Report from the field: Projects from September and October 2011

While we’re doing introductions, I figure I’ll share my story as well. My name is Patrick Campbell and I’m a recent graduate from Northern Illinois University’s philosophy M.A. program. I received my B.S. in biology from Palm Beach Atlantic University (much better weather, by the way) in December of 2005, and worked for about 2 years afterwards as an environmental scientist in the stormwater treatment areas (STAs) just north of Everglades National Park. I’ve been volunteering in Latin America for the past 3 years now between semesters of grad school, spending my first two summers in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and the past few months of this year here in Peru.

Me with milksnake

So, it’s been over two months now since I first arrived at Villa Carmen and I regret to say that this is the first time I’ve sat down to record and reflect on the many experiences I’ve had here. I launched this blog in part to encourage more reflection of that sort, not just from myself but from all those that come to Villa Carmen and participate in a volunteer project. I myself came to work with the wildlife monitoring and photography projects, but after a few weeks was offered a short-term contracted position helping out with various other projects as well. My current responsibilities include helping with the design and implementation of an educational herpetarium, conducting biological monitoring and managing our biological monitoring database, searching for and supervising new volunteers, and developing the Villa Carmen volunteer handbook. So I’ll describe a little bit what we’ve accomplished in each of these areas over the past two months and mention where we’ll be heading in the days to come.

Herpetarium and Conservation Workshops

Model of herpetarium

So we began the herpetarium project by scouting out the best location and then drawing up designs for all the facilities. I used Google SketchUp to build 3-d models of an enclosure for our 6 yellow-footed tortoises and a covered patio w/ adjoined tank to house our 9 snakes and 1 smooth-fronted caiman, respectively. This was the first time I used this program, and I fell in love with it pretty quickly. The models are not only accurate to the actual measurements of the existing enclosures, but also feature the option of being uploaded to Google Earth, where they’ll be made accessible to anyone who downloads the right package. The process is a little convoluted, but I hope to figure it out soon so that prospective visitors will be able to tour our facilities in 3-d before they even arrive.

Construction of the herpetarium began with the installation of a new thatched-leaf roof to keep the tortoises shaded, and is continuing now with the construction of a stone patio to house our snake collection, which presently consists of 9 individuals representing 6 different species. Once completed, the herpetarium will serve as a tool for educating visitors and the local community about the amphibians and reptiles that occur in our region, in turn helping to encourage conservation of these important but often misunderstood animals.

Fabian with roof

Future site of serpentarium

First snake enclosures

Red pipesnake

 Many of the animals in our collection will also be used in our semimonthly conservation workshops. Villa Carmen hosted two such workshops during the month of October in which students from the local communities of Patria and Pillcopata spent two days here playing games, taking field trips around the Villa Carmen property, and listening to as well preparing “charlas” (talks/lectures) covering a range of topics related to tropical ecology and conservation. During these workshops, students have the opportunity to see and even touch snakes, frogs, caimans, and tortoises. Hands on experiences such as these help to get students excited about conserving local wildlife and help to displace false conceptions concerning the nature these creatures as well as their value within the local ecosystem.

Student workshop (Oct. 8-9, 2011)

Kids learn about dwarf caimans

Weather and Biological Monitoring

We have also been working these past couple of months on updating our climatological and biological monitoring databases as well as developing suitable monitoring protocols for the various data to be collected. In Villa Carmen’s first year (2010-2011), we have recorded only data obtained from impromptu sight surveys, both of the animals themselves as well the footprints they leave on the trails. Beginning in late September, however, we have incorporated data obtained from our 7 camera traps, located at strategic points within our 20 km trail system. Our very first experiment with camera traps in February yielded a photo of a puma, and then two weeks into our regular surveying schedule, we captured a picture of a large adult jaguar! Other species commonly recorded on the traps include peccaries (or sajinos), pacas (picuros), agoutis (añujes), and deer (venados). Identification of footprints left in the soft mud also provides evidence of rabbits (conejos), armadillos (carachupas), tapirs (sachavacas), caimans, ocelots (tigrillos), and even spectacled bears (oso de anteojos) on our property. In the days to come, we will be selecting sites where animal prints have tended to concentrate to serve as long-term sampling stations and provide additional data about the mammal populations that live in this region.

Collared anteater on trocha 8

Jaguar caught on camera trap 5L, Oct. 1

Venado colorado captured on camera trap 8, Nov. 5

Footprint of spectacled bear

Once wildlife data is collected, it is then entered into our master database for future analysis. We are especially interested at this point in measuring changes in population density and distribution per species, and relating those data to various changes in management activity over time (e.g., how does increased tourism in our area affect the numbers and distribution of the various species that occur here, and how can we successfully mitigate these impacts?). Charts and map graphics representing our findings will also be made available on a monthly basis on our website so that prospective researchers as well as the general public can check in and follow our progress.

Volunteer Recruitment and Orientation

Improving our volunteer recruitment and orientation resources has been another of our priorities during the past few months, and will continue to be a priority in the months to come as we work on developing our Volunteer Handbook. This handbook will contain important information for new volunteers including area information, jungle safety information, staff profiles and contact information, volunteer cost structure, and project overviews. As a supplement to the handbook, project-specific orientation packets are also being developed so that, for example, a volunteer who wants to participate in the Wildlife Monitoring Project will know exactly what their responsibilities are, what protocols they will follow in conducting their surveys, what materials they will be using, and what their schedule will be for the duration of the project. In the future, we hope to make PDF versions of these documents available for download on our website so that any information a prospective volunteer might be interested in having will be immediately available to them.

In addition to Volunteer Handbook, a Villa Carmen Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/haciendavillacarmen) and Volunteer Blog (www.haciendavillacarmen.wordpress.com) have been developed this month both to promote our volunteer opportunities to prospective volunteers as well as keep our supporters up to date on our latest projects. These pages feature volunteer testimonials, pictures of the various insect, bird, herp, and mammal species that occur here, and regular updates concerning life in general at Villa Carmen. We hope that those of you who have an interest in helping out will find these resources helpful in deciding whether a volunteer project at Villa Carmen is right for you.

Ok, so that’s where we’re at and more or less where we’re going in the days to come. As always, we’re in need of lots of help, both for these projects as well as many others I haven’t mentioned. So, if you’re interested in what we’re doing, please (PLEASE!) write and let us know! Until next time,

Patrick

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