6 Day Training for TIDE Rangers
Naturalist Ventures conducted a six day training in southern Belize for a group of park rangers who work for TIDE Protected Lands. TIDE is a conservation NGO that oversees approximately 20,000 acres of contiguous forest linking other protected lands in the Toledo District of Belize. These conservation allotments act as a biological corridor for important species such as the jaguar, Baird’s tapir, ocelot, white-lipped peccary, and many other endangered and important mammal species, as well as innumerable birds, reptiles, and amphibians. The lands under TIDE's management include coastal plain broadleaf forests, pine savannas, riparian areas and mangrove forests along the coastline.
The goal of the training was to improve the skills of the rangers in recognizing and accurately identifying wildlife tracks and sign, and increasing their understanding of bird behavior and communication. The individuals in the group had many years of field experience, and several of the rangers were already accomplished trackers and extremely knowledgable birders, in addition to being well rounded naturalists with an in depth knowledge of the Yucatan peninsula's tropical environment.
The primary responsibilities they have on a daily basis include on-foot patrols to prevent poaching and other illegal activities, monitor ecosystem health, and guiding duties to take researchers, students, and tourists through the protected lands to observe the diverse array of fauna and flora in the area. Hence, having improved capabilities in tracking and bird language will bolster their effectiveness in finding species on the landscape, in addition to recording and observing animal interactions, and documenting or preventing illicit activities by unauthorized individuals.
The Fundamentals of Wildlife Tracking course constituted the first 3 days of training, two of which were cheld along the dense jungle paths and roads of Cockscomb Wildlife Sanctuary, the world's first jaguar preserve setup by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz in 1986. Casey McFarland, a Senior Tracker and International Evaluator with Cybertracker Conservation, led this portion of the training and instructed the rangers in how to accurately identify dozens of species of animals, differentiating between similar species using subtle variations in track morphology (e.g. palm pad shapes in jaguars vs. mountain lions). Recognizing animal gaits was also discussed, including how to analyze an animal's behavior based on its type of movement and speed, as well as how to identify animal sign like scats, scrapes, runs, nesting areas, and feeding sign among many others.
On the 3rd day of the tracking training, the group moved to TIDE's protected lands and undertook a trial exam in the field, similar to the rigorous tests given by Cybertracker during their official tracking evaluations. All of the rangers passed the exam, including several who graded out at the highest level (Level III), thus showing how much they had absorbed during the previous two days and preparing them for a full evaluation in the future. Over the course of the three days, tracks found included those of jaguars, mountain lions, ocelots, margays, tapirs, gray foxes, armadillos, coatis, pacas, peccaries, white-tailed and red brocket deer, several species of opossums and skunks, and numerous rodents, reptiles, birds, and amphibians.
After completing the tracking portion of the program, the rangers participated in three more days of training known as Bird Language Principles. While several of the them already possessed expert knowledge of the resident and migratory bird species that inhabited Belize, the higher level concepts of bird language were new to them and added tremendously to their understanding of bird/animal behavior and inter-species communication. The group learned about The 5 Voices of birds, the shapes of alarms, and other advanced topics like concentric rings and wake hunting.
Each morning, they performed a group 'sit' in the field where they spread out and recorded bird calls, movements (including direction), and other behaviors for about an hour. Then a debriefing session was held, where they were taught how to conduct a bird mapping exercise and plot all the information they had gathered onto a large board depicting bird activity that occurred over time. During the three days, they learned to synthesize the individual bird behaviors into larger patterns and interpret what was occurring on a macro level on the landscape.
Going forward, when they go out on patrols or with a group of researchers, they will understand the clues the birds are giving them as they walk through the forest, and will know that a large cat like a jaguar or mountain lion is likely ahead, or that a raptor just flew nearby, or that a small mammal is robbing a bird nest!