This post continues the retelling of my 2017 trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation.
Per Dr. Bart Harmsen‘s recommendation, I had been trying to schedule a meeting with Yahaira for two days. As I had gotten nowhere over email, I paid another visit to the University of Belize’s Environmental Research Institute (ERI).
When I arrived, Yahaira was not there. A student who was working with Panthera gave her a call, and she graciously offered to come in – despite having maintenance issues back home.
Our conversation began the same as our previous two meetings: with me apologizing for showing up unannounced. I then told Yahaira that Dr. Harsmen had indicated that she is interested in the social sciences.
Yahaira replied that she was mostly focused on social ecology, which is weighted more towards ecology than social science. Much of the social research Yahaira had conducted dealt with bushmeat hunting.
It is not uncommon for people in Belize to consume wild game. A study co-authored by Yahaira in 2014 found that 75% of participants had eaten wild meat. Peccaries and deer, which are important prey for jaguars (Panthera onca) and pumas (Puma concolor), were heavily hunted. The authors speculated that competition with people over such prey animals might make jaguars and pumas more likely to attack livestock (Foster et al., 2014).
Yahaira explained that it was not easy to study bushmeat hunting. She could not directly ask people if they ate certain ‘exotic’ species, like jaguars. Instead, she had to ask, “Do you know anyone who eats ______ animal?” This demonstrates that a considerable degree of tact is sometimes necessary when researching the human dimensions of conservation.
Eventually, I asked Yahaira if she knew of any good study opportunities for my master’s thesis. She paused, then directed my attention to the Central Belize Corridor (CBC).
Dr. Harmsen had also talked about the CBC. Part of Panthera’s ambitious Jaguar Corridor Initiative, the CBC allows jaguars and other wildlife to move between protected areas in the north and south of Belize. The northern forest block, which I briefly lived in, expands into Mexico and Guatemala. The CBC is thus crucial for jaguars in three countries: allowing juvenile animals to disperse and maintain the species’ genetic fitness in the region.
Yahaira echoed much of what Dr. Harmsen had said. She reiterated the CBC’s importance, and confirmed that it was being chipped away by land clearing. She suggested that I might focus my master’s research on the CBC, given its significance. I thanked Yahaira for her help and got up to leave.
As I was walking out, I unexpectedly ran into Dr. Elma Kay: one of the central figures in the planning and maintenance of the CBC (if not the central figure). She was energetic and upbeat, and I instantly liked her.
I told Dr. Kay what Yahaira and I had discussed. Dr. Kay confirmed the importance of the CBC, and added that it would help the ERI if I could look into why people are clearing land within the corridor. It seemed like land owners’ motivations were economic, but perhaps there was more going on?
That sounded like a fine research topic to me. After almost five weeks in Belize, I finally felt like I had a solid lead for my master’s thesis.
Foster, R. J., Harmsen, B. J., Macdonald, D. W., Collins, J., Urbina, Y., Garcia, R., & Doncaster, C. P. (2014). Wild meat: a shared resource amongst people and predators. Oryx, 50(1), 63-75. https://doi.org/10.1017/S003060531400060X.