The night the possum chased us up the road

This week, I would like to tell you a personal story about an unlikely encounter with local wildlife. I was reminded of this incident last week when I was clearing out all the bits and pieces I have been hoarding over the years. It was then that I found this large tube containing some old wildlife posters. I had completely forgotten about them, so stumbling upon them was a rather pleasant surprise.

The first poster I unfurled was a full scale image of a Brush-tailed possum. It immediately brought up the hilarious memories of a night I will never forget – the night my friend and I got chased up the road by … who wants to guess … RIGHT, A POSSUM!

Common brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)
Common brushtailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

This was during the first year of my Master course. I studied, and later became good friends, with these two brilliant ladies from Europe. One was an aspiring wildlife vet, and the other had (and still has) a passion for research in evolutionary biology and genetics.

Being good friends, we shared our love for wildlife and conservation in the good company of food and wine. Sometimes the girls would stay over and we would share some seriously scrumptious goodies and talk until late night. On this fateful night, only one of them had stayed over. After dinner, when it was already dark, we decided to go for a walk around the block hoping to be able to undo some of the damage caused by all the eating we had done.

On the way back, as we approached the entrance to my unit building, my friend spotted the shadow of this rather large mammal darting across the pavement and making its way up the tree stopping still just across the letter boxes, probably at a height of about a metre above the ground. I proudly informed my friend that it might be a Common brushtailed possum (also affectionately known as a ‘brushie’) as I had seen a few around this area. She got ecstatic. Having come all the way from Sweden, I am sure it must have been exciting to encounter a native mammal in a suburban environment, right outside my doorstep. She insisted to take a closer look. Slowly and quietly we approached this mysterious figure, which indeed turned out to be a brushie!

The place where it all started
The place where it all started (the tree on the left)

Standing about a metre away from our furry friend, my not-so-furry human friend was basking in the incidence of this possum encounter saying how cute it was and how she could not believe that we were looking at it from such a close distance. In respectful awe, we stood there looking at the possum, while the possum was looking back at us. But something didn’t quite feel right. Not only was it looking at us, it was looking with a certain intent. We couldn’t help but feel that it was calculating something, as if swiftly weighing up the risks of fight or flight. At some point, the animal almost looked like it was going to pounce on us from the tree. The body was stiff, head transfixed on us, eyes wide-open and not moving, with all four legs extended in a push-up position. I slowly started nudging my friend trying to indicate that we should probably leave now.

Even before I could finish my sentence, brushie decided to jump off the tree branch like James Bond and started running in our direction. It was as if our slight backwards motion had given away a sign of weakness and surrender, in turn encouraging the brushie’s display of strength and right of territory. This happened so fast. It felt like I blinked and suddenly found ourselves running up the road without fully fathoming the reality of this whole situation. To add some special effects to this dramatic event, we were also screaming in terror. I bet if someone from the neighbourhood had looked out of their window seeing us screaming and running up the road, their first instinct would have been to look for a man with a big knife chasing after us. While running, I managed to quickly look over my shoulder a couple of times, and to my utter horror saw that the possum was still in hot pursuit after us. Not only that, it seemed to be catching up!!

Fortunately for us, the whole scene ended as abruptly as it had started. On what felt like my third glance, I could no longer see the brushie. But boy, the fella had definitely showed us who was boss! We stood there for a good minute or so trying to catch our breath, before suddenly bursting out in laughter. The comedy of this incident was just too much. Two aspiring wildlife conservationists chased up the road in the dark, screaming, by a Brush-tailed possum. I suspect, us standing there and staring at it back there could have felt threatening to the poor brushie. This sure taught us a lesson not to get too close to an animal for unnecessary reasons. Who knows? The brushie might have been protecting its nest, the territory or simply telling us to bugger off and leave it alone. After a moment of calm, we immediately made a pact that under no circumstances are we to reveal this to any of our fellow classmates. Yeeeah…about that…gosh, I hope she is not going to read this.

Photo Credit (Possum): Foter / CC BY-NC
Photo Credit (Header): David Cook Wildlife Photography / FoterCC BY-NC
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Wildtracks – Making waves in manatee rescue

Early last year, I started my search for international volunteer opportunities as I wanted to further develop my skill sets and gain a hands-on global perspective on wildlife conservation. The first thing I searched for were opportunities to work with manatees. When Wildtracks in Belize (Central America) popped up, I thought all my dreams had come true! I read through their entire website again and again as I did not want to miss a thing about their work saving manatees. As manatees are one of my most favourite animals in this world, I became obsessed about visiting Wildtracks. All I could think about was me going to Belize, being at Wildtracks, and being next to manatees.

