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BLOG FROM THE FIELD: Saving Endangered Peccaries in Paraguay

Audubon's Michelle Hatwood in Paraguay Helping Endangered Chacoan Peccaries

Michelle Hatwood, Curator, Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center

Michelle Hatwood is responsible for managing the animal collection and animal care staff at the Freeport McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center (FMASSC), a breeding center focused on ungulate and bird species in New Orleans.

Hatwood is currently helping endangered Chacoan peccaries (members of the pig family) this month in Paraguay. She is conducting health evaluations on a large population of Chacoan peccaries born at a breeding center located in the Chaco forest in order to setup a release program in South America. 

July 10

The trip is halfway over and all the peccary immobilizations have been going smoothly. Yesterday we took the morning off to catch up on some individual work, but still examined three peccaries in the afternoon.

Our hosts at Chaco Center for Conservation and Research (CCCI) are wonderful. I already spoke a little about Dr. Juan Campos, the Director of CCCI. Juan has been working at CCCI since 1999. He’s a wealth of knowledge about the native species in the Chaco and the culture of Paraguay. This year. he started working for the University of Florida Agriculture Dept. and recently moved to Florida. While he is not living in Paraguay anymore, he has a great staff here taking care of the animals and property, and he still visits regularly. CCCI runs on donations and grants, so hopefully a more direct connection with UF will help bring in more funds and researchers.

The three staff taking care of the daily operations at CCCI are all Paraguay native. Each one has taken on a distinct role since we arrived.

Javier is the newest staff member of CCCI. He started this year after Juan moved to Florida, that way there are always two people on grounds in case of a problem or emergency. While all the guys have been cooking meals for us, Javier has been cooking the most. His meals are great! He’s a genius at using leftovers to make new dishes, no food goes to waste around here! Javier also has a quick wit; his nickname is “Loro,” which means parrot… because he talks a lot.

Victor has been working at CCCI for 13 years. He is a great tracker and has been our guide in the field during most of the week. He’s always ready to take us spotlighting at night and will usually catch sight of animals before any of us see them. 

A storm was approaching in the distance during our last night of spotlighting. Camelle and I were standing in the back of a pick-up truck and we started heading back to the house as lightning started flashing in the distance.

Suddenly, Victor slammed on the brakes and declared “serpiente!” We assumed he must have saw a snake. He got out of the truck and started flashing a handheld light into the brush alongside the dirt road. Camelle, who speaks Spanish, asked what type of snake he saw, in which he replied “listen to the frog.”

We all stood in silence, confused for a moment, when we heard a light chirp of a frog in distress, and sure enough, Victor followed the sound to a small hole in which a snake was pulling a recently caught frog into. Juan jokes that he taught Victor everything he knows.

Ivan, fondly known as Coco, has been working at CCCI almost as long as Juan, 17 years. He’s a big strong guy and while he seems serious most of the time, he has a great sense of humor. I asked Juan during dinner one night why his nickname is Coco, he said because he is stubborn and hard-headed, like a coconut. Coco has been doing most of our darting the last few days and has been quite the sharp-shooter. While all the guys live in the main house on grounds, Coco recently bought a house in the Chaco, not far from the center. He fell in love in the area and decided to move his family from the city to the new home. I really like work working with Coco, his passion for his work and the Chaco are inspiring.

Food here has been amazing and while we haven’t been able to compete with Javier, Ivan, or Victor’s cooking, Camelle and I have been making deserts throughout the week. We’ve been getting creative, since we have limited ingredients and Camelle definitely wins the award for most unique desert. We had a bunch of egg whites left over after some of the research Annie and Camelle conducted. They were using egg yolks as an extender to cryopreserve sperm samples in liquid nitrogen, and because no food goes to waste, they saved all the whites. Camelle used the egg whites to make a meringue which she had to whisk for about an hour (exhausting!). She used coconut cookies to make a pie crust, lined it with bananas and a homemade caramel glaze and topped it with the meringue. Sounds good? It was!

