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Students observe wildlife in Guyana to benefit forestry management

hoto of: wild boars in a clearing - ©iStock.com | johan10

Wild boars in a clearing. ©iStock.com | johan10

They encountered a wasp nest and ran from wild boars – all part of an eye-opening field research experience in Guyana for two biodiversity and conservation biology students.

Emma Dawkins and Jennifer Baici were posted on a logging concession on the Caribbean coast of South America to help take stock of the number of large wild cats in the area.

Natural resource extraction such as logging often poses a threat to resident animals. Logging concessions often bring increased hunting, noise pollution, water pollution as well as habitat fragmentation from developed roads.

“If we can understand how animals are affected by natural resource extraction, we can develop ways to reduce these negative impacts and keep critical habitat intact,” says Baici. “It’s about finding a balance between the needs of humans and the needs of wildlife.”

Dawkins and Baici set out to collect data on what species live in the region and in what numbers. But wild cats won’t simply present themselves to humans to be counted. The research methods needed to be such that that the pair could detect evidence of elusive species.

The students used two methods – camera-trapping and tracking, which is recording indirect evidence of animals such as feces or paw prints.

“Sometimes when we’d walk back, we’d see cat footprints inside of our footprints from earlier,” says Dawkins. “We’d wonder… how long ago did that happen?”

On camera installation days, they would head out at 6 a.m. with a guide, armed with four or five motion- and heat-sensitive cameras. Cameras were installed at key locations for 30-day intervals, where they were set to take pictures every 30 seconds once they were triggered by an animal moving nearby. The students would then study the photographs and record what kinds of animals they saw, at what location and time.

Some of the camera locations were on roads or trails and some of them were in the middle of the forest 10 kilometres away. These days were the most physically demanding for Dawkins and Baici. The team would have to bushwack in order to get through, and on their very first day, they were stung upon hitting a wasp nest. Another time they could hear wild boars on all sides of the trails and had to run when some burst onto their path. But it was all worth it to see – in photographs and in person – numerous wild species such as jaguar, puma, jaguarundi, ocelot, margay, oncilla and five different monkey species.

“Hiking through unexplored habitat is difficult, but also incredibly rewarding as we had the opportunity to encounter animals we never would have otherwise,” says Baici.

Baici and Dawkins hope their work will help with sustainable development.

“We can’t stop harvesting lumber, people need and consume it,” says Dawkins. “Businesses that do their best to be sustainable incur a lot of extra costs. I think they would hope that this data proves they can coexist with wildlife. The animals use the roads, because as we’ve discovered, walking through the bush is really hard. Businesses are fine to make a few roads if it means not totally disrupting the ecosystem.”

The research was supported by the Dean’s International Initiatives Fund, which supports Arts & Science students who wish to undertake an innovative international learning opportunity, in partnership with Panthera, a worldwide endangered wild cat conservation organization.