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On the Trail of the Pygmy Raccoon

by Kevin Schafer / iLCP

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel Island, Mexico. Less than 500 remain in existence.

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel Island, Mexico.

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.

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel Island, Mexico

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.

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel Island, Mexico

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.

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Sign for Critically endangered

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.

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel

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.

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel Island, Mexico

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.

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel Island, Mexico

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.

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel Island, Mexico

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.”

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel Island, Mexico

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.

Pygmy Raccoon (Procyon pygmaeus) Critically endangered, Cozumel Island, Mexico

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

 

Comments

  1. Kevin Schafer
    Seattle, WA
    February 24, 10:29 am

    Dear Lyne, Good to hear from you – thanks for your comments. You’re lucky to have seen the Cozumel Thraher! They are almost extinct. It sounds like the Country Club is a good place to see wildlife – with very different animals than the courses at home!

  2. Lyne Rivest
    Gatineau, Quebec, Canada
    February 22, 8:47 am

    Hi Kevin,

    We are members at the Cozumel Country Club and spend a lot of time on the course. We have seen them all over the course over the pass 13th years. The Cozumel Trasher and a fork humming bird. Benny Campo the course Director is an avid photographer that my husband help choose the right equipment to take pictures of the fauna around the course. He has a great knowledge of what and were they can be found on the course. We have seen some small wild pigs around the course. I have also noticed that the great amount of rain de Island received this fall help the American crocodile expend their territory which didn’t help all the indigenous creatures. Good luck and keep righting so we can better be informed on what has touriste we should ans shouldn’t to preserve them around the island for a long time.

  3. Romina Mora
    México
    February 20, 1:13 am

    Of course, together, and the more the better!! It’s Cozumel’s task and duty, by Cozumel i don’t mean just the government… i mean all Cozumel habitants, mexican, canadians, americans, kids, scientists, tour operators… tourists. We will continue working on this too. Creating awareness. Tons of light for you. See you in Cozumel soon :)

  4. Kevin Schafer
    Seattle, WA
    February 19, 4:04 pm

    Thanks, Romina, for your comments, and your resort’s efforts on behalf of Cozumel’s remarkable natural heritage. I am happy to do anything I can to help – together, I think we can make an enormous difference. I look forward to returning to Cozumel later this year to continue my work.

  5. Romina Mora
    México
    February 19, 2:47 pm

    At Coral Princess Hotel and Resort in Cozumel Island we have always worried and tried to inform our guests about this issue with our pygmy Racoons, other endemic species and Sea turtles. It is important that locals and visitors KNOW what we have in our Island, how rich it is, how important, and do our best to protect it and conserve it. I am personally thrilled to read an international article about our Pygmy Racoons, i think it can help us put our authorities against the ropes to DO and continue with more protection and conservation programs and legal actions to keep our fauna and flora alive and safe. Thanks so much for your time and concern Mr. Schafer

  6. thisiscozumel.com
    Cozumel, Mexico
    February 19, 10:30 am

    An interesting, well-informed article with great photos, thank you for highlighting the plight of this wonderful Cozumel animal. We hope that with education and some other simple measures they can still be saved. We also wrote a story about them back in 2011 which you and your readers may be interested to see here: http://thisiscozumel.com/news/203-2011-archive/1116-island-wildlife-pygmy-raccoons