Yesterday I got a glimpse of a brocket deer running into the bush! These are incredibly elusive animals and difficult to see. Gray brocket deer are common in the area, however, the color of the animal I saw looked to be a brownish red. Martin confirmed this as he got a quick glimpse of the animal as well. While red brocket deer are not commonly spotted in the reserve (usually seen on capture cameras) their natural range does extend down here. Gray brockets can also be a brownish color, so I’m unsure which species we saw. 


During our nightly spotlighting adventures we’ve seen various owl species, crab-eating fox, armadillos, and even a crab-eating raccoon. I spotted the raccoon in the crook of a large tree in the dark. They aren’t as commonly seen as their North American counterparts, so it was an exciting find once we determined what species it was.

Finally, a quick note on the frogs. Paraguay has so many amazing frog species! Yesterday I saw a couple new species that I did not see in my previous visit here, including a purple-barred tree frog. Dr. West found both species of Phyllomedusa, the azurea and the sauvagei species! I think the most interesting find, however, was a frog I found that fell in a post hole and couldn’t get out. I did not recognize it so I took some photos before letting it go. I asked Juan and we tried looking it up in his records, but we have not been able to identify the species (maybe it’s new!). We sent the photos to some of our herpetologist colleagues to see what they think.

Oh, and an update on tapir… I still haven’t seen one, but we did find fresh tracks and feces, so they’re around here somewhere!

July 6

Today was our third day immobilizing and examining peccaries and each day has gone drastically different. The first day all the immobilizations went quick and smooth, and even with a late start we were able to do six animals. Yesterday, we were only able to get three animals done all day. The combination of us trying to pick males out of the groups and the fact that the animals were getting suspicious slowed us down.

Ivan, one of the staff at the Chaco Center for Conservation and Research (CCCI), started helping with the darting on the second day. He is very experienced with  working with Chacoan peccaries, but it is extremely difficult to determine males from females, especially from a distance. Males are our current priority because the reproductive scientist, Annie Newell-Fugate from Texas A&M, will only be here until Saturday; her goal is to study the male’s virility.  

This morning we decided to just dart any animal and hope that the odds would be in our favor, which worked out well after darting five animals, three of which were males.

We also had a little excitement today as a couple of the peccaries started waking up on the table. Normally in a hospital setting, we’d be able to put an animal on Isoflurane, or gas, to help relax them and keep them asleep. We don’t have that option in the field, so we are relying on the injected drug to keep the animal sleeping.

Dosage is a veterinary artwork. Every animal reacts to drugs differently and many factors need to be taken into account, such as the weight of the animal and the stress level before darting (relaxed vs active). When determining dart dosage we don’t want the animal so light that it will wake up during the exam, but we don’t want it so heavy that it causes other medical problems, especially a difficult recovery. We’d rather keep animals on the lighter side, since it is healthier for the animal and prevents bad side effects.

When the peccary started waking up on the table earlier than expected the team jumped into action! The animal’s head was restrained by Martin Ramirez, the Mammal Curator from Woodland Park Zoo. The head is definitely the most dangerous position to be in - their teeth are incredible! Other team members helped carry the struggling animal to the crate, which was where I was stationed, and we were able to slide the animal in and quickly close the doors. I’m happy to say everyone made it through these two lively moments with all their limbs intact.

This is Martin’s first time in Paraguay. I know him from yearly conferences and I’ve enjoyed the extra time we’ve had to talk on this trip. Martin is the Taxon Advisory Group Chair for Pigs, Peccaries and Hippos in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), so his involvement in a project like this is a no-brainer.

I’ve never had the chance to visit Woodland Park Zoo, but I’ve only heard good reviews, so if you are in the Seattle area make sure you check it out. Martin is very excited to see some native animals and we’ve been going on short hikes any chance we get. We haven’t seen many large animals, but we’ve seen some great little mammals around the main house.

During our Facebook Live Event (check out the video below if you haven’t seen it!), Jeff Holland caught a six-banded armadillo. There are eleven species of armadillo in the Chaco and this was the first six- banded one I’ve gotten to see. We took measurements and a weight, any information that we can collect on the endemic species is valuable, so much is still unknown.

