The Belizean Crocodile Research Coalition Countering snap judgements on crocodiles

Jill Powis of ENCA (Environmental Network for Central America) has provided The Violence of Development website with a report of a presentation made by two members of the Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) in February 2022: Dr. Marisa Tellez, Executive Director and Founder and Darcy Uclez, CRC Education Coordinator.  Established in January 2016, the CRC seeks to preserve crocodiles and their environments throughout Central America and the Caribbean to ensure the long-term sustainability of biodiversity in the region. Its base is on the Placencia Peninsula in Belize bordering the wildlife-rich Placencia Lagoon, which features in our website’s December 2021 article about the threats to manatees. 

We are grateful to Jill Powis for her summary report and to Marisa Tellez and Darcy Uclez of the CRC for their presentation.

Crocodile populations in Belize have undergone a resurgence after being virtually wiped out in the 1940s and 50s when they were killed for their skins. While the Indigenous people of Belize are accustomed historically and culturally to coexisting with them (with certain Mayan groups revering them in the past, including Belizean groups), for other sectors of the population this recovery in crocodile numbers has caused alarm.

In 2017, the CRC received many calls from around the Placencia Lagoon to relocate the crocodiles.  Instead, it established a community science programme to provide the community with the knowledge on how to coexist with them and be part of its research and conservation mission. It has supplied many residents with educational literature on how to live with crocodiles and avoid human-crocodile conflict, and for those that are interested, with a behavioural observation sheet to record further crocodile sightings. Over the years, this scheme has expanded to include manatee and other wildlife sightings around the lagoon. As well as contributing to knowledge about wildlife populations, the data can also be used by the authorities to identify hotspots and reduce negative crocodile-human interactions.

The CRC considers community engagement to be key to successful conservation efforts.  As well as the Placencia Lagoon community science programme, other initiatives such as frequent talks to schools, with repeat visits, and the Visitors’ Centre at the Lagoon, have borne dividends in increasing awareness. The CRC says that members of the local community are now genuinely distressed and concerned when they hear of crocodiles being injured or killed, and the police now take reports of crocodile-killing seriously and investigate. (COVID has brought particular challenges as crocodiles have been killed because people have been desperate for food.)

As well as being killed by humans, whether out of fear or for food, the crocodile population of Belize is also threatened by pollution and habitat loss, with the American crocodile in particular, as a saltwater species, affected by the boom in coastline development (see, for example, Issue 85 of the ENCA newsletter, July 2022, about Vulcan Materials Company and Gales Point). As the last crocodile surveys took place in the 1990s, the CRC, in collaboration with the state authorities, has been undertaking new ones to establish the extent of these impacts, which will help in the development of a conservation strategy. In all survey locations, the CRC takes time to engage with the local communities, performing outreach but also actively involving them with the surveys.

In its work, the CRC takes a holistic approach, aware of the need to protect entire ecosystems rather than just a single species, which means that other species are also beneficiaries of their work – see ENCA 83, p.7, November 2021.  A current focus of its research is the New River in the north, the longest river that is entirely confined to Belize.  It is a habitat for numerous types of fish, birds, as well as crocodiles, but is being seriously polluted by factory effluent, human waste, and waste from agricultural developments – see ENCA 77, pp.7-8, November 2019.  The CRC found crocodiles in a very bad condition, some to the extent that their organs were decomposing while they were still alive.[1] The CRC calls them ‘The White Walkers’, after the undead in A Game of Thrones. It is conducting research which will hopefully establish the precise sources of the pollution.

The CRC is raising funds to build a state-of-the-art research centre on the Placencia Peninsula.  However, in the meantime, it has the space and lodging to accommodate interested researchers and small academic groups nationally and internationally who wish to conduct wildlife and conservation research.

For more information:

[1]  Some crocodiles there have been found to be unable to mate and reproduce and are thought to be suffering from reptile dysfunction. (Well we tried to avoid the more obvious jokes about crocodiles.)