I just got back from my latest science adventure in Runaway Creek Nature Reserve in Belize. It was my sixth visit and I remember the first time I saw the karst limestone hills of Runaway. Even from a distance, you can see the trees growing out of them at crazy angles like they just woke up. My heart jumps every time I see them again. I was with Kayla Hartwell - my original wonderful guide here - who I met when she was studying spider monkeys for her doctoral thesis. But this visit was to learn about a new project that the Runaway team is starting - to trap and collar Baird's tapir, Belize's national animal.
We turned off the main road onto the Western Highway and headed towards Runaway with our camping gear, food, and water sliding around in the bed of the truck and jumping as we bounced over the washboard gravel road. We passed the sign for Runaway, set off from the road enough that you might miss it, and as Kayla steered her battered four-wheel drive truck off onto a smaller track, the front driver's side wheel sunk into a deep rut and sent the truck’s centre console bouncing into the back seat. Almost nothing in the truck is actually attached to the truck and another bump sent one of the air-conditioning grills flying.
A gate blocks the track that heads across the savannah and I jumped out to unlock it. I kind of feel like I've got the magic key - as a private reserve, only researchers and school groups get access.
Beyond the gate, the rains have filled the tire tracks that we plunged through as we wound our way through the palmettos across the savannah towards the campsite that the rest of the team, Wilber Martinez, Reynold Cal and Stevan Reneau had already set up. Just for a few days, Jonathan Flores, a veterinarian from Mexico, had also joined them.
Kayla and I picked our trees, strung up our hammocks, and pegged down the tarps over top in case of rain. Three other hammocks swung like insect cocoons surrounding the cooking tent, and a makeshift table was piled with food, cutlery, and an open bottle of rum on its slightly sloping surface. We'd missed Rey's birthday by a day, so we added another bottle of rum when we got there to help celebrate. And just like every house party throughout history where people gather in the kitchen, all the camp chairs were in a circle around the food table.
Kayla introduced me to the team over a glass of rum and warm orange juice. We all chatted for the next few hours to the backdrop of Hungry Eyes and Take My Breath Away playing on a tinny sounding radio that couldn't quite drown out the rising chirping of the nocturnal jungle insects. We talked about Runaway Creek and they told me about the project.
The team was trying to trap and put radio collars on tapirs to learn how they use the habitat at Runaway, and determine the size of their home ranges and what vegetation they prefer. Since Runaway is relatively small, it's primary role, according to Wilbur, is connecting habitats throughout central Belize. He hopes what they learn will inform some of the politics surrounding conservation and the protection of habitat.
They're using leg-hole traps - the same type a previous researcher used to catch jaguars here. During that project, they actually did catch a couple of tapirs but released them since they weren't the target. Wilber laughs and cringes now at the thought that they had their quarry but had to let them go since they aren't easy to find.
"Trapping tapirs is very challenging," Wilber told me. "We have to be consistent, we have to have patience, and have what we call in Spanish, 'ganas' - that positivity that we are going to trap."
They only have four traps deployed right now and are waiting on others. The key is to figure out where to place them - and in a rainforest where the tapirs can go wherever they want, it's not so easy to sort out their preferred trails. They’ve got trail cameras in various places around Runaway to help them. They're just starting the project so Wilbur described this as a trial and error period - he’s hoping but isn’t really expecting to get anything this soon.
A radio signal goes off when the trap is sprung to let them know they’ve caught something, so every two hours throughout the night, Wilber, Rey, and Stevan took turns getting up to check. I know this because I didn't sleep at all.
My first night in a jungle hammock was like being inside an oven and every exposed inch of skin stuck to the humid nylon sides. I lay awake in sticky, hot, itchy discomfort, trying to convince myself that I didn't need to go to the bathroom.
At 3:30am, I gave in. I fumbled around for my headlamp and tore open the bottom velcro seam of the hammock. An army of nighttime biting insects streamed in through the opening towards my light. I swatted at them but they outnumbered me by a billion to one. I reached down to grab my boots so I could shake out anything that may have crawled inside and fell headfirst out landing on the ground with my headlamp wrapped around my neck. Thankfully, my humiliation was tempered by the relief of being out of the hammock. Getting back in went smoother but I spent the next hour swatting at the bugs I'd let inside.
All night, the radio static signaled that no traps had sprung so around 6am, we all slid out of our hammocks and over a cup of strong coffee, made plans to head to Breeze Tunnel instead to find out what the camera traps could see that we could not.