This morning I saw a dwarf mara nibbling on some plants behind the house. These animals are incredibly difficult to get photos of and normally I only see them at a distance, so I got super lucky with this one.

For the reptile lovers out there, I could write a whole blog on just the lizards, snakes and amphibians I’ve seen. We had a Bothrops species of snake visit our doorstep as we ventured back to the guest house at the end of the night. These guys are very venomous, so we kept our distance. I also got a nice photo of what I think is a species of Spiny Lizard (Tropidurus ssp.), but I’ll have to get that confirmed. Finally, let me just give a quick note about all the spiders- 1. there are many of them 2. many of them are venomous, 3. they are very cool, and 4. I usually keep my distance (see point #2).

Oh, and one finally note, we found tapir tracks yesterday, so I’m getting closer!

July 5

It’s been a busy couple of days! The team made it through the 6-hour drive to get to Fort Toledo where the conservation center is located. Poverty is high in many parts of Paraguay, which is very apparent along our drive north. Paraguay was historically a prosperous country in South America, but 150 years of wars, and several detrimental dictatorships, has left the country in various states of repair and economic instability.

The landscape of Paraguay changes significantly from one side of the Paraguay River to the other, which pretty much divides the country in half. The East side of the country is tropical and humid forests and the West side of the river consists of humid palm savannas and dense thorn forests known as the Chaco. The entire country is full of biodiversity.

We left the capital city of Asunción in a couple vehicles and crossed the Paraguay River early into our trip, the change in landscape was immediately obvious. We kept our eyes peeled looking for rhea, maned wolf, and a variety of other species along the way. We saw lots of wood rails, savanna hawks, chachalacas, and even screamers on our drive. Unfortunately, the only wild mammal we saw was a dead giant anteater on the side of the road. Juan commented that many giant anteaters meet their end from that road, a sad reality of development and wildlife conflicts. Anteaters are dark colored nocturnal animals and they tend to freeze or stand on hind legs when they see a threat approach, so they are no match for the large trucks that travel the road at night.

The sun was just setting as we arrived at the Chaco Center for Conservation and Research (CCCI) and we stopped on a dirt road to take some pictures of a flock of turquoise-fronted amazon parrots and the beautiful sunset. It’s winter down here right now and the temperatures are perfect, averaging in the high 70’s.

We unloaded all the medical supplies we brought at the main house at CCCI and the staff helped us settle in the guest house, which includes 3 bedrooms with bunks and 2 bathrooms. The accommodations are very nice, especially for the middle of the Chaco. The two buildings have running water and electricity. All the water is runoff rainwater from the buildings and collected in a well. The well water is then pumped up to small tanks above the roofline, and is gravity fed down when we turn a faucet on. We can’t drink the water from the faucets, but it will be great to be able to shower while we’re here.

Tuesday morning we quickly set-up all the medical equipment and were able to dart the first Chacoan peccary (commonly called Tagua) by 9:30am. The exams have several goals, including the overall health of the captive bred population, DNA for parentage determination and reproductive health exams. Dr. Gary West, a veterinarian from Phoenix Zoo, is darting a majority of the animals.

Phoenix Zoo has a long history working with peccary and were the first zoo to import Chacoan peccary into the United States in 1996. The Phoenix Zoo also awarded me a grant to help pay for my travel and medical supplies for this trip. Thanks Phoenix Zoo!!

Zoos are vital for many conservation projects; the medical knowledge and husbandry expertise that zoos have has a direct impact on projects like Proyecto Tagua at CCCI. Dr. West has a lot of practical medical experience working with Chacoan peccaries at the Phoenix Zoo, so determining the best drug combination to dart them with is important, especially when working with such an endangered species. I actually worked with Dr. West for several years before coming to Audubon, which is also where I got my experience working with peccaries. He’s a great vet; very knowledgeable, easy to work with, and always keeps a cool head - which are all traits you want when working with someone in the field.

