October 08, 2019

By Justin Elden, Herpetarium Keeper

Belize is a naturalist's dream come true. Much of the country has been set aside as wildlife preserves for hundreds of species of animals. Having such healthy, viable ecosystems can cause some issues for the people living side by side with nature. The lush rainforest and beautiful blue oceans are great places to find wild animals, and there are plenty of venomous snakes.

One species of venomous snake, called a terciopelo, is a very common and potentially deadly species of pit viper. These snakes are the cause of many snake bites throughout Central America due to their abundance and ability to make themselves right at home around villages. Working with potentially deadly snakes can be difficult, and the people who work with Belize wildlife certainly have their hands full.

While in Belize for a conference this past June, I taught a workshop to rangers from the Belize forestry department in collaboration with the Crocodile Research Coalition and the International Herpetological Symposium. In this workshop, rangers learned about basic serpent biology and the misconceptions and myths associated with them. This workshop included hands-on training from experts such as myself, and the students took turns using hooks and tongs to move a surrogate venomous snake, a Boa constrictor from the local zoo. The goal was to better prepare these front-line staff with the skills necessary to safely manage snakes in the field. The next time there is a problematic snake, the Belize forestry staff will have the skills and experience to relocate the animal in a manner that is safe for people and the snake.

At the Saint Louis Zoo, my fellow Herpetarium keepers and I not only take exceptional care of our collection of animals, but we also use our expertise to help wildlife and communities around the globe through fieldwork, research and capacity building. Not all conservation is science. Sometimes it's as easy as teaching a course and having long conversations with the people who work with animals in the wild.

Allowing keepers to share their expertise around the globe for the benefit of people and wildlife is something the Zoo takes pride in, and it is an integral part of human/animal conservation strategies.