By Kevin Schafer
No, this is not your average raccoon. And that, precisely, is the point of this story. For one of the world’s most endangered carnivores has had the misfortune of looking like a common neighborhood pest – the raccoon. But the Pygmy Raccoon of Mexico’s Cozumel Island is not at all the same. Although it shares the familiar face mask of its North American cousin, the Pygmy Raccoon is roughly half the size, has shorter fur, and a handsome reddish tail. The other major difference? There may no more than 300 of them left on Earth.
I first learned of the Pygmy Raccoon when I served on a team of photographers sent to document nature and conservation issues on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The project was organized by the iLCP : the International League of Conservation Photographers, of which I am a founding Fellow. For several weeks in 2009, photographers like myself spread out all over the Yucatan, documenting endangered wildlife and land use, fishing practices and ecotourism.
One of my colleagues, Roy Toft, came back from the field with some of the first pictures I’d ever seen of an animal I’d never heard of – the Pygmy Raccoon. Intrigued, I decided to try and find out more about this animal. The fact is, for the past five years, I have made it my mission to tell the stories of little-known, often critically-endangered, animals that don’t garner the headlines of more iconic animals like tigers and polar bears. Every species, in my view, deserves its own headlines, especially one like this, perched on the edge of oblivion.
To arm myself with information, I contacted some Mexican biologists who have worked on Cozumel and read whatever scientific data I could find about the raccoons’ habitat and behavior. Then I got on a plane to go see for myself.
Landing in Cozumel, I rented a car and headed out on the road to the north end of the island. This undeveloped part of Cozumel is largely comprised of mangrove swamps, which in part, explains why it has avoided the same rampant development seen elsewhere on this tourism-driven island. At the far edge of town, beyond the all-inclusive resorts and beach condos, the pavement abruptly stopped, beginning a mud and puddle roller-coaster ride through a wet, otherwise impenetrable, tropical forest. Eventually the track ended at the island’s northwest coast, a staging area for fishermen and their boats.
According to my sources this was where I was likely to have the best chance of seeing raccoons, and hoped that I might at least find one on this first afternoon. I needn’t have worried: almost as soon as I parked my car, I came upon a Mexican family with young children, all happily doling out potato chips to a gaggle of ten or more endangered raccoons. Clearly, finding raccoons was not going to be so hard.
Very quickly, I had encountered one of the issues that affect the status of Pygmy Raccoons here on Cozumel. They are well-known and generally liked: fishermen feed them every day, and people from around the island like to picnic with them when they come out this way. On the downside, Pringles and stale tortillas are probably not the healthiest things to be feeding an endangered, meat-eating mammal. The other issue, of course, is that few people are likely to believe that such a common, habituated animal could possibly be so rare.
As a photographer, of course, I was delighted to find the animals so easy to locate, but getting nothing but shots of furry beggars – endangered or not — was not what I was after. Fortunately, I quickly noticed that once they stopped looking at me as a snack-source on two legs, they would revert to something approaching natural behavior. So, for the next week, I spent every daylight hour in their company, following them as they foraged for food, squabbled with one another, and slept off the lazy afternoons in the faint breeze of the treetops.
What I was not able to capture on that trip, however, was their behavior at night. Pygmy Raccoons are largely nocturnal, foraging on small crabs that live in the mangrove forest, but following them at night proved an enormous challenge. First, those mangrove thickets are prohibitively dense, which may explain, in part, why these animals are reduced in size; you have to be small to get through this stuff.
That part of the story will have to wait until my next trip, later this year, when I will be working a team of scientists studying the raccoons, and some of Cozumel’s other unique animals. For although I had the sense that these animals could easily vanish almost without anyone noticing, the fact is that there are efforts underway to save the Pygmy Raccoon.
According to Dr. Alfredo Cuarón, Director of SACBE, a Mexican science-based conservation NGO, there is progress being made on several fronts. Two protected areas have been created on the island since 2010, which together comprise almost 50% of the island’s 478 sq. km. The island has also adopted a conservation-based land-use plan which, among other things, provides new regulations for protecting habitat for native wildlife.
At the same time, Cuarón says, a public education program about the island’s native species is also underway. “After decades of almost exclusive focus in Cozumel on coral reef conservation,” explains Cuarón, “we have been able to place some of the terrestrial species and their conservation issues in the island’s inhabitants minds. The pygmy raccoon is only one of almost 40 Cozumel endemic animal species or subspecies – many of them in dire conservation situation.”
Still, considerable challenges remain, not the least of which is the presence of non-native predators. While feral cats and dogs are bad enough, a truly terrifying development was the accidental importation of boa constrictor snakes, not native to the island, but now spread to its every corner. No wonder that native birds on the island, most notably the Cozumel Thrasher, are almost extinct.
Clearly, saving Cozumel’s unique array of wildlife will not be easy, requiring a coordinated program of habitat protection, public education, and the removal of non-native predators. My goal, as an ILCP photographer, is inform, illustrate and inspire that effort. Photos.
Kevin Schafer is a natural history and conservation photographer, whose work has appeared in all of the most respected science and nature magazines in the world. His primary focus is on documenting little-known and endangered species worldwide, including Amazon River Dolphins for National Geographic Magazine.
Kevin is a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, and one of the originators of their flagship RAVE initiative. He was named the Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year for 2007 by NANPA (the North American Nature Photographers Assoc.) His book, Penguin Planet, received the National Outdoor Book Award. For more information, see www.kevinschafer.com