The peccaries are housed in large groups in very large open pens and are typically a flighty species. The first few were pretty easy to anesthetize; they didn’t really know what was happening and let us approach close before running away. After about the third one, though, they started to catch on. Eventually Dr. West had to start hiding in the pens and wait for the peccaries to walk nearby. There are several of these pens at the Center, so hopefully we can vary which one we do each day to throw them off.

We were able to examine 6 peccaries our first day, two males and four females. The first animal took us a while to process, but by the end of the day, we were completing female exams in 20 minutes and males in 40 minutes.

The males are taking longer because we have a reproductive endocrinologist with us that is doing important research on male sperm production. The data she is collecting is all new information that may have some grand applications for endangered peccary and pig species. The last animal was completed shortly after dark (it gets dark at 5:30pm this time of year) and we were all ready to call it a day and eat!

Our 4th of July in Paraguay was spent doing many of the traditional things that we would do if we were home. Juan and his staff (Victor, Javier, Ivan) started a camp fire for us - we roasted hot dogs, baked apples in the coals, and ate lots of watermelon. Juan put up some colored Christmas lights (our version of fireworks) and we joked that he painted some of the areas red, white and blue just for us (which are the same colors of the Paraguay flag). It was a great night celebrating among friends.

July 3, 2017

I arrived in Asunción, the Capital city of Paraguay, safely after 18 hours of travel. Here I met up with the rest of the team that I will be spending the next two weeks with, I’ll introduce you to them all as the week progresses. There is a lot to do in the city before we drive the 6 hours north to the Chaco Center for Conservation and Research (CCCI). The first and most important - food. Buying fourteen days’ worth of meals for ten people equals a lot of food; but three full shopping carts and 4.2 million Guarani later (roughly $750 US), we feel confident that we won’t go hungry. The food in Paraguay is really amazing. If you ever get a chance to try some of the local flavor, I suggest the chipa, a small cheese flavored roll, and any beef item. Paraguay is known for their cattle ranching and you will never go wrong trying out any local beef dish.

Meals with zoo and research colleagues are always entertaining. Stories about animals, co-workers and innovative ideas to “save the world” are always common topics. Today we were treated to a local story about the seven legendary monsters, or cursed sons, of Paraguay. These monsters are mythological creatures that serve as gods, or spirits, in local legend. Juan Campos, born and raised in Paraguay and who serves as the Director of CCCI, told the story to us as we sat outside eating lunch at a local restaurant. I found the stories of the spirits fascinating and here are a few of my favorites, but you can look all of them up online if you are interested.

Mbói Tu’I (sounds like “boy two ee”) has the body of a snake and the head of a parrot. This spirit protects wetlands and aquatic life; so much Louisiana wildlife is dependent on wetland habitat, I thought this was a relatable spirit to my home state.

Jasy Jatere is the god of siesta (mid-day nap) and the protector of hidden treasures. He is depicted as a small man with long blonde hair, blue eyes, and carries a staff. Juan said that parents will often use this monster to get their children to take their naps. Jasy Jatere searches through villages for children that are not taking their siesta and when he finds them, he lures them into the forest where they are never seen again. Some stories say that he feeds them to his cannibalistic brother, Ao Ao. It’s a creepy myth, and reminds me of the many boogeyman stories heard in many cultures.

Teju Jagua has the body of a lizard and the head of a dog, giving him a dragon-like appearance. He is the spirit of caves and protector of fruit. He would also guard treasures found in caves and his scales would glisten with gold and precious stones from rolling around in the treasure.

Paraguay is full of history and culture. The language is a mixed combination of Spanish and Guaraní (the language of the indigenous people); I speak neither, but the people are extremely friendly and always willing to help me struggle through. Luckily, Juan is always happy to translate when needed.

We head out early tomorrow for CCCI. It’s a long trip north and gets more rural the further we go out. I remember seeing rhea, Jabiru storks, and Chaco tortoise on the road trip during my last visit, and I hope we see some great wildlife tomorrow, too. I have two big wish list animals to see this week in the wild, the first is tapir and the second is jaguarondi. I almost got to see tapir during my last visit, but after tracking them for hours we never found them. The Chaco is full of amazing South American species. I’ll be sure to post lots of photos this week, so stay tuned!

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