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Cool cats of the forest

Monday, July 14, 2014
Ocelot is the Mexican name for jaguar.

In the lush rainforest near Brasso Seco in the Northern Range, Carl Fitzjames spends most of his days leading small groups of hikers on expeditions to rivers and waterfalls.


A keen birdwatcher, he stops periodically to point out the calls of birds like the distinctive bell bird. He can tell you about all of the flora you pass, as well as the fauna lurking among the trees and in the skies and rivers.


Over the past year, Fitzjames and PhD student Sarah Fitzpatrick, of the University of Colorado, have undertaken a project placing “cat cams” (motion-triggered night-vision cameras) in the forest, to photograph animals that walk across the path of the infra-red lasers. The results, mostly from the dead of night, have been captivating.


They have captured images of ocelots, crab-eating raccoons, quenk, tamandua anteaters and tatou (armadillos) as well as more commonly seen indigenous species like agouti, manicou, lappe and brocket deer.


All of the animals are of interest to zoologists and wildlife enthusiasts but it is the ocelots in particular that pique the curiosity of the wider public. 


These rarely-sighted, endangered solitary cats—spotted like leopards, but half the size—are mostly found on the South American mainland, which Trinidad was once part of before it broke away from the coast of Venezuela. They are found as far north as Texas and as far south as Argentina.


At Emperor Valley Zoo, the resident ocelots are housed in less than ideal concrete conditions behind bars. The star ocelot, Patches, was bred in captivity and is brought out on special occasions when schoolchildren visit, or as part of outreach projects like Zoo To You.


In the wild, ocelots are almost never seen in daylight, when they are thought to climb trees to rest, much as jaguars do (the name “ocelot” is in fact the Mexican name for jaguar.) 


But Fitzjames, an obsessive wanderer, has seen them in the flesh in the late afternoon as well as at night. 


“In the night time all you see is eyes,” he says. “But in the daylight you see the whole ocelot. You have to keep still, you can’t be moving because it will see you and smell you. One time I was sitting on a log and noticed how the breeze was going. He was in an overgrown area of vines and I saw his tail and thought, ‘What’s a dog doing here?’ He was on his own, walking very stealthily, ears twitching left and right. And, although it was very dry on the ground, he was silent. I was seeing him move but I wasn’t hearing him.”


Is Fitzjames ever scared? “Never,” he says. “I have no fear of nature whatsoever.”



Protected species


The Environmental Management Authority (EMA) has classified ocelots as an “environmentally sensitive species” (likely to face endangerment) and, as such, they are protected.


An EMA release says these elusive animals “shelter in hollow trees and dense thickets and form dens in caves and hollow trees or logs. They feed on different sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians and fishes. Their prey includes young peccaries, snakes, agoutis and porcupines.”


The ultimate aim of Fitzjames and Fitzpatrick’s project is to estimate population sizes—important given the threat of hunters (one of whom Fitzjames has captured on camera) an ongoing danger, despite the hunting ban. But to achieve this will require more equipment than they have right now.


Fitzpatrick says 20-30 cat cams would be needed, positioned in a grid shape and left for many months to allow identification of individual creatures and eventually get an idea of the population density.


Two other naturalists in Trinidad are also currently using cat cams. Mike Rutherford, a professor at UWI has set them up in the Asa Wright Nature Reserve, where he has photographed a mother and baby ocelot. Another project is ongoing on the Aripo Savannas.


But numbering them is tricky. Fitzjames believes there are lots, because he has caught them on three out of the five cameras currently deployed.


“From the village it’s undisturbed forest all the way to the east coast and I haven’t even gone very far in. It’s difficult terrain, only crazy people like me venture in there,” he says.


In the deep dark miles of greenery, who knows how many are lurking.


For now, the project is a fascinating wildlife activity with startling results. Some of the animals wander past the camera, almost oblivious to its presence. Others look straight at the lens as though they have heard a noise or spotted something unusual. Their big eyes reflect the infra-red flash which briefly lights up the forest.


One image of an ocelot, captured in June, looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Stooping and prowling its territory, it seems to be paused and peering at the foreign object on its turf.





Brasso Seco boy



Fitzjames has just brought all five cameras in to service them. 


“They’re out in the elements and water had breached them,” he explains. 


As well as the nocturnal creatures, other species are also abundant around his northern village. 


Orange tiger butterflies emerge from metallic cocoons, Spider wasps hunt tarantulas, owls and all kinds of colorful birds sing, fly, feed, moult and nest.


Either side of the path that runs out of the village are cocoa trees with leathery pods in various stages of maturation—green, purple and bright red—and old plantation houses siting at the top of ridges overlooking grassy clearings amongst the dense forest.


Fitzjames' love of this area, where he grew up, partially stems from his experience of being away in the frozen wastes of Canada, working as a nuclear plant engineer in places like Alberta and Ontario. He began to ache for his homeland, realising nature was what kept his spirit alive and well.


He became depressed by the cold Canadian weather and the industrialisation. Eventually he made the final and painful decision to come home, leaving behind the family he had started. 


In some ways the decision was made for him by circumstances. One day, completely by chance, he was in a bank in Toronto that was held up by a masked gunman. Lying face down on the floor during the siege he told himself he’d had enough. He would take the next available flight home.


"I thought to myself, where was I happiest?" Fitzjames tells me, sitting outside his home on the edge of the village. "And then it came to me quite clearly. It was when I was a boy running free in Brasso Seco, surrounded by nature.


"Humans are meant to be around nature. We are a part of nature," he had told me a few weeks earlier on a hike to the nearby waterfall. 


"In cities people become detached, isolated, over-reliant on technology. People need to re-engage with nature more. It would be better for human beings and for our planet."


The skies over the village flit from blue and sunny to ominously dark and grey. High up here in the mountains the rain falls more often and it can feel like you are walking in the clouds. 


Fitzjames’ two young children, Kamala, eight and Kahlil, 11, run around the garden with a neighbourhood friend. His mother-in-law has finished cooking and tells the children to bring out a plate of food. 


"We don't have smartphones or television," Fitzjames says. “But we do have internet.” 


His wife, Kelly, uses Facebook to post some of the stunning wildlife images as well as pics of the kids growing up, so her family back home can see.


Kelly is American and the couple met while she was working in conservation in Trinidad. They formed a close bond and one day, to his surprise, she proposed to him on the beach, by writing 'Will you marry me?' in the sand. 


They live with their son and daughter very simply in a wooden house on the edge of the rainforest. All around them they hear the call of the wild. Which is lucky for them, as whenever they feel the pull, they don’t have far to go.


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