Bushwhacking the jungle at Kaxil Kiuic, Yucatan, MX
First, a word about the jungle at Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve: It is impenetrable. Technically speaking it is referred to as a “Semi-deciduous tropical dry forest.” However, it also qualifies as a jungle. From the image above you can readily see what I mean by impenetrable: Very dense, relatively new growth comprised of creeper vines, thick inter-tangled trees and heavy brush. And all with their intricate root and branch systems trying to ensnare you all the while. As long as you remain on a primary road you can navigate from point A to point B, but venture off onto a secondary or tertiary road and one quickly loses heart. For the next week we would not only leave primary, secondary and tertiary roads behind, but we would venture forth upon the very same game trails the Jaguar, Puma and Ocelot use as their super-highways as they transit this surreal landscape in the heart of the Puuc.
Note: When one thinks of jungle, one is usually confusing it with rain forest. The main difference being the density of plant-life beneath the canopy. Mature rain forest (with its towering canopy) lets in very little light, and subsequently dense plant-life on the forest floor is almost non-existent. Quite the opposite happens in a true jungle environment; canopies are low and tend to let in a lot of light, spurring plants to rapid (and clogging) growth. Relatively speaking, it is much easier to traverse a mature rain forest than it is to hack your way through an immature jungle.
So what lured us into this hot and humid Puuc jungle during Yucatan’s hottest month? The big cat on the left, the Jaguar, the apex predator of the New World. The largest cat in the world after the Tiger and African Lion. The Jaguar is at the top of the food chain in Mexico, Central and South America; it has no rival but Man. A few years back, by happenstance, a female Jaguar was captured on film using a remote trail camera. And that serendipity led to the creation of Puuc Jaguar Conservation under the larger umbrella of Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve. Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve is both funded and operated by Millsaps College, a small liberal arts college located in Jackson, Mississippi, USA and founded by the Methodist Church in 1890. The two movers & shakers at Kiuic are: James Callaghan, Director of Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve, and Dr. Markus Tellkamp, Professor at Millsaps College and Director of Puuc Jaguar Conservation. It’s been the vision of these two individuals to study further the big cats transiting the reserve: The Puma, the Ocelot and especially the Jaguar.
Dr. Markus Tellkamp (left): Professor at Millsaps College and Director of Puuc Jaguar Conservation. James Callaghan (right): Director of Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve.
A fundraising event was held in December 2012, and enough funds were raised at the gala to purchase thirty state-of-the-art remote trail cameras to be installed on the reserve. The purpose of these cameras is to gather photographic evidence of the big cats transiting the reserve and, in the case of the Jaguar, to help with individual identification. Spots, like fingerprints, are unique to each Jaguar. The cameras will provide the cornerstone for further and ongoing study of these large predators. It is hoped that through the collection of photographic evidence baseline populations can be established, as well as other useful information (such as transit routes) that may assist us in preserving these magnificent creatures. It took five months to get the cameras ordered, and to plan for their siting and installation, but finally it all came together last week.
Prior to last week’s expedition Markus and Ricardo (onsite field biologist) overlaid a Google Earth map with a grid containing fourteen quadrants (each quadrant measuring 16 SqKm in size). Each quadrant has been assigned two cameras (facing each other) to catch both sides of each photographed Jaguar. Tentative GPS coordinates were established for potential sites, but each site would have to be visited and confirmed, subject to the actual conditions found in the field. Potential camera sites would include natural watering holes, game trails and natural transit routes: the big cats normally travel a path of least resistance. Approximately 17% (or 224 SqKm) of the reserve’s 1,300 SqKm will be photographically sampled for a period of six weeks.
Evelio Santos UcUc
Born and raised at Kiuic, Evelio is the Senior Caretaker at the reserve. He speaks Mayan and Spanish, and was our guide on this five day expedition. His field-craft is second to none, and he spotted both scat & spoor of Jaguar, Puma and Ocelot while we were in the field, as well as helping us to select key camera sites.
