Sometimes, you need man’s best friend to lend a helping paw. Bárbara Escobar-Anleu is the Program Director of Panthera Guatemala, and is currently studying for her Ph.D. She requires genetic samples in the form of scat (droppings) from the five species of wild cats found in Guatemala — the jaguar, puma, ocelot, jaguarundi and the margay. As you can imagine, finding fresh scats from these animals in the forest suitable for genetic studies can be quite the challenge! That’s where dogs step in.
Tigre is Panthera’s wild cat detection dog based in Costa Rica with his handler, me! Tigre is a six year-old Yellow Labrador who was provided by Working Dogs for Conservation in 2018. He mainly plies his trade in Costa Rica, but has also supported projects in Chile, making Guatemala the third country in the Americas where he has sniffed for scats.
This would be the first time Panthera had collected wild cat scat samples in Guatemala, critical to our understanding of connectivity and gene flow. Tigre, Bárbara and myself spent two months in Izabal, Guatemala visiting nine different conservation areas and going to 15 different locations in our search for scats. During this time, we walked over 276 km, with Tigre easily covering two or three times this distance using his powerful sense of smell to locate what we couldn’t easily see with the human eye.
Detection dogs are important members of the team, increasing the probability of finding samples used for genetic analysis. A dog’s sense of smell is somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 times more acute than that of humans and can detect samples from over distance, even when the scats are frozen and buried under the snow. He is so good at this that he can identify tiny parts of scats that may be weeks or even months old and almost completely washed away by rain. To Tigre, this is all just a game; when he finds a scat, he is rewarded with his favorite ball, and after a few minutes of playing fetch, he is ready to begin again.
To avoid tiring Tigre out too much during the trip, he would work on a schedule of three days working, one day off, followed by another two days working with one more day off. This was the pattern we repeated for our entire two-month stay in Guatemala, which became incredibly challenging as time wore on! Not only were the rigors of our routine a challenge, but high temperatures and difficult terrain (lots of hills) made us utterly exhausted. Each night we would wearily collapse into our bunks, though happy with another successful day.
To conduct studies such as these we need the backing of local communities, other NGOs and governmental organizations. In Guatemala, we had an amazing level of support. During our surveys, we were accompanied by members of the local community, park rangers and staff from NGOs, all enthusiastic to support wild cats and meet Tigre, who became quite a celebrity.
As a result of everyone’s work (but mainly Tigre), 35 samples were collected; both Tigre and I wish Bárbara the best of luck with her studies and look forward to bringing you the results of her work in the future.
Learn more about Tigre’s work helping to protect wild cats at Panthera.