On the prowl for big cats in Belize | Virginia Tech News

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Sitting on the damp, jungle floor in western Belize during yet another brutally hot and humid day, David Lugo began adjusting a digital single-lens reflex camera.

He crawled on all fours toward the front of the camera to test it when he saw a subtle movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head, and, roughly 50 yards down a narrow trail, a solitary jaguar was watching him. They stared at each other for 30 seconds, then the jaguar quietly disappeared into the jungle’s underbrush.

“It was insane,” Lugo said. “Not many people get to see them on foot, so it was one of those experiences that you’ll probably never have again in your life. I was very lucky.”

Lugo, a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, is one of several students, both graduate and undergraduate, involved in a comprehensive and arguably landmark research project centered on jaguars, pumas, and ocelots in this Central American country.

Marcella Kelly, professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and longtime expert on jaguars, and Brett Jesmer, assistant professor in the same department, are leading the efforts to protect jaguars — deemed “near threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list — other big cats, and other species of animals. 

The felines are notoriously shy, rarely show themselves during daylight, and roam over large swaths of land. Such traits make them extremely challenging to study.

But Virginia Tech’s team has a plan.

Catching cats with cameras

Kelly, who started studying in Belize in the mid-1990s, began a jaguar camera project in 2000 in which she and her team used remote-triggered cameras to capture images of jaguars, pumas, and ocelots – a process called “camera trapping.” Animals are “trapped” when a camera sensor picks up heat and movement and takes a photo.

She borrowed the idea of identifying cats in photographs from her work as a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Davis, when she studied cheetahs at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. 

The images from various camera traps in Belize allowed the researchers to analyze spot patterns, specifically of jaguars. Because spot patterns differ for each jaguar, researchers were able to estimate population size, sex ratios, and densities.

Improved camera technology over the years has allowed Kelly and her team to expand their study sites in Belize. They currently oversee 200 camera trap stations, using 400 cameras — two at each trap — across an 800-square-mile area.

“Before remote camera technology was a thing, there was no way to really estimate population sizes for these elusive species like jaguars and, honestly, most wild cats,” said Kelly, an affiliate of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “It was very difficult to get any sense of whether the population was increasing or decreasing.

“The idea was that maybe we could do this remote camera technique on a jungle species since you can’t ever really see them in the field. It’s very rare that you can go in the field and actually see a jaguar. The remote camera technique was just fantastic. It worked really well.”

The impact of Belize’s logging industry on jaguar habitat served as an impetus for the research project. Sensitive of logging’s potential impact on jaguars — and in turn on the country’s burgeoning ecotourism industry — along with the importance of the animal on the nation’s culture dating to Mayan civilizations, Belize officials take wildlife conservation seriously.

Kelly and her team, particularly Ph.D. student Rob Nipko, continue to look at population densities in both logged and protected areas, including Belize’s 17 national parks. Nipko is using camera trap data and cutting-edge quantitative analysis to model jaguar density. Thus far, the jaguar population is holding steady.

“We’re not detecting any major declines, nor increases, so it seems to be relatively stable,” Kelly said.

Expanding the project’s scope

Last year, Kelly wanted to expand Virginia Tech’s research presence in Belize, so she invited Jesmer to participate. Jesmer, who came to Virginia Tech in 2021, possesses expertise in ungulates, or hooved mammals. They decided to analyze the behavior, distribution, and abundance of white-tailed deer and red brocket deer — food sources for big cats in Belize.

“I’ve been wanting someone else to come down for years to help tackle the prey items because we all know that most of what it’s all about for jaguars is really if they have enough prey and are not hunted, they’ll probably do fine,” Kelly said. “And even though there’s like a million studies on white-tailed deer here in the U.S., there are almost none in Central America.

“Belizeans are very interested in white-tailed deer research because they would like to have more informed and regulated hunting seasons that are based on actual data, similar to what we have in the U.S.”

Jesmer and graduate assistants Johny Tzib and Annie Stevens are focusing first on the deer species before expanding to peccaries, or wild pigs, and tapirs, which are related to rhinoceros. Earlier this summer, they began studying the basic natural history and ecology of deer in Belize.

Other goals for their part in this project include studying predator-prey interactions, learning how historical land-use practices have determined the current distribution of deer in the region, and helping Belizeans increase natural resource conservation and stewardship capacity by offering training in ungulate research techniques.

This past summer, they were able to capture eight deer by darting them in the rump with a dart that injects a sedative. They then put GPS collars on the animals, collected a variety of biological samples, including a blood sample that allowed them to assess the animal’s health, and let them go.

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