CSI: Paw Print

Ocelot <em>Leopardus pardalis</em> footprint (&copy; Helen Cavilla)
Ocelot Leopardus pardalis footprint (© Helen Cavilla)
Crab-eating Fox <em>Cerdocyon thous</em> footprints (&copy; Helen Cavilla)
Crab-eating Fox Cerdocyon thous footprints (© Helen Cavilla)
Crab-eating Racoon <em>Procyon cancrivorus</em> footprints (&copy; Helen Cavilla)
Crab-eating Racoon Procyon cancrivorus footprints (© Helen Cavilla)
Red-rumped Agouti <em>Dasyprocta leporina</em> footprints (&copy; Helen Cavilla)
Red-rumped Agouti Dasyprocta leporina footprints (© Helen Cavilla)

Walking through the rainforest every day is bound to reveal some exciting things. In the early days of my stay at REGUA I ventured out every day with the misguided notion I would at some point easily see one of the many cats species taking a stroll in broad daylight, waiting obligingly for me to spot them and allowing me to get some cracking photos (or at least some photographic evidence). No chance! Not as much as whisker or a glimpse of a tail. No. But what I did see excited me still. I felt a little like a detective scouring the trails for clues to the mammals that roam though the reserve. I was rewarded frequently and, even with my limited knowledge of where to look, I was able to find many traces that gave the game away. It doesn’t matter how elusive the animal may be, evidence of presence can be found if you know where to look. As my forensic course informed me, absence of proof isn’t proof of absence.

It pains me to say that during my six months at the reserve I was unable to see any of the cat species, but it just goes to show that spotting them is no easy thing. Once I realised this (and this was hard to accept initially) I always made sure I took photos of anything I saw that I remotely considered important. So, I took copious amounts of photos of not only footprints, scrapes and possible animal kills but also many of droppings. Lovely! But droppings/scats can reveal an awful lot. For starters it tells you who has been out and about, where and possibly what they have eaten. Exciting stuff! Well for an amateur scatologist like me it is (and I know of others, believe it or not!) Poor old Adilei the guide had to study many photos of faeces during my stint at REGUA. The footprints I found in the last month showed a marvellous array of large mammal species: Puma Puma concolor, Ocelot Leopardus pardalis, Oncilla Leopardus tigrinus, Crab-eating Fox Cerdocyon thous and Crab-eating Racoon Procyon cancrivorus. The cat prints were all found around the Wetland and Forest Trails. The footprint photos were shown to a tracks expert, Marco Felipe, who identified them for me. He pointed out that the ocelot and oncilla tracks were together and that ocelot will occasionally prey on oncilla. So I think a bit of stalking was perhaps in action! The crab-eating racoon and fox prints were taken at the water’s edge of the little stream that crosses the Forest Trail. After scrambling under the bridge on the Forest Trail I found more tracks here too.

The cat species are largely nocturnal, shy and solitary and will hunt a wide variety of prey from armadillo, rodents such as Red-rumped Agouti Dasyprocta leporina, birds, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans and even invertebrates – the ocelot and oncilla stalk through trees so even monkeys are on the menu. And with the ocelot being able to swim well too the wetland habitat must be a fantastic restaurant for this particular cat! Similarly the crab-eating raccoon and fox will nearly always be found near water. Again both species are generally solitary, nocturnal and hunt an assortment of delicacies from the obvious crab through to eggs, fruit, amphibians, reptiles and carrion. With these animals feasting on virtually all the animal kingdom has to offer, it is impressive to see that the restored habitats are catering to their needs.

Knowing there are so many animals living secret lives makes for potentially exciting night-time surveillance. The issue here is these animals are so adept at detecting humans! The acquisition of more camera traps would be a great idea!

There is clearly much animal activity in the reserve, particularly at night. And with a lot of patience and time there is chance of reward! Who said working with animals was easy anyway?