Growing up in Belize’s tropical climate, I never saw myself as a person who would enjoy deserts and grasslands. But being immersed in the Sky Islands has truly changed my perception.
Recently I spent five days in the region as part of Sky Island Alliance’s Path of the Jaguar internship, and I was able to help with multiple studies that the organization runs along the border.
Spring Seeker is a program that assesses the health of springs throughout the Sky Islands. It’s so important to study these precious water sources, and I personally found the best part was navigating and actively “seeking” out the springs. In this dry climate any spring found was a success, and the act of actually getting to a GPS point and seeing running water or even a slight puddle felt like a mini victory.
We were aided by three very skilled SIA staff who were tasked with keeping us alive for the week. They did a fantastic job. Bryon Lichtenhan, Eamon Harrity, and Aleidys Romero were all very knowledgable, and I often found myself surprised by how much they knew about the Sky Islands.
I spent the week testing my knowledge throughout the mountains as I expanded my identification skills on birds, reptiles and plants. As we navigated through washes to locate springs, I learned it was easier to identify where a source of water was based on the plants nearby. It became a fun game to identify the mesquite, alligator juniper, oak, and cottonwood trees around us. We hiked up steep slopes and into deep washes. It was a landscape I had never experienced before, and I was in constant awe.
Throughout the week we also helped with SIA’s Border Wildlife Study and learned about how barriers are affecting wildlife migration and gene