Volunteering with Panthera Belize: Part 1 [2015]

How it all began...

From my blog post from South Africa:
…While I was wondering around I got into a second-hand book store where I got lost in the ‘nature’ section. Suddenly I came across a very old book of (at that time) my wildlife conservation hero ‘Alan Rabinowitz’. It was the book “JAGUAR: One Man’s Struggle to Save Jaguars in the Wild” from 1987…”. One day I was going to get to Belize and join Panthera Belize, and it seems like this day was going to come sooner then I ever could wish for.

When everything was in place to go to Mexico, I started searching for a way to get to Belize. I e-mailed a lot of different organisations doing various conservation work in Belize, but my ultimate goal was to volunteer for Panthera Belize. After I had sent out a lot of reminder e-mails to those organisations I really wanted to volunteer for, I left to Mexico with no confirmation of possible fieldwork in Belize. With Dr. Rabinowitz book packed in my luggage, I was determined to go to Belize and visit Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. Either I was going to do fieldwork, or I was just taking a holiday down to Belize and visit this magical place.

Welcome to Maya center village


The project in Mexico was done. After almost 8 weeks without internet I was back into the digital world, but not too much had happened on the field of volunteer positions in Belize. Another reminder to Panthera Belize it was, and off I went, down to the Belize border. A Honduran friend joined me. First I took a couple of days on Caye Caulker, one of the islands of Belize. When people say they have been to Belize, most of them mean they have been to the islands, so I had to check it out. It was a nice place to be and take some more rest. One day we were lucky to spot a West Indian Manatee from ‘the Split’, a famous place as once a hurricane split the island in two.

Caye Caulker
Belize travel by bus

Visiting Cockscomb for the First Time

My friend was taking a ferry down to Honduras, so I joined him to southern Belize, and I took my change to visit Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary already. It was a great place, although I might have been biased after reading Dr. Alan Rabinowitz’ book. At the visitor centre, they had a little outdoor museum on jaguars. The cages Dr. Rabinowitz used back in the 80s were just standing there, as well as some educational materials. After 3 days, I walked all the trails you could possibly walk from the visitor centre. I also visited the airplane Dr. Rabinowitz used during his research, but sadly crashed into the jungle. It was an intense feeling when I was walking over the airstrip used at that time, which wasn’t more than a long straight sandy road…

Cockscomb basin view
Rabinowitz plane

Background about Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Panthera Belize

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary was the first ever set up jaguar reserve. Nowadays it is still a stronghold for jaguars and is has one of the highest densities of jaguars in the world.

Panthera is the world leading big cat research organisation, you can find more information on their website. They also have a Belize section, which I was eager to join.

Connecting with Panthera Belize

I hoped I would encounter one of the researchers during my stay in CBWS, but unfortunately not, so I made my way to Belmopan, where Panthera Belize was based. In Belmopan, I took some time reading e-mails and checking the internet for a while in a local restaurant close to the bus station. One of the first e-mails was to the Panthera researchers, and suddenly Bart showed up at the restaurant. He was super enthusiastic and telling me all about their research and research ideas. Although one problem, there was no cheap hostel in Belmopan, so we decided I will spend a couple of days in San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border. I had a wonderful stay in Bella’s Backpackers, although I didn’t do many activities, as I was preparing a PhD proposal for Mexico and did a bit of research on Belize and stuff. Soon enough I got confirmation they found accommodation for me and I could move to Belmopan.

butteflies wings art
belize landscape
working hard


Introduction & Office Work

First things first, they took me to the Belize Zoo so I could learn about all the animals they have. The nice thing about the Belize zoo is that they only have native animals in a more or less nice environment.

In general, I have been in the field half the time and half the time in the office. The office work consisted of organizing and entering camera trap data, learning a bit more about GIS. Besides that, I could generate some of my own ideas or work on ideas they have been thinking about for a while, including body measurements on camera trap pictures, activity patterns, etc.

Me and another volunteer wanted to try the individual recognition software on the camera trap pictures of jaguars. As jaguars have a unique coat pattern, and Panthera Belize has a huge amount of data, this seemed like a great project to try. We tested a couple of free ID software programs and found out hotspotter was working best. Check out the more in debt overview of those software programs. It also worked for ocelots and margays.

