For those of you interested in the detail of our project and how it will be run, here are some details:
The basis of this project is to gain a better understanding of wild feline ecology and behavior patterns both in protected areas and in areas of human encroachment. Our objective is to determine the activity patterns of wild felines between the two types of land use based on the number
and temporal distribution of photographs from trail cameras, and to determine habitat use based on the presence or absence of wild felines species at camera locations. Trail camera image data will be collected over a 10 year continuous time period (2016-2026) and analyzed to determine the different behavioral patterns exhibited in wild felines between the two types of areas.
The study area for this research project will begin on the 1,153 acres of tropical rainforest owned by the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE). This study area abuts four other protected areas, in addition some of its boundary is against privately owned land that is used for agricultural and livestock use. BFREEs location gives us both types of land that we need to study all in one place. The project will then expand into the Bladen Nature Reserve and to the Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society (TREES).
The part of Belize we will be working in is a wildlife corridor that allows wildlife to roam from Mexico through Central America and down into South America. This corridor is rich with flora and fauna and is home to five species of wild felines: jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarundi. Their populations within the Belize borders are believed to be healthy, but declining due to human encroachment. As the human population
increases and people clear more land for agricultural and farming use, wild cats are faced with the reality of living amongst human activity. This is changing how wild cats behave, their territory size, the species of prey they consume, their breeding and how they move about their territory.
The goal of this project is to study the behavior and populations of wild cats in both a protected environment and a non-protected environment to decipher the differences between the two. From this analysis we can pinpoint areas of improvement for the non-protected sites, educate the public about living with wild cats and work with the local government and local villages to establish mutually beneficial conservation plans to ensure wildcat survival in Belize.
The existence of apex predators in an area denotes a healthy ecosystem. If the population of these apex predators declines, the fragile ecosystem is negatively impacted. These species keep control over smaller predator populations, prey populations and the plant world, which in turn keeps plant life and zoonotic diseases in check. By nature wild cats prefer to be elusive and steer clear of humans, but with the current human practice of clearing land for agricultural and farm use, human-predator conflict has become an issue. This land degradation and fragmentation forces wild cats to adapt to their changing environment. These adaptations result into behavioral changes, territory size changes, prey species consumption, breeding habits and territorial movements. All of these components have a direct impact on our ecosystem. The data
collected from this project will identify the wild cat changes/adaptations currently being made when in close proximity to humans and enable us to either mitigate these changes or lessen their impact on the environment through proactive conservation efforts.
From the analysis extrapolated from this data, we anticipate seeing a healthy population of wild felines residing in protected areas. This includes higher populations, better overall health, abundant prey and healthy breeding colonies. We also anticipate to see an opposite effect of wild
felines residing in/near human civilization. This would include decreased populations, health declines, limited prey species and an increase of domestic species, human-wildlife conflict and fragmented breeding colonies. The results from this project will allow us to work on conservation efforts to minimize the negative results of human encroachment by implementing interdisciplinary approaches for the management of existing and emerging human-wildlife conflicts, and in addition we will use our data from the protected areas as a baseline so that we may continue to analyze future data to detect negative changes and be able to mitigate them before they make a negative impact on the ecosystem.
METHODOLOGY: The data collected in this project will be in the form of trail camera images, using the Capture-Mark-Recapture method. We will use 60 trail cameras set up at 30 different locations (2 cameras per location positioned facing each other in order to determine individual animals). The spatial arrangement of the cameras will be no closer than 1km apart and fastened to trees, two feet above the ground for optimal view of wild felines and their prey. They will be set out in a regular grid with approximately equal distances between cameras. Camera placement at the identified site in the grid will be passive and random, (as not to favor particular locations such as feeding or drinking sites. Cameras will cover all habitat types of interest and the number of camera traps in each habitat type will be proportional to habitat extent (stratified sampling design) and sufficiently large to allow for statistical analysis. The number of effective images captured will represent the occurrence frequency index of a species during sampling. The occurrence index (OI) of a species will be used to represent the activity level of the local population (Pei 1998). Therefore the OI will equal the number of effective images x 1000/# of effective working hours. Effective working hours will be calculated as the total working hours minus malfunctioning hours (no data able to be collected). The images and effective working hours will be classified into hour intervals based on the time stamp taken of images for all of the camera sites/number of effective working hours in each 24 hour interval at all camera sites with the species present. The images and effective working hours will be classified into hour intervals based on the time printed on
each image. The activity index (AI) of each 24 hour interval for a species will equal the number of effective images taken at all camera sites/the number of effective working hours in each 24 hour interval at all camera sites with the species present. Image information that is used to analyze the AI will also be used to calculate the seasonal AI of each 24 hour interval for each species. To distinguish between forest types, each image will be classified with one of the following forest types: FT1-Broad leaf, FT2 - Savannah, FT3 - Shrubland, FT4 - Agriculture Plantation, FT5 - Agriculture Livestock and FT6 - Agriculture Other. These forest types will be included in the analysis of the data collected to compare protected vs non-protected land. The cameras will be checked and maintained monthly and moved throughout a predetermined grid pattern as needed. The grid will be separated into two distinct areas: protected land and non-protected land. The images collected from these two types of areas will be recorded separately enabling analysis between the two. Our researchers will be using existing trails, we will not be cutting, clearing or disturbing any plant life. We will scout out optimal camera sites based on existing flora and fauna. A predetermined number of cameras will stay in their locations for lengthy periods of time while the remaining cameras are moved once every 3 months to different locations. This will enable us to collect continuous data of certain locations as well as expand into the other protected areas of land. This project will run and be maintained for a 10 year time period, enabling enough data to be collected to create a "normal" baseline in which we can accurately determine changes from over the course of this project.