Sitting on the damp, jungle floor in western Belize during yet another brutally hot and humid day, David Lugo began adjusting a digital single-lens reflex camera.

He crawled on all fours toward the front of the camera to test it when he saw a subtle movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head, and, roughly 50 yards down a narrow trail, a solitary jaguar was watching him. They stared at each other for 30 seconds, then the jaguar quietly disappeared into the jungle’s underbrush.

“It was insane,” Lugo said. “Not many people get to see them on foot, so it was one of those experiences that you'll probably never have again in your life. I was very lucky.”

Lugo, a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, is one of several students, both graduate and undergraduate, involved in a comprehensive and arguably landmark research project centered on jaguars, pumas, and ocelots in this Central American country.

Marcella Kelly, professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and longtime expert on jaguars, and Brett Jesmer, assistant professor in the same department, are leading the efforts to protect jaguars — deemed “near threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list — other big cats, and other species of animals. 

The felines are notoriously shy, rarely show themselves during daylight, and roam over large swaths of land. Such traits make them extremely challenging to study.

But Virginia Tech’s team has a plan.

Catching cats with cameras

Kelly, who started studying in Belize in the mid-1990s, began a jaguar camera project in 2000 in which she and her team used remote-triggered cameras to capture images of jaguars, pumas, and ocelots – a process called “camera trapping.” Animals are “trapped” when a camera sensor picks up heat and movement and takes a photo.

She borrowed the idea of identifying cats in photographs from her work as a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Davis, when she studied cheetahs at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. 

The images from various camera traps in Belize allowed the researchers to analyze spot patterns, specifically of jaguars. Because spot patterns differ for each jaguar, researchers were able to estimate population size, sex ratios, and densities.

Improved camera technology over the years has allowed Kelly and her team to expand their study sites in Belize. They currently oversee 200 camera trap stations, using 400 cameras — two at each trap — across an 800-square-mile area.

“Before remote camera technology was a thing, there was no way to really estimate population sizes for these elusive species like jaguars and, honestly, most wild cats,” said Kelly, an affiliate of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “It was very difficult to get any sense of whether the population was increasing or decreasing.

“The idea was that maybe we could do this remote camera technique on a jungle species since you can't ever really see them in the field. It's very rare that you can go in the field and actually see a jaguar. The remote camera technique was just fantastic. It worked really well.”

The impact of Belize’s logging industry on jaguar habitat served as an impetus for the research project. Sensitive of logging’s potential impact on jaguars — and in turn on the country’s burgeoning ecotourism industry — along with the importance of the animal on the nation’s culture dating to Mayan civilizations, Belize officials take wildlife conservation seriously.

Kelly and her team, particularly Ph.D. student Rob Nipko, continue to look at population densities in both logged and protected areas, including Belize’s 17 national parks. Nipko is using camera trap data and cutting-edge quantitative analysis to model jaguar density. Thus far, the jaguar population is holding steady.

“We're not detecting any major declines, nor increases, so it seems to be relatively stable,” Kelly said.

Expanding the project’s scope

Last year, Kelly wanted to expand Virginia Tech’s research presence in Belize, so she invited Jesmer to participate. Jesmer, who came to Virginia Tech in 2021, possesses expertise in ungulates, or hooved mammals. They decided to analyze the behavior, distribution, and abundance of white-tailed deer and red brocket deer — food sources for big cats in Belize.

“I've been wanting someone else to come down for years to help tackle the prey items because we all know that most of what it's all about for jaguars is really if they have enough prey and are not hunted, they'll probably do fine,” Kelly said. “And even though there's like a million studies on white-tailed deer here in the U.S., there are almost none in Central America.

“Belizeans are very interested in white-tailed deer research because they would like to have more informed and regulated hunting seasons that are based on actual data, similar to what we have in the U.S.”

Jesmer and graduate assistants Johny Tzib and Annie Stevens are focusing first on the deer species before expanding to peccaries, or wild pigs, and tapirs, which are related to rhinoceros. Earlier this summer, they began studying the basic natural history and ecology of deer in Belize.

Other goals for their part in this project include studying predator-prey interactions, learning how historical land-use practices have determined the current distribution of deer in the region, and helping Belizeans increase natural resource conservation and stewardship capacity by offering training in ungulate research techniques.

This past summer, they were able to capture eight deer by darting them in the rump with a dart that injects a sedative. They then put GPS collars on the animals, collected a variety of biological samples, including a blood sample that allowed them to assess the animal’s health, and let them go.

A white-tailed deer wears a collar around its neck as it walks through trees.
A white-tailed deer in Belize wears a GPS tracking collar as part of a research effort to collect data on habitat use and predator-prey interactions. Photo courtesy of Johny Tzib.

“We also are using Marcella’s camera grid that's been up and running for so many years,” Jesmer said. “Marcella has thousands of photos of deer, but has only analyzed the cat photos. We can use the deer photos to assess their abundance, distribution, and timing of reproduction in lowland tropical forests, which are the primary objectives of Johny Tzib’s thesis.