I’d been to Breeze Tunnel years earlier, during my second visit in 2011. It was about six months after a hurricane had decimated huge swaths of the forest and then in the following dry season, forest fires ravaged the area just as I arrived. Between running away from walls of fire, hiking through knee-deep piles of cinder, and the air around us a constant rain of ash, my experience of Breeze Tunnel this time was a little different. (Read about and see photos from that trip here.)
It’s in an area they call The Gun - on a map, the hills are shaped like one. From our camp, we crossed the savannah to the edge of the forest, and about 50m from where my hammock hung, we found fresh jaguar prints in the soft mud. I wondered if the jaguar witnessed my nighttime mishap. Better him than the team, I supposed.
Stevan led the way and pushed through the curtain of trees that marked the border between savannah and rainforest. Immediately, the air thickened with moisture and in some of the densest parts of the forest, it’s almost dark. The sound of forest birds and insects closes in. It was the rainy season and we had to wade through huge, but thankfully still shallow enough to not overflow my muckboots, seasonal waterholes.
Rey took over the lead. He sliced off giant leaves that blocked the passage with a swipe of his machete, and pointed out animal tracks, orchids, snakes, birds, and a little basilisk. The group were all wonderfully patient while I tried getting photos everything.
It took us about 90 minutes to get to the tunnel. Not too long, but I was drenched in sweat about 12 seconds in thanks to the incredible heat and humidity, and most of the trek there is a climb up a steep slope, covered in decaying leaves over a layer of mud. You can grab hold of the undergrowth to help you but most of it comes away in your hands and you need to be careful which trees you try to pull yourself up with - some of them are covered in spikes that would go through your hand, while Poisonwood trees give you a painful, itching, blistering rash. Poisonwood has bark that looks like snakeskin, Rey told me, and since.you probably shouldn’t grab a snake, dont’ grab this either. My pack was heavy with water and camera gear, and my camera swinging over my shoulder didn't help as I stumbled a few times scrambling up. I didn't think I could sweat more, but climbing that hill proved me wrong. Reaching the tunnel was bliss.
Breeze Tunnel is a large cave that goes right through the hill with spectacular views through the trees from either end, and most importantly, a constant breeze blowing through it. Every one of us got to the top, walked into the cave, and breathed deeply as we dropped our packs and reveled in the merciful shade and relative coolness of the breeze. I took a long pull from my camelback and climbed over the pile of rocks that partially covered the opening.
Wilber and Rey checked the trail cameras that they'd set to capture anything that uses this tunnel as a thoroughfare. They've seen jaguars and pumas aplenty before and that day was no exception. A puma had passed through a couple of days earlier.
I climbed up to a rocky point at the far end of the tunnel that I remembered overlooked a stand of mahogany trees that burned in the fires in 2011. Only one giant wooden skeleton still stood. I sat on a high rock as the others milled about in the darkness behind me. There are few places I love as much as this and there, on that point, staring out above the treetops from a cave high on a hillside, I felt overwhelmingly fortunate to see this place again.
We stayed there a while, everyone reluctant to leave the cave's cool breeze, but eventually we skidded and slid back down and headed to check more cameras near a swampy area they call Black Hole. It's known for its healthy crocodile population but in the heat of the day, they were probably cooling off in the mud and we didn’t see any. We did find, however, that a tapir had triggered that camera very recently.
"Ground truthing," said Wilber, "is what we need right now - to know where the tapirs are entering the forest, where they're feeding and drinking." They made plans to set up a trap here once they get more traps - for which they need more funding. And with that, our day was done. Five and a half hours in the forest and we hiked back to camp, exhausted, drenched, and starving. Stevan, the unofficial camp cook, got to work on stew chicken with and rice and beans and I tried to get shots of skittish lizards before we settled to eat, sip on rum with warm orange juice, chat, and listen to the nighttime sounds take over the jungle.
After a few more days in the field, checking trails and cameras, playing tug-o-war with a tarantula, it was time for me to leave. No tapirs. This time, at least. But it's all a part of fieldwork - you can’t rush it, and waiting for the stars to align is part of the game. Wilber told me he hopes to get ten tapirs but realistically would be happy with three or four over the next year. I'm already planning my trip back.
EXCITING UPDATE! On September 3rd, the team caught their first tapir. It was a male and everything went smoothly as they collared and released it, and so far, the data collection has been working well. Nice work, team, and good luck getting the next one!
CHECK BACK SOON FOR SOME AUDIO AND VIDEO FROM THE TRIP TOO!