Welcome to the Jungle: Mason Researcher Tracks Illegal Pet Trade in Belize

Posted: December 13, 2010 at 1:04 am, Last Updated: December 13, 2010 at 8:31 am

By Tara Laskowski

Sylvia Vitazkova in the field. Photo by Ray Castellanos

It’s hot and humid. Blue crabs are crawling up Sylvia Vitazkova’s leg, and venomous coral snakes are slithering through the rainforest grass. Her hand has already swelled from a bug bite, and she and her husband, her research partner, have slogged through thick swamps to get to the right spot in the jungle.

Now they sit and wait for the black howler monkeys to wake up — and poop.

Not a dream job for everyone, maybe, but Vitazkova loves it. An animal biologist with a PhD in ecology, evolution and environmental biology, Vitazkova studies disease transmission between humans and animals.

She is also concerned about conservation and animal habitat protection. So for the past several years, she has been working specifically with the monkeys, which are known for the loud howls they emit to begin and end each day. Vitazkova has just received grant money to help protect them from the illegal pet trade.

Black howler monkeys are found in Belize, the Yucatan Peninsula and parts of Guatemala. Though their habitat is small, there are quite a few monkeys left, Vitazkova says. However, their habitat is shrinking due to urbanization and population growth, and they are more susceptible to diseases due to deforestation and pollution of water sources.

Vitazkova, an assistant professor in New Century College and deputy director of the Mason Center for Conservation Studies, is working in Southern Belize right now laying the groundwork for a multiyear research project that aims to study disease transmission, keep the monkeys safe and educate the local citizens about the animals and their habitat.

She is starting a research center there that will allow her to track the monkeys and gather feces samples — an effective and noninvasive way to learn a lot about the animals.

A black howler monkey. Photo by Jeff Mansfield

“There’s so much you can learn from poop,” Vitazkova says. “We can obtain an entire genetic profile of these monkeys.”

This genetic profile comes in handy for her latest project funded by the Morris Animal Foundation, which will allow Vitazkova and co-principal investigator and Mason environmental and science policy professor Cody Edwards to track the illegal pet trade in Belize.

The team will take monkey fecal samples from all over the country and create genetic profiles of the animals. They will then compare these samples to samples from monkeys that were confiscated from illegal pet traders. Because monkeys in the same geographic location share genetic similarities, Vitazkova can then trace where the illegally traded monkeys were captured.

“We are trying to pinpoint any hotspots where the monkeys are being taken so we can focus on enforcement and conservation education in those areas,” says Vitazkova. Their efforts could be translated to other species, as well.

Vitazkova is also coordinating a summer course at Mason through the Center for Field Studies on rainforest conservation. She will take a group of students to Belize in late May to study ecology, rainforest conservation, ecotourism, policy and more. Students will get hands-on field work experience, including tracking howler monkeys, examining fecal samples, visiting a butterfly farm, hiking and examining the effects of illegal logging.

In addition to building awareness and educating students, Vitazkova and her husband, who is Belizean, are involving the local residents in her project. Using “citizen science,” the couple will invite Belizeans to help track the monkeys, providing packets to use in documenting when they see or hear the howler monkeys.

“It’s a great way to involve the local community and at the same time raise awareness of these animals,” Vitazkova says.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu