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Dec 23, 2011

Manatee rescue operation comes close

There are approximately a thousand manatees in Belize. Manatees are an endangered species and for the past year we have regularly reported on accidental deaths caused by careless mariners on the coast. A few weeks ago, local conservationists received a call from a Fisheries Department employee who lives in Sandhill, that there was a family of manatees trapped near the Mexico Creek Bridge on the Northern Highway. Because the rainy season is over, water levels have depleted making rocky areas impassable for the large mammals. It is believed that two of the smaller manatees managed to escape the low lying area, however, one larger animal remained stuck where it could starve to death or become easy prey for hunters. At nine this morning News Five joined the Sea to Shore Alliance and Fisheries Officers as they attempted to capture the endangered animal. They intended to take it to an area of the river that has higher water levels and vegetation, however at least today, the manatee proved to be elusive.

Nicole Auil Gomez, Conservation Biologist /Consultant

“Right now the animal cannot pass because of the rapids. The system is not considered sustainable. There is not enough vegetation and it is going to be decreasing the water levels.”

Jose Sanchez

“Since then what has happened?

Nicole Auil Gomez, Conservation Biologist /Consultant

“We identified the animal several times. Gales point community, CZMAI and we are all here trying to catch the animals .We have made several attempts to drag the animal down into a large specialized manatee capture net. We have seen the animals several times trying to enclose it but it has not been successful.”

Jose Sanchez

The men in the boat, I noticed they were hitting the water. Is that the method being used?”

Nicole Auil Gomez

“That was trying to get the manatees to come downstream. So the manatee, when it hears other noise and sees other people, it’s trying to evade the people. It’s trying to evade us so it’s moving up stream. We actually have a small net set across to block the animal from going too far and the guys in the canoe are using the paddles to slap the water to scare the animal back down stream. But the animal kept circling and it’s just doing this circular pattern and that actually is very interesting. It’s often seen in animals that are distressed; they’ll start to circle or pace like a tiger in a cage would pace. It wasn’t really coming down often and it came down and I think we had three attempts when it came close enough to the net to catch it.”

Jose Sanchez

“I know it’s far away but can you tell us the kind of vegetation it needs to sustain itself? What happens if you don’t get it soon?”

Nicole Auil Gomez

“Well, the first assessment was made on December seventh so that’s about two weeks ago. When I noticed it, it doesn’t look emaciated. You would forms on the back, you would see ribs; we’re not seeing that. The ideal situation would be to bring the animal up and do a health assessment because it’s difficult to do an assessment when the animal is in the water and you only get a very short glimpse of it. There is some vegetation but likely not enough to carry it out for another few months or so to the wet season again. We’re probably going to just try again after the Christmas; get the crew and try again.”

Jim McFadzean, Channel 7

“Have you estimated or determined the size of the manatee and what are the migratory patterns in Belize?

Nicole Auil Gomez

“Well, that’s a very good question because these systems we’re not really looking at. The river systems in particular are very difficult because there are so many tributaries; the manatees can go anywhere. We do tagging and captures and tracking in Belize City and in southern lagoon in Placencia. Right now, none of the animals that we tagged have come to this type of system.”

The team will attempt another rescue effort next week.

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