The World of Wonder: CSI Ambergris Caye

The death of a dog causes chaos in paradise

July 9th, 2016

~~~Graphic Image Below~~~


The scene: a characteristically humid summer morning in the beautiful island city of San Pedro, Belize. The air is beginning to warm up, and the clouds threaten rainfall not too far in the future. A typical day in Ambergris Caye, Belize's hot spot for tourism and feelgoodery.

A resident wakes up peacefully to the morning's rays, only to hear her husband fussing hurriedly with garbage bags outside. Strange, she thinks, and goes to see what he's up to, only to come across a most disturbing scene - a dog lies dead just beyond the driveway, on the road in front of the neighboring mangrove swamp. Only the dog is a lot smaller than it should be - in fact, it's exactly half the size it should be, because the whole rear part of the dog is nowhere to be found. 

Photo by Jen W. RIP little guy!

Photo by Jen W. RIP little guy!

Disturbed and perturbed, she contacts Chris Summers of ACES (American Crocodile Education Sanctuary) a Belizean non-profit that tracks and relocates crocodiles that are in conflict or have the potential to interact with the human population in order to support conservation of these endangered animals. 

The situation raises alarm bells in Chris. Why would a crocodile's kill be on land, since crocodiles drown their meals before eating them? Why are the bite marks around the missing part of the dog so smooth, not indicative of the tearing motions a crocodile makes to consume its food? The whole thing seemed fishy, and merited a closer look, not to mention there was work to be done to safely move the crocodile responsible to a location where it couldn't affect residents.

Chris arrived to the scene only to be presented with nothing more than a pool of drying blood and what were clearly drag marks from the large reptile. Ingrid Lima of the Saga Humane Society of Ambergris Caye had already responded to a call to fetch the deceased dog, in order to give its death a little more dignity.  

A tripwire awaits just behind the bait

A tripwire awaits just behind the bait

But it was clear from the drag marks that a crocodile had been involved, even if it didn't cause the death of the dog. The blood spatter analysis revealed very little, only suggesting that the kill was likely fresh by the time it came onto the land. Knowing the beasts the roam in the area, Chris erected a primitive but effective snare in the nearby mangrove, with a teaser chicken to draw in the croc, and a follow up chicken to release the trigger and catch the croc. 

This is where I come in, not that I had any idea yet what was going on. In the midst of a three hour bus ride from San Ignacio to Belize City, I realized that at some point I should contact the crocodile expert I had met only months prior on a crocodile tour if I were to actually see some crocs in Ambergris Caye, and it just so happened to be a drama-filled day. Chris received my message after getting the trap set, and the timing worked out perfectly for him to pick me up just after my two-ish hour boat ride terminated on the sandy white shores of San Pedro. It didn't even occur to me to be tired after traveling for that long - this is the kind of wildlife mystery I came to Central America for. 

We drove off to the scene of the crime while I got filled in on what he knew so far:

  1. A dog was found dead in a residential neighborhood, clearly by the jaws of another creature
  2. The carcass was discovered on land in a pool of its own blood, not a crocodile-y thing to do
  3. The bite marks around the (substantial) wound were reportedly not croc-like, but since Chris didn't see the body he could not confirm this to be accurate
  4. It's possible a shark killed the dog in the nearby lagoon, only for a croc to steal the kill after
  5. There are three crocs that like this particular spit of water, and it's time for at least the big one - a twelve-footer - to go somewhere where it will cause less upset
  6. Bring bug spray

I preemptively wished my blood a pleasant journey with the mosquitos that would inevitably take it from me, and then settled in to what turned into a seven hour stakeout waiting for the culprit to take the bait.  

After interviewing the witness, Chris showed me how the snare worked, with wires and counterweights and fulcrums that would hopefully result in catching the big croc between his fore and hind legs, not around his head or tail where the rope could easily be thrashed off. This way the animal isn't injured, but instead held in place steadily enough to be properly wrassled. 

It occurred to me during our many hours of waiting that this was a great deal of effort to ensure the safe removal of an apex predator, rather than resorting to the swift solution of killing it. But that's what ACES does. Today was Chris' day off, but either way the work he does directly with crocodiles is all on his own time. TV shows may glamorize interactions with crocodilians, but what they fail to share is the patience of conservationists who are dedicated to this labor of love. I share in that love - just look at the logo for The Naturalist - but none of my good feelings can compare to the manpower and time of people like Chris actually going out there and doing something to help the animals they care about. American Crocodiles are endangered in this part of the world and others, and rampant poaching, fear, and misinformation are undermining their future. Chris and ACES are on the front lines of making sure these amazing creatures maintain their rightful place in the Belizean ecosystem, and I was glad to be able to learn and document just how it's done.

A seven-foot croc, one of two in the vicinity, made itself known shortly before the sun went down. It had quietly snatched up the bait chicken, but pulled back before it could get into the snare zone, which Chris had built with a croc almost twice this size in mind. He used the croc's hesitance to adjust the snare for a smaller creature, but still worried that the weight of the counterweight might still be too much for a smaller croc to properly trigger. Still, it was worth a shot, and seeing any crocodile return to the crime scene was invigorating after several hours of silence in the mangroves. As a lifelong enthusiast of the creatures, I'll admit I was more than a bit thrilled to see one in person.

Let's just take a look at the American Crocodile for a moment. They are pretty much living dinosaurs, unchanged from the time of their ancestors because what they do works. They are apex predators, setting the pace for the entire ecosystem around them, much like the wolves of Yellowstone. They're also an indicator species, the status of their feeding and health representative of how the environment around them is doing. They are incredibly smart, so smart that oftentimes they recognize Chris and his traps, refusing to take the chicken bait if he's anywhere nearby, even if he disguises himself. American Crocodiles are heavily loaded with sensory perception, still completely capable of successfully hunting even when blind. They are amazing animals, and deserve to be not only protected, but respected for what they are - fascinating beasts!

Back to the scene of the crime. This medium-sized crocodile took Chicken Bait #1, and was slowly making its way back towards Chicken Bait #2 after getting spooked by Chris redoing the snare. Cue some more waiting, occasionally checking their fiery orange tapetum lucida (reflective organ in the eyeball that all nocturnal terrestrials have) with a spotlight for progress on proximity to the bait. It wouldn't be long now.

Suddenly the water splashes, the chicken disappears, and the crocodile does, too. Chris was right that the trigger was too heavy for a croc of this size, and so the culprit lives to roam this particular neighborhood another day. In the morning we will return to create a snare of a more appropriate size (and by we, I mean Chris will do everything while I watch), and hopefully be able to relocate the beast. We may not have found a definitive solution to our mystery, but at least we can help make this San Pedro neighborhood safer for all of its creatures, humans, dogs, and crocodiles alike.

For me today was an adventure, even the parts where I watched bug bites swell on my hands and waited long hours where nothing much happened. I got to learn more about the American Crocodile, see conservation in action, and pretend to be a detective. This is what conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts do every day (maybe not that last part), and I'm proud to be considered among their ranks. I'll be following up soon with more detailed articles about ACES and the crocodile population in Belize, but until then I'm going to soak my skin in anti-itch cream and try to think of better puns about crocodiles.

Over and out,

Ali Wunderman

PS - consider donating to ACES. They do it for the crocs.


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