“The GPS tracking collar allows us to understand their movements and habitat preferences. They also give us a way to monitor their survival because we’ll know when they die, and then we can go in and see why they died. Was it malnutrition, an act of predation, or disease?”

A woman stands in a field holding a piece of metal tube in the air.
Graduate student Annie Stevens uses a VHF receiver and directional antenna to locate a deer wearing a GPS collar. Photo courtesy of Annie Stevens.

Though the research only started in late May, the team is already noticing some patterns. Deer traditionally are more active at dusk, dawn, and during the night than in the middle of the day. In Belize, they seem to be more active during daylight hours, possibly because their predators, jaguars and pumas, are more active at night.

“We can put numbers to that question once we have some more data,” Jesmer said. “But that's one thing that we think might be happening. How they manage risk of predation is one of our key questions and the focus of Annie Stevens’ thesis. We think that deer might be managing risk just by changing their activity levels from what we think of as typical deer behavior in North America to something different down there.”

Students aiding the effort

Lugo and Darby McPhail, another graduate student, work for Kelly and are continuing to gain valuable experience while working on their master’s degrees. Kelly goes to Belize twice a year for a month at a time, but she leaves most of the field operations there in the hands of Lugo and McPhail, who work several months in Belize during a year.

The work can be grueling. They continuously perform trail maintenance to get to their camera traps, a task that involves extensive use of chain saws and machete chopping teams in 100-degree heat.

A group of people gather before a wooden hut with a thatched roof. Two people in front hold chainsaws.
The field team for big cat research in front of their house in Sylvester Village, Belize, after a day conducting trail maintenance and camera trapping. Hokies pictured are team leads Darby McPhail (front row, at left) and David Lugo (front row, at right), and assistant team lead Lucy Weate (second row, at third from left). Photo courtesy of Darby McPhail.

They also oversee undergraduate students from both Virginia Tech and the University of Belize who are helping with the project. They train students on machete usage and other brush cutters, make sure that the students collect the photo data from the cameras properly, and then, once they return to Blacksburg, help them sort, analyze, and file the data in a lab at Virginia Tech’s Cheatham Hall.

Six to eight undergraduate students at Virginia Tech assist with data collection on this project each semester, gaining valuable experience that could serve them well on future research projects. In addition, Belizeans have been employed to organize and enter camera trap data after the surveys to give more opportunities to local citizens.

“It’s the whole experience for the undergraduates,” said Lugo, whose research focuses on mammalian community dynamics in Belize. “It's not necessarily just going there and doing work, but they're getting this cultural exchange with people from Belize. They also get to learn valuable wildlife techniques, something that they can apply to other internships throughout their career. We’re teaching field naturalist skills, identifying plants or identifying different wildlife, and just talking about the ecosystem, so they’re learning a lot of stuff.”

In addition, while in Belize, Lugo and McPhail collaborate with nongovernment organizations, create presentations for local schools and give outreach presentations to local communities on the importance of their work.

“I would say it's the most important part of what we do,” said McPhail, who is pursuing a master’s degree in wildlife science and whose research focuses on pumas. “Without public support, without the knowledge that we're gaining, none of what we do really matters.

Tzib concurs. A native of Belize and the first Belizean student to do his master’s on the project while attending Virginia Tech, he had been working with conservation organizations and in protected management areas before getting involved with Kelly’s team this past summer. He understands the importance of preserving an animal that means so much to his country’s culture.

“A lot of this has to do with our perspective, our perceptions on wildlife,” Tzib said. “There is a lot of development happening in Belize, and it is important for people to know how amazing these creatures are and how they live in their natural habitat, and having locals involved changes the perspective of seeing jaguars as a threat to seeing them as being more of a beauty and more of a needed species.”

Beyond the boundaries

Kelly expects all these research projects to continue to expand, even across borders. She, McPhail, and Lugo – who speaks Spanish conversationally and often gives presentations – have met with officials from Belize, Guatemala, and southern Mexico to talk about transborder conservation and collaboration. Big cats range over large areas, and there appears to be interest in assessing where they’re moving and why and estimating population densities.

“We’re into wildlife conservation and natural resource conservation,” Kelly said. “But there's another aspect to where we really are trying to push the envelope on how to create better ways to estimate densities or just survey better and to provide advice and protocols for local officials to preserve these species – and protocols for other projects that might want to do something similar.”

Team members continues to tweak what they do. For example, they lack photos of individually unique ocelots across different camera stations and theorize that their camera traps are too far apart, so they are mulling a strategy. And they continue incorporating artificial intelligence software to save time identifying animals.

Seeing these shy animals will always be a challenge, along with studying and researching them. But these researchers from Virginia Tech continue to get creative with their tactics.

For them, they’re just scratching the surface of their big cat research. What they already have done in conservation efforts — and what they expect to do in the near future — figures to lead the way for generations to come.

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