Ultimately, my overall training needs at that time made the final decision for me. In the end, I accepted a wildlife conservation internship and left to South Africa. But I have never ever stopped thinking about Wildtracks and still hope one day, I will be able to visit them and participate in their great manatee conservation work.

A little bit more about Wildtracks

Wildtracks’ primary area of work concentrates on rescuing and rehabilitating the endangered Antillean manatees (Trichechus manatus ssp. manatus – a subspecies of the West Indian manatee) injured from watercraft accidents, and the Yucatan black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and Geoffroy’s spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) from illegal pet trade. After months of painstaking rehabilitation work, the animals are eventually released back into the wild. As all three of the animal species are predicted to face significant decline in numbers in the coming years, it is critical that each and every individual are given every opportunity possible to survive and be returned back to the wild, something which Wildtracks has been doing since 1990, and it’s still going strong.

Antillean manatee
Antillean manatee (Photo Credit)
Geoffroy's spider monkey
Geoffroy’s spider monkey (Photo Credit)

#I found this great YouTube video about Wildtracks featured by Belize Channel 5.

Releasing wildlife back into the wild, surely that must be easy?

During my master course (Wildlife health and population management), I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the important elements of releasing animals back into the wild. I am not embarrassed to admit that, before I did this course, my understanding was…you rescue an animal, give it the care it needs, and BAM…you let it go in the wild where it will live happily ever after. As it turned out, that is definitely not the case. Especially if the animals were young at the time of rescue and have not had the chance to learn the adequate skills needed for their survival in the wild.

I’m still far from being an expert on wildlife rehabilitation and reintroduction, but what I have learnt is that the process takes a lot of resources – time, effort, patience and money. It may take months before an animal is ready to be released, if at all. You need to make sure that the animal is in good health and receives the proper assistance to help it develop the necessary skills before its full release. This is usually done in stages, gradually taking the one step closer to its future natural habitat. Wildtracks appears to have a good understanding of this step-by-step approach, which became evident to me when I read about their rehabilitation and release program. A very commendable achievement given the inherent complexities involved.

Yucatan black howler monkey
Yucatan black howler monkey (Photo Credit)

But even if all of the above is done well, one needs to consider the safety of the environment that the animal is being released into. Is it free of danger and disease? Or is the animal being released back into the ‘war zone’ it came from? Reducing threats in the habitat or evaluating the condition of the environment where an animal is to be released is also highly critical.

For more detailed information about wildlife release, CLICK HERE.

Why is community involvement so beneficial?

If my previous work as a Citizen Science Project Officer has taught me anything, it is the power of involving the community in conservation initiatives. I was very pleased to see Wildtracks actively involving the community with it’s conservation work. Wildtracks works with local fishermen, University students and the community to raise awareness of the problems faced by manatees from watercraft collisions and cruelties of illegal monkey pet trade. This is also a great way for them to inform people about their work thus increasing their presence in Belize. Involving the locals in the community, acts as a great catalyst to increasing their ownership and support of the initiative and getting more hands on board in support of making this initiative work.

Engaging the community can also be very useful (if implemented well) to achieve long-term positive outcomes. By getting local people involved, you are giving them the powerful choice to make a difference. As people become more aware of their actions and the resulting impacts, they may contribute to threat reductions in habitats by steering watercrafts with more care or reporting people harbouring illegal pets. Although this outcome may not always be a given, but it sure as hell is better than doing nothing. An important lesson I learnt so far is that it should NEVER be assumed that people are aware of a current dire conservation issue happening right in their own backyard. The higher the number of people you connect with, the wider the network, and the better access to information and chances of receiving reports of any incidents (i.e. stranded manatee)  enabling timely actions to rescue the animals.

A short one minute video by BBC Earth showing the beauty of a grazing manatee.

Some final words

Of course, the big question here is…how do I know all this? It is very tricky writing about a conservation group that I have never visited or had a personal encounter with. My highlights about Wildtracks and its work is purely based on the numerous blogs, articles, tweets, their website, YouTube videos (mostly done by their previous volunteers) and other resources which I came across during my research. But the fact that they have thrived since 1990 and look like they are not going anywhere seems a good indication things might not be that crazy there. Perhaps, they are onto something.

Visit Wildtracks for more information. I also found this lovely travel blog about volunteering with Wildtracks.

Do you know of any conservation initiative or group making a difference with community education or awareness programs? Share it in the comment section as I would love to hear about it 🙂

 

Disclaimer
The views and opinions expressed here are of my own and do not represent or reflect the views, positions or opinions - expressed or implied of any agencies, conservation groups or organisations or any individuals.