A Load of Shush: Crossing Borders For Croc Conservation
This month’s A Load of Shush is written by CRC intern Xaviessa Molina from Belize City whose 1 month internship included attending the IUCN/SSC-Crocodile Specialist Group International Working Meeting in Chetumal, Mexico, July 2022.
I’ve always been taught to seek out adventures and to never back down from a challenge. When I asked my dad if he had any idea of an internship opportunity for the summer, he linked me to the Crocodile Research Coalition down in Placencia. I had just finished my first semester at college, I’m majoring in Biology, and I had never touched a crocodile before, so I sent an application in. After an interview with Dr. Tellez, I was accepted into the program and my dive into the crocodilian world began. I read preliminary material to prepare for the internship, I learnt more about crocodiles in one week than I had ever known before, and I was just excited to get started. Right before I made my way down to Placencia, Dr. Tellez asked if I could pick up a juvenile crocodile from the Belize Wildlife Rescue Center in Cayo. I was with my dad and he had some experience, so I said yes. This gave me my first inkling on what the next month was going to look like. Despite only ever reading about crocodilians, here I was taking turns holding a crocodile from Cayo to Placencia. It was my first hour with CRC but we jumped right in.
After we passed our fieldwork exams, the next month was a whirlwind of surveys, outreach, and getting to know the new crew. I stayed in the Hatchling House with three other interns and we quickly became close. During the day we would hang out, work on drone images or outreach material, and in the evenings we would gear up for surveys. My first survey was done in Belize City. I think I had a deathgrip on the spot light that night. I had covered all the necessary theory but practicals can be very different from what is expected. Any question I had was answered, if I was doing something wrong I was guided on how to do it better, and if I wasn’t comfortable doing something, I didn’t have to. Living in Placencia for that month and being with CRC was truly one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life. Nighttime kayaking surveys, late night dinners after surveys,deep conversations at the back of the truck, and Sunday fundays at the Point with karaoke. This wasn’t the end for me however. We like to end each intern’s trip with a bang like dinner or going out; well I had a weeklong trip to Chetumal and a deeper dive into the crocodilian world.
Whoever said scientists are boring has definitely been hanging around the wrong crew. Every two years, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN)/Species Survival Commission- Crocodile Specialist Group (CSG) reunite to share their current research, discuss current issues, and offer suggestions on how to best conserve the crocodilians of the world. From July 3rd to July 15th, 2022, Chetumal, Mexico was filled with over one hundred crocodile scientists from over thirty different countries across the globe. Due to Covid-19, these croc specialists were prevented from convening a 2020 meeting, making Belize’s regional meeting in 2019 the last time some of these croc specialists gathered. Needless to say, among the heartwarming reunions and sharing each other’s projects, there were many celebrations.
As a first-year college student who only worked with crocodiles for three weeks before the meeting, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everyone around had years of experience and [MM2] impressive qualifications. I was still new to the world of crocodilians and to research, but I never once felt like I wasn’t welcomed. I have learned that the croc community loves to foster younger generations , and share all the knowledge they have to further their cause.
The CSG meeting was kicked off by three workshops: veterinary, drone, and taxonomy. These were all optional to the participants. I joined Dr. Marisa and crew at the veterinary workshop, and my brain had a field day. The vet workshop was held alongside the drone workshop at the Cocodrilia farm. We went over three main presentations about medical croc care, parasites in crocs, delivered by our very own Dr. Tellez, and medicine for crocs. After the presentations we were split into groups and invited to practice drawing blood from a live crocodile, then do a necropsy on some crocs that had sadly died on the farm. I had never seen a necropsy done. I have never sliced into an animal before, and I was super excited as well as very nervous. I had no need to worry though. My group had some excellent mentors who had done this a hundred times before and were willing to guide or step in whenever I needed it. They helped make the experience into something fun and very educational.
The presentations were kicked off on that Tuesday. I was always told that science is a competitive community that requires you to hide your research and keep your ideas hidden, but this conference was all about sharing. Participants had the option of signing up to do a 15-minute presentation on their current research, working groups at the end of the day to have a more close-knit discussion on specific topics, or to create a poster presentation that would be displayed in the hall for all to see. All of this encouraged the community to ask questions, offer suggestions, and even to ask for help. There was no shame in presenting your research that had not yet reached a solid conclusion.
I was very fortunate to attend the CSG meeting as a part of the Crocodile Research Coalition. Dr. Marisa, Helen Sung, and Miriam Boucher acted as the momma crocs for our very large group of 11 people. The rest of our group were all students[MM4] , and croc scientists, who had been mentored or assisted by the CRC in some way. Our large group merged with the long-standing friends of our momma crocs and many new connections and friendships were formed. Every evening after the presentations were complete, all the guests were invited to have dinner. This was the time for socialization, catching up, and making new connections. The organizers of the event also used this as a time to share some of the Chetumal culture with us. We had dances, live music, and even a fashion show from the fashion brand Cuandra.
I entered my internship with CRC hoping to get a feel for what field research and the scientific community are like. Over the past month and with the CSG meeting to close off my internship, I have left with more knowledge and insight than I could have ever hoped for.
A huge thank you to everyone who made CSG happen, to everyone on the CRC team, even those who couldn’t make it to Chetumal, and I hope you see everyone in Australia for the next meeting!