Telenax training – Crocodile – Panama

Telenax training – Crocodile – Panama

Telenax telemetry training on a Crocodile project in Coiba island, Panama.

The island of Coiba conserves a pristine condition and is identified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Alex Campos from Telenax was invited to provide the “Crocodile Telemetry Workshop” Field Course which was funded by the SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

Lead by Miryam Venegas, Ph. D. This workshop was held in the Coiba Island, Panama and it included the participation from researchers of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Mongolia, Panama and USA (in alphabetical order).

On the first day, July 16th 2010, after a visit to the Panama Canal and the Naos Island Laboratories, a Plenary Conference given by Alex Campos took place at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Facilities in the city of Panama.  We talked about all Telemetry technologies, their advantages and disadvantages, and a technical explanation of each one of them.

Second day was only for travelling to the Island, which took us around 10 hours by bus and boat. The island of Coiba is located on the Pacific Ocean, it held a prison from 1919 to 2004, which allowed it to conserve a pristine condition as it was avoided by locals, and other than the prison, was completely undeveloped. After the prison closed down it was converted into a Reserve. It is one of the last places in Central America where the Scarlet Macaw can be found in large numbers in the wild and it is identified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Our first stop was a station of the Reserve with all facilities.

Tito is a “friendly” crocodile who is usually found resting on the sand, very close to the station.

On the 18th we had full day telemetry training. Given the quantity of participants we had to split the group in 3. Transmitters where hidden so they could not be easily located, basically the student had to be at a distance of about 1 meter to be able to see it. The students received a theoretical explanation and then we went to the shore to locate 2 transmitters with the help and lead of Alex. There was a third transmitter which the students had to locate completely on their own.

While tracking is fairly simple, if it is not made properly it can lead to huge errors which can mean the entire difference between a complete success or a complete failure during a telemetry research (e.g. the most common mistake causes a very important loss of detection distance). The training is designed with this in mind in order to avoid overconfidence from the participants. So it was no surprise (and even expected) that the first 2 transmitters were easily found by the students, but for the 3rd one without the help of the telemetry expert, caused them to be completely unable to find the transmitter for about an hour. The reason was overconfidence, and once they understood what they were doing wrong they were able to find the transmitter in a few minutes. Same thing happened with all 3 groups.

On the 19th we moved by boat away from the last facilities and set camp somewhere in the middle of the island, by the beach and facing East. While rustic, the camping site was very comfortable; we had 2 cooks who prepared wonderful meals, a small natural waterfall with pristine fresh water, and a family of Scarlet macaws nesting on a palm tree nearby. The only problem was the mosquitoes which drove all of us crazy as they are so small that were able to find their way between the hair and bite the skull, and mosquito nets from the tents were useless as they could cross between the tiny holes.

Scarlet macaw family living very close to the campsite

Crocodile trapping began that same night, as tides increase water level around 1 meter we had to wait for the low tides and had approximately 6 hours to work.

We walked along the shore with lamps which we only turned on every once in a while and for just a few seconds. This is to spot Crocodile’s eyes as they reflect our lights. At first, I honestly got very scared, as we walked into a small river where we could not see a thing, the water got up to our bellies, and we were walking among the mangrove. Silence and darkness is amazing, but my fear was to step on a crocodile and get attacked.

We caught several newborn crocodiles which were released immediately after handling, and 2 larger ones which were taken to the camp to attach Telenax transmitters on them the next day.

Telenax transmitters purchased for this project included TXE-317BR for individuals of more than 3 meters long, TXE-311BR for individuals between 1.5 and 3 meters, and TXE-124BR for the smaller ones.

On the fifth day, July 20th, Miryam led the procedure to attach the transmitters. A stainless steel wire is passed under the skin and osteoderms, right on the nape; antenna facing forward and cut right before reaching the eyes.  We installed one TXE-311BR and one TXE-124BR model that day.

First crocodile with its Telenax tracking transmitter

Here I am holding the crocodile after transmitter attachment

More trapping session took place that night, but we were not very lucky as we only found smaller individuals; which was expected as larger ones tend to move out of the area after the first day of human presence. We walked farther away and even got trapped by the high tide but were not nearly as lucky as the first day.

A large crocodile was spotted around 10 meters into the ocean, as the area is very flat, 2 of the researchers tried to approach to it, but walking in the ocean, getting close to a 3 meters long crocodile is not a safe idea. They managed to calculate the size when it looked at them with both eyes, as the distance between them gives a good calculation of the crocodile´s size.

On the sixth day the individuals with transmitters were released where they were found. We spent most of the day tracking them to gain more experience.

Miryam and one of her students are about to release one of the smaller crocodiles

Released crocodile was later found in the mangrove

Crocodile in the ocean

That night we went out again, and a group of the most experienced researchers took the boat and managed to catch the large crocodile which was spotted the night before.

Very early in the next morning we attached a TXE-317BR unit on two larger specimens, the largest one and 3 more which were caught in the ocean were released by boat at night.  We tracked them for a while and went back to camp.

Release of one of the medium sized crocodiles into the ocean

Largest crocodile swimming after release

Finally, on day 7, July 23rd we were picked up by boat, visited the old prison and went back to the continent on a Panama’s Army boat.

All individuals fitted with a tracking transmitter during these days and future trips to the island are being constantly tracked, as this workshop was the starting point of a long-term crocodile tracking project in the island.

It was a pleasure and an honor to be able to share my knowledge and experience with you. I want to specially thank Miryam Venegas, Ph.D., the Smithsonian Institute, and Panama´s Army for allowing me to have this incredible adventure. Thank you also to all of the students who were very nice and keen to learn.

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