The Jaguar Man

The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve was originally set aside as a jaguar reserve. It boasts the largest and healthiest jaguar population north of the Amazon. Which is probably why it was chosen by the Direccion General de Vida Silvestre and SEMARNAT to host a controversial jaguar release project that has already claimed the life of the younger of the two jaguars. The young jaguar had been taken from the wild at less than a year of age, and had never learned to hunt.

Several people, including Mauro, had warned the reserve that this jaguar was not going to make it. Yet, in the same way that planting a tree is a great political move with little follow up, releasing a jaguar can make for a photo op, with few people finding out when it later dies.

During the preparations for the release, there was a large logistical meeting where each organization involved decided what their contribution would be. Attending the meeting was The Jaguar Man, a turrets-afflicted ex-jaguar poacher who I have yet to meet and probably never will, though I've heard so much about him that I feel like I know him.

Unbeknownst to Mauro, The Jaguar Man's contribution at the meeting was a place to stay for the volunteer who would be tracking the jaguar - Mauro's place.

All of which made it kind of awkward when two American jaguar researchers came knocking at our door on our first night in Zolaguna. In really good Spanish, except for the occasional English "Wow," the older one explained that Brett was a volunteer helping with the GPS and radio tracking of a released jaguar and needed a place to stay. We soon realized that they had no idea that about what had happened, and Mauro ended up agreeing to let Brett stay as long as he helped out with the bills.


* The Jaguar Man's real name is withheld because of ethics... stupid ethics :)

Zoh Laguna

After a couple of more adventures in which Mauro (a) beat a young wasp nest out of his shoe and (b) gave his dog, named Whiskey, some valium for the ride over,* we headed west to Zoh Laguna, Campeche.

    Whiskey was quite calm and happy for the ride, as would be anyone who had just had valium injected into his thigh.

     We crossed a couple of military checkpoints on the lookout for drugs and illegal immigrants (!) coming from Belize. Otherwise had an uneventful ride filled with plenty of stories and increasingly rainforest-like landscapes. One of those stories was how Whiskey got his name. Mauro and his Quebequois biologist wife Sophie originally had a lady dog named Tequila, so when a male dog came around to court her they naturally had to name him Whiskey. No word on how Tequila got her name.

   We arrived at Mauro's other house, a "field station" he acquired from a couple of foreign scientists who stopped coming regularly enough to maintain it properly. It now hosts not only his own projects but a venerable parade of researchers attracted there by the nearby Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. and the ejidos surrounding it.

    For the moment, we met Celine, a stunning young French geography student who looks like she just walked out of a 1920s feature film... and into the jungle. Celine is studying a tract of sick-looking chicozapote trees, trying to figure out if there are any spatial patterns to the disease, what its effects might be, and whether it is a disease at all. Her study is a series of circular plots within which she measures every tree and plots its location. The most surprising part of all is that she's not using any GIS! I was just getting a handle on what "Geography" was, but the idea of geography without GIS is throwing me for a loop.

    One of Mauro's good friends, Rafael, just came back to Zoh Laguna from 3 years without fieldwork! He did his PhD work on white-lipped pecaries*, and has come back to continue working on those and maybe become a primatologist. Since he's been in Canada and the US for so long, his 3 year old and one year old have never seen their home country!

     Zoh Laguna is one of those examples of stepwise community building that fascinate me. In the US, when a person from, say, Armenia, moves to a town, they later invite a friend, spouse, or family member to join them in their new home. That person, in turn, invites someone else, and so on, until you've got a little Armenian village in the middle of a US city. It seems the same thing has happened here, only with Science!


* Mauro is most definitely still a vet. He was going to tranquilize the dog, but couldn't find the drugs for it. He also spays and neuters any stray cats unlucky enough to come to him for food.

** Hey, I found one of Rafael's papers on the intertubes! Check out the PDF here.

Mauro's House

We stayed at Mauro's house just north of Chetumal for the night and though that would't ordinarily merit a blog post, the place is so interesting that it does. To start with, all of the trees in Mauro's yard were topped by the strongest portion of Hurricane Dean, a fact you wouldn't guess from just looking at his forest-like yard. Pointing at one of his trees, he showed me how all of the new, post hurricane branches have emerged from the spot where the tree was broken off.

   As we sat on his porch, Mauro also gave me a bit of background on himself. Originally from the center of Mexico, he trained at a vet school there before getting a masters at the Chiapas Branch of ECOSUR, which specializes in graduate level ecology and has branches throughout the South.

   In between and since, his life is a long series of adventures that often begin with "I met a girl that..." He's jumped the border to the US, backpacked throughout Mexico and Belize, and eventually ended up at ECOSUR in Chetumal working on Tepezquintles (a large jungle rodent). After another stint tracking manatees in chetumal's bay, he became a bureaucrat, approving or denying environmental projects with CONAFOR. Not exactly the desk job kind of guy, he left that job to work on his current adventure with King Vultures. Mauro's had a really cool life that's given him both a ton of experience and a ton of stories to tell.

   Random young people are continually popping in and out of Mauro's backyard, a fact which I puzzled about for a bit. I soon learned that behind his house is a little shed that houses SEYBA (Servicios y Beneficios Ambientales) , a technical support center for surrounding Ejidos much like OEPF, but with one important difference: most of SEYBA's on the ground work is done by students from ECOSUR or other Chetumal schools. Student-led fieldwork is a very prominent feature of the "Dream Organization" slowly forming in my mind, so I was excited to hear about how it works here. Most universities in Mexico require 450 hours of "servicio social," sort of like community service in the US but usually more organized. Many of the students that come through here are on that track, others simply volunteer or even (rarely) get paid.

  When I grow up, I want a student-led environmental organization in my backyard!



After arriving in Chetumal for my next mission I wandered around for a bit looking for an internet cafe. Along the way, I noticed that Adolf Hitelr, before shooting himself in a bunker, apparently started his own brand of jeans.

After quite a bit of walking with a heavy pack, I finally found the internet cafe and the email that my contact, Mauro, had sent that included his phone number. I texted him and he directed me to the nearby Museum of Maya Culture, where he would meet me in a couple of hours.

The museum was quite worth the "foreigner" price of $49.50 pesos (that's about $5 of our dollars). Although most of the artifacts were replicas, the ambiance, arrangement, and labeling more than compensated.

The center piece was a totem like, stylized model of a ceiba tree, which I learned was central to the Ancient Maya worldview. With its roots in a cenote like, cavernous underworld, its bulging trunk representing our world, and its branches reaching toward the stars, the Ceiba tree was not only a metaphor but a representation of the three worlds.

Mauro arrived on time, bit it was too soon for me to finish the museum. Either way, it definitely beat waiting in an internet cafe!