John (volunteer) a New Englander with both a hi-tech and EMT background (combined with photographic experience) begins setting up our thirty cameras: Unboxing, installing batteries, testing and programing. After college John served in Nepal in the 1970’s with the Peace Corps.
Base Camp – Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve
Returning to Base Camp every evening we looked forward to showering in our thatched Maya casitas, the great Yucateca food served in the communal kitchen, and our beer and soft hammocks at nightfall. Up again at dawn, a quick breakfast and the day’s activities would commence once again. And the ever-present heat.
Faryen is a Senior at Millsaps College. After graduation she would like to work for a pharmaceutical company. She currently lives in Mississippi, and this is her first trip abroad. She particularly liked smashing Wolf Spiders in her room at night, and mastered (sort of) the art of sleeping in a hammock.
Casey is a Senior at Millsaps College. After graduation she would like to become a physical therapist. She also lives in Mississippi, and this is also her first time abroad. She enjoyed smashing spiders with Faryen, but really appreciated the potato salad for dinner (that’s it, just potato salad). Someone failed to mention that the main meal of the day is in the late afternoon. Potato salad didn’t quite do it for her.
John aka Little John is also a Senior at Millsaps College. Like both Faryen and Casey, John lives in Mississippi and has not traveled abroad before. John plans to teach High School after graduation, but would like to see a bit of the world (especially Europe). John will be back in July to help complete the camera project.
All three of these young folks were great. They were definitely stepping outside of their comfort zones, but handled it really well. It was hot and dirty, and there were plenty of bugs to pester them. No air-conditioning, and the food was really different from what they were used to. They worked hard during the day without complaint, and ‘tried’ to sleep at night. After about the third night the bugs didn’t bother them as much—oh, they were still there, but they were just too tired to really care anymore.
All through Maya-land you will find ‘natural’ water cisterns and reservoirs called Jultun’s. These waterholes have been carved out of the limestone bedrock by rain and running streams. When the Maya would find one of these natural water preserves they would often plaster them so they would retain the water for longer periods of time. While hiking the game trails we came upon these natural watering places from time to time. In the following photos we came upon a large Jultun on a game trail while searching out a potential camera site.
Proof of the big cats in neighborhood came in the form of skat (fecal matter) and spoor (trail signs like paw prints). We did see, in fact, Puma paw prints (the photos I took didn’t show them clearly enough to post), Jaguar skat (which we collected and later analyzed in the lab) and Ocelot claw scratches on a tree trunk. We also collected Puma fur samples. All of these items were spotted by Evelio’s keen eye and attention to detail.
We continued our jungle-traipse for five days, and managed to successfully place 20 out of 30 cameras. The final 10 cameras will be placed when Little John (Juanito) returns in July. Of course in July the jungle will be teaming with mosquitoes, chiggers and ticks. It will be raining like crazy, and the roads and trails will be nearly impassable. Sounds like a good time will be had by all.
Final thoughts: It wasn’t an easy week, but it was so worth it. We netted, weighed, measured, examined and banded local birds (posted earlier). We photographed many species of local birds, including the Pygmy Owl with the lizard in his talons (posted earlier). We became reacquainted with old friends like James Callaghan, Markus Tellkamp, Ricardo, Evelio and his son Santos. We made new friends with Big John (Juan) a Merida volunteer, Little John (Juanito) a Senior from Millsaps and, of course, Casey and Faryen (both Seniors from Millsaps). We successfully placed 20 of 30 cameras (only 10 more to go). It was a team effort, and we had a great team. I still have aches and pains where I shouldn’t, and a tad more sleep is due me. But all in all it was a wonderful and rewarding experience; not soon to be forgotten. I hope that you’ve enjoyed my photography this week, and maybe just learned a little something from my narrative. In a few months time hopefully we’ll have some images of the big cats to share with you all. Until then, buenas tardes amigos.
Stephen F. Dennstedt – Indochine Photography International
* Volunteer photographer for Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve and Puuc Jaguar Conservation.