who recently passed, and then the crocodile would guide the soul to the underworld. Given crocodiles connection to the gods and supernatural, the killing of a croc was dishonoring the gods and ancestors unless done for ceremonial purposes. But this reverence all changed, especially in the 20th Century.

During the first half of the 20th century, crocodiles were almost hunted to extinction internationally for the fashion industry that greatly benefited developing nations economically. The idea of crocs as part of nature, as part of wildlife, as part of culture, was soon turned to an ideal of commodity and profit. So this region lost resources unsustainably (as it wasn’t just crocs being hunted).  Despite the lucrative fashion industry in Europe and North America, there was little economic benefit for the people who were hunting crocodilians, at least in Belize (as was told to me by a Belizean crocodile hunter who hunted crocs in the 1950s-1970s I met a few years ago). The unsustainable hunting and loss of natural resources in Belize as well as in this region contributed to a heavy loss of biodiversity and the part of culture that is connected to nature… a loss that may never be regained. So the ideas of crocs as vermin, pests, something not to be valued, this may be a concept stemming from the colonialism days as negative perceptions, or creating perceptions of something with little cultural or natural value, makes it a lot easier to take advantage of as a resource.

As many people have heard me say before, conservation is not just about wildlife, it’s about people. The economic crisis caused by the corona virus has been economically challenging, especially on those regions or countries in which income is so dependent on foreign money (ie tourism). More people are fishing and/or hunting to put food on the table as they cannot afford to go to the store and buy red meat or chicken. So yes, someone just killed peccary out of season, however the meat went back to their house to feed the family and maybe some neighbors. Some conservation experts would not consider that illegal hunting at the moment despite laws- that is called survival. Yet, you then have those who are taking advantage of the situation going into communities that are struggling and convincing those that would otherwise be considered wildlife lovers and advocates to go against their morals, to go against the laws that they know, and conduct wildlife crimes. Those committing the crimes generally get a minimum amount of money compared to what the main buyer would sell to others for (or for what the crime is really worth). Additionally, those committing the crime are the ones to face the consequences of laws and society if they get caught, while the orchestra leader walks amongst the community as if they were a reputable citizen. So now you have those already struggling in hard economic times caught for committing a crime, fined, maybe even taken to jail, while the leader orchestrates the next wildlife crime amongst others in the community; some would even say using members of the community as pawns for their own selfish reasons. Those caught committing the crime and taken to jail is just putting a band-aid on wildlife crime, and likely won’t solve any future issues. Yes, those who committed the crime are guilty, but if we want the illegal hunting of crocs and jaguar, the illegal selling of parrots, the killing of howler and spider monkey moms to sell the babies into the pet trade, we need to go to the root of the problem and take action, and not to mention educate the various links and communities living alongside wildlife. This subject is a whole other essay, so let’s get back to what motivated me to write this blog…

I was called by the police one August morning as they had caught 4 men skinning a crocodile and they wanted me to come to the location of the wildlife crime scene to confirm species, and provide any expert opinion. My heart dropped as one of the men caught was a very familiar face, a good acquaintance some would say. My heart dropped again- an adult American croc! We already have so few in this lagoon, and this species of crocodile is Critically Endangered, like the manatee and jaguar in Belize. (There are 2 species of crocs in Belize and the Morelet’s crocodile has relatively recovered from past exploitation, while the American croc is really struggling). My heart sank for a 3rd time- I know this croc. And it was confirmed when I found out the location they caught the croc. My team and I have been observing this croc for years and was a favorite amongst students, my local Next Gen Croc kids, and visitors as he allowed us to get a good view of him (similar to croc tours in other countries, when the crocs know your boat, know your voice and realize you are not a threat, they get comfortable). This is the croc we saw lying next to a manatee (we have observed some interesting manatee-croc interaction in the lagoon!). My heart was sinking, and for a moment I asked myself why I do what I do- what is this all for? For us conservationists who are the boots on the ground, the emotional, mental and spiritual strain of our day-to-day life can at times be exhausting (and some would even say depressing. Think of the rangers protecting some of the last rhinos on earth). The uplifting moment in this dire situation is I absolutely applaud the police and Forest Department for the swift action taken and upholding the wildlife laws in Belize. While finding some solidarity in the enforcement of the laws, a local community member told me what had occurred should be a symbol to me of the progress Belize is making towards protecting wildlife:  “This showed a community that enforcement will uphold wildlife laws- that our wildlife matters to the police and Forest Department. Additionally, for the police to take action- this is a positive! Years ago the police would have just ignored, but your education is making a difference!” A smile across my face. BUT my mind not only thinks about the wildlife, but the families impacted by these men’s actions. These are hard economic times and I’m sure this event is going to put more financial pressure on the families of these men. My condolences to the families, and may the community come together to help them in this time of need.

What took place on the Placencia Peninsula is not unique to the country, but happening all over the world. More and more wildlife is being illegally hunted as desperate times call for desperate measures- parents are trying to find ways to put food on the table, pay bills, etc. But do we continue to turn a blind eye to all the illegal activity and crimes towards wildlife? Because if we do, we WILL wake up one morning and realize everything is gone: all the peccary and gibnut have been hunted, all the parrots have been sold as pets, all the crocs killed for medicinal purposes that have no scientific base, and seeing jaguar pawprints at Cockscomb Basin will become a faint memory of the past. But people need to survive. How can communities and governments further their assistance to those in need so we don’t further the burden on nature that can create future complications in society? We rely on nature for food, clean water, clean air. What we to do nature will be reciprocated – Mother Nature has been illustrating this especially in the last few years with more and stronger hurricanes, drought, warmer summers, longer dry seasons, larger fires, and an increase in zoonotic pandemics (like coronavirus).

The loss of the crocodile was not just a lost towards the local, countrywide, or regional population of the American crocodile, it was a great loss towards biodiversity of the lagoon and the country. It was a loss towards culture, as wildlife is as every part of culture as is food, dancing, and language. The loss of the crocodile was also a lost for the future generations- of our kids. A quote that has been passed down to me from my Native American side is “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” What will we leave our children? What will they say of our actions? At least in 20 years time, I can look my daughter in the eye and say, “I tried.”

There are so many topics in this essay, and each of those topics can be multiple page essays. This is a summary as I did not go into so much detail of a bunch of my thoughts brought about the illegal killing of a Critically Endangered species in Belize, the American crocodile. The discussion of human-wildlife interactions, conservation, wildlife crimes, community involvement, education- it’s a never ending discussion with solutions still in the making— Dr. Marisa Tellez, Co-founder and Director of the CRC

“Numunwari” means sleeping crocodile in a Mayan dialect, the name given to the croc that was hunted illegally from the Placencia Lagoon