Furthermore, I worked a bit with ODK (Open Data Kit), which is produced to make online forms which you can enter in a smartphone or tablet and it is uploaded to a database once you connect to the internet. The forms I worked on were related to human wildlife conflict and collected info on farmers, livestock, livestock deaths and attacks, …

We also did a lot of camera trap maintenance, changing batteries, cleaning, make sure everything is still working. Panthera Belize also planned a trapping session for big cats (jaguars and pumas). Therefore, we had to prepare field equipment and make sure all the transmitters for the traps were still working.


Ocelot - Belize Zoo
Puma Belize Zoo
Collared peccary belize zoo


Most of my fieldwork consisted of visiting study sites and maintaining the cameras: collecting the pictures and make sure batteries are still good. I visited various areas in Belize, but most of my time I was conducting research in CBWS (Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary).

In CBWS, besides camera trapping the wildlife on trails, mostly focused on jaguars and pumas, we also initiated a project on armadillos in order to find a method to get density estimations. But one of the more interesting parts was our effort to catch a big cat. A team gathered around in CBWS to try and trap some of the big cats in the area and I was lucky to be part of this experience. From the camera trap pictures, we had a clue which animals were wandering around. Although most of the work was done by the trapper/vet, I could learn the basics of setting op traps and how to manage a trapping session. Although most of the days it was about checking the signal from the transmitters connected to the traps remotely, to check in anything triggered the traps. Overall it was a big waiting game, and on the downside, we didn’t manage to trap a single cat, although we had been close…

Story of (the jaguar) the Old Man

This all happened about a week before we were going to trap in CBWS. Earlier that year, they were able to collar one of the jaguars they have been following with the camera trap research since 2006 if I’m correct. You can check out more about this jaguar in this nice video.

UPDATE FROM THE FIELD Dr Rebecca Foster recounts the story of the Old Man, a jaguar who shares his range with Ben the Jaguar in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Posted by Panthera-Belize on Monday, 25 May 2015

The researchers received a ‘dead-signal’ from one of the collars, it was the Old Man. This meant we had to go and check out what it meant, is he really passed away or did the collar malfunction or dropped off. Although it wasn’t very pleasant news, I was excited about the thought of going to search for this thing in the jungle. So off we went, armed with a GPS, telemetry antenna, some gear to take off a collar, some plastic bags, etc. … it was a long walk, but we finally got closer… At this point, I started doubting about what I was doing here. Was my first definite sighting of a jaguar going to be a dead one… I felt confused, weird, but also excited… and suddenly we all could smell carrion, we were close. Suddenly I spotted it, deep under a bush, as you would expect from cats who are searching for the last resting place. I still had no idea how to feel about the experience, just giving tools to the researchers as I was asked, filming in the meantime. It turned out the collar was not stuck or anything, so it all looked like it was a natural death from an Old Man who had served the forest for over 14 years. As you could see in the video above, Old Man just had 2 canines left when he got captured. At this point he just had one left, so probably he was not able to catch enough prey anymore. It’s a sad story, but it’s great to see this cat had been born in Cockscomb and has spent his last days here. Often people argue old jaguars are becoming problem animals hunting down livestock, as that’s easy prey. This story could counter this argument, at least for one individual.

We retrieved the collar and investigated a bit more. We decided to take home its head. I said with full enthusiasm: “I can fit it in my backpack”. It was a great experience, but it was getting quite heavy after a while and also a bit smelly. In the end, it was a great experience and I was glad I could have joined this little expedition.

If you are interested in stories from jaguars in Cockscomb (and the rest of Belize), definitely check out Panthera Belize facebook page.

botfly collection


For those who have been to the jungle of Central America, you might have encountered botflies. I suggest not to YouTube or google it too much… But in a nutshell, these larvae will get under your skin and there. Overall, it’s not a bad thing and easy to treat, although there are different ways to get rid of it. Here is how I did it: if you notice a bit of a mosquito bite that stays longer or starts to become itchy, I put a bit of duct tape over it and leave it overnight. Usually, by the morning you have suffocated the larvae and other their proboscis has come so you can pull it out, or if they are small the whole larvae comes out. I think I got a total of about 10 of them.

The worst though was one on top of my head. As hair is not the ideal place to put duct tape on, we used Vaseline to suffocate the larvae. After a fun day in the office, we manage to get it out…

Time to Go Home

One day, all great adventures come to an end, however I still look back at my time at Panthera Belize with no doubts. I learned a lot and I got a lot of new experiences.

Update: In 2016, I went back for only about 2 weeks to Belize for another great adventure…

Check out other projects/blogs:
Opwall 2015: Mexico
Opwall 2016: Honduras

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