Journey to Belize: Of Yahaira and a Breakthrough

This post continues the retelling of my 2017 trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation.

June 27, 2017 was the last time I visited the University of Belize’s campus.

As I wrote in my previous Belize post, on June 27 I was able to speak with Yahaira of Panthera Belize.

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.

The paca, or gibnut, is the most frequently consumed game animal in Belize. Spotted Paca by Ann Wuyts. CC BY-NC 2.0

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).

Competition between humans and big cats for prey animals like red brocket deer might increase livestock predation in Belize. Red Brocket (Mazama americana) Stag by Bernard DUPONT. CC BY-SA 2.0

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).

A sign about the Central Belize Corridor that was hanging in the Belmopan bus station.

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.

Further Reading:

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.

12 Thoughts

      1. Yes, rodents are definitely prolific and if they ate healthy could be a considered food source. Once, I left my daughters pregnant rat with my mother to babysit for two months. Before we got home my mother called us anxiously wondering what to do with the now 35 rats!! I, laughed and told her to sell them to the pet store for snake food, which she did. LOL The mom had babies and the babies proceeded to have babies. Poor mom.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Fantastic opportunity. In Central Africa a lot of game is eaten locally. You will see dead monkeys for sale and young crocodiles turtles etc. Often the game is sadly kept alive in appalling conditions so that it is fresh to eat. However that is how the tribes have survived for centuries. The fact that we come along with a different view is one that cannot always be understood, especially as we come from continents where most of the wildlife has died out through our predecessors over hunting and doing that too in Africa and Asia!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eating bushmeat is how people have survived for centuries, but as I understand it the bushmeat trade has become more commercialized in Central Africa in recent years. There’s also more people hunting than in the past, less habitat available for wildlife, and a myriad of other pressures facing wild animals that compound the effects of bushmeat hunting. So in areas where bushmeat hunting is one of the major drivers of species declines, something must be done about it. There’s no need to let the wildlife in Central Africa go the way of many species in Europe and North America.

      Of course, while working towards conservation in Africa it’s only fair to also support rewilding in Europe and North America.

      Like

    1. Thanks, uhh, person? I’m guessing your name is Rosie? I appreciate the compliment :)

      The “human dimensions of conservation” seems to be a blanket term applied to all types of conservation work that deal explicitly with human behaviors and other human societal factors, instead of directly studying the animals one is trying to conserve. It’s used in the academic literature, which I have a massive database of links to in my References section, quite a lot.

      I actually really, really wish I’d taken more photos while in Belize. Unfortunately I was primarily there to look for research opportunities: blogging was a secondary concern. So taking pictures was often not on the forefront of my mind. In addition, most of my time was spent in non-touristy areas. It would’ve been out of place and awkward if I’d gone around snapping pictures of everything, as I was in the residential neighborhoods where the locals lived.

      The camera I brought along also had something wrong with it, as the left side of the frame was always out of focus. Always. My cell phone camera took better pictures, but it didn’t work well in the tropical humidity! One of my biggest priorities for the next time I go traveling is to invest in a much better camera, and to take many more photos!

      Liked by 2 people

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