Despite the historical and cultural connection crocodiles had with the indigenous people of Belize, the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) is currently at risk of extirpation due to habitat destruction, pollution, and increase human-crocodile conflict from misguided beliefs and human encroachment into their habitat. Consequently, the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus) faces comparable threats given manatees inhabit similar environments as the American crocodile, such as the Placencia Lagoon. Placencia Lagoon is rich in biodiversity, however its beauty is attracting rapid development, which is having a negative impact on the two keystone species of the lagoon. Observations by tour guides and concerned community members have suggested increase rate of boat strikes and manatee deaths, loss of seagrass, mangroves, and good crocodile nesting habitat, as well as human interference in manatee and crocodile breeding has contributed to a slow decline in populations of both manatee and crocodiles in the Placencia Lagoon, however thorough population data of both species is lacking.
During the early years of conducting biodiversity and crocodile surveys of the Placencia Lagoon, CRC would encounter manatees and provide sightings to our colleague Jamal Galves, also known as the Manatee Man here in Belize. Given crocs and manatee are facing the same threats in the Placencia Lagoon, CRC and Jamal decided to collaborate in collecting data of these iconic species, furthering their chances of observing the shy species via drone technology. With the help of Research Associate Matt Sparks who formulated the methodology, CRC launched their drone project with the CRC’s research drone Red Leader in February 2019 to investigate the distributions of the Antillean Manatee and American crocodiles within the Placencia Lagoon and surrounding areas.
This project will not only allow us to identify areas that are frequently used by manatees and crocs to further understand their ecology, behavior, dispersal, and to an extent, their interaction, but also provide training to young scientists. Next Gen Croc Placencia students will be participating in this project, learning how to fly drones and how to use the collected data for conservation management of species and habitat. Currently, CRC plans to mentor our Next Gen Croc students so that they may present this data at the IUCN/SSC-Crocodile Specialist Group International Working Group Meeting in Chetumal, Mexico, May 2020.
Overall, we anticipate that this study will provide awareness and garner more interest in protection by the local and international community of the gentle giants and apex predators of the Placencia Lagoon, as well as provide the necessary data for government to establish the lagoon as a Wildlife Sanctuary, which will limit further negative impact.
The initial funding for this project is supported by the Marine Conservation Action Fund
CRC continues to conduct surveys in certain hot spots around the lagoon, catching a lot of manatees on our drone, such as this mama and her baby.