Rancho Pint - The Mexico Page
“Canine detectives”  scout for jaguar in Lacandona Wilderness

Text ©2011 by J. Pint

Photo credit as indicated

Jen Day and Scooby the Canine Detective

Jen Day and Scooby the Canine Detective in the Primavera Forest. Photo by J. Pint 

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By John Pint

Jen Day processes jaguar scat samples in Veracruz. Photo courtesy of  Jurgi Cristobal. In the summer of 2010, Jennifer Day, a University of Washington graduate student and “Scooby the Conservation Canine,” an energetic black Labrador, were invited to spend four days in Jalisco Mexico's Primavera Forest hunting for the scat of wild animals that roam the woods. Now they are gearing up for a new project in the unsurveyed wilds of Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the Lacandon rainforest of Chiapas, which has the highest abundance of terrestrial mammal species per hectare in all of Mexico.

Jennifer and Scooby are members of the Center for Conservation Biology in Seattle, Washington, whose founder, Dr. Sam Wasser, pioneered techniques for extracting DNA and hormone levels from animal scat, which allow researchers not only to identify species and sex, but also to pinpoint the identity of an individual animal. In addition, they can tell whether that animal is undernourished, healthy, pregnant and even whether or not they are stressed.

Although he had proven the value of droppings for studying animals, finding those droppings in a forest or jungle proved a daunting task for Wasser until he thought of using dogs to do the job for him. This was the origin of the Conservation Canines, which can adroitly detect the dung of Giant Armadillos, Spotted Owls and even sea dwellers like Orca Whales, demanding for payment nothing more than a few minutes of fun, playing with a bright red rubber ball.

Jen Day & Scooby. Photo by J. Pint The latest project of the Center for Conservation Biology will concentrate on the Mexican jaguar in the Lacandon Jungle of Montes Azules Park, just north of the Mexico’s border with Guatemalea. The Jaguar project actually grew out of a flora and fauna study that has been going on in Veracruz for several years.

“Scooby and I were there to survey for large mammals,” Day told me. “We were looking for the scat of jaguars, pumas and tapirs. We did a really thorough search job and we had a lot of success. People had thought there were no more jaguars left in Veracruz, but actually they are still there in the Uxpanapa Valley.”

The success of the Veracruz project has encouraged researchers to try compiling data about jaguars all over the country in an effort to understand the habits and problems of these elusive night prowlers. They would like to know what attracts jaguars to a place or repels them, what impacts their nutritional or psychological stress and what prevents populations in separated areas from linking up.

The Center for Conservation Biology is now working with UNAM’s Rodrigo Medellín, president of the Society for Conservation Biology and known around the world as “The Bat Man of Mexico.”

Says Day: “The people working in Chiapas really want to find out what the density of jaguars is in the region. There are no roads in the area and the park has been protected for a long time, so it should be a good habitat for jaguars, pumas and tapir as well as rare carnivorous bats whose guano we will also be searching out. Because it’s so wild, with so little access, it’s not possible to do the normal kind of wildlife research. You can’t set up camera traps and revisit them once a month; you can’t do radio telemetry experiments because normally you have to be physically present multiple times. That’s what makes our method with the dogs so great, because we can go through a really remote area, for example hiking a ten-kilometer stretch, camping, then doing another ten-kilometer stretch, and so on. We’ll spend many days making a big loop, looking for jaguars, and that will be the first ever thorough exploration of this area for these rare species.”

To help fund this project, Jen Day has set up a page at Experiment.com, a website dedicated to crowdfunding scientific projects. The page is called “Dogs, Cats, and Scats: Saving Jaguars, One Poop at a Time”  At the moment, the researchers have one grant—from the Animal Welfare Institute—to pay for one dog and handler team, but because the Biosphere Reserve is so vast, White believes they could do a much better job if they had a second or third team. She says, “We could get a much better picture of how many jaguars are there, what resources they’re using and what we need to do to protect their habitat, not only in the Lacandon area, but across these animals’ whole range in Mexico.”
Jennifer Day’s fund raising project began on October first of 2014 and she has only until the last day of this month to reach either her short-term goal of $10,000 for one more dog-and-handler team or the long-range goal of $20,000 for a total of three teams. You can check how she's doing here. Donors’ credit cards will only be charged at the end of October if the total amount of donations has passed the $10,000 mark.

“What I’m really excited about,” adds Jennifer Day, “is that this will be the third area in Mexico where we will have jaguar genetic samples, meaning we will finally start to get a good picture of how these different populations, around Cancún, Lacandona and Uxpanapa, are connected to each other, and all the information we collect will go into one big data base of genetics. I hope the crowdfunding approach will work. Please remember: every little bit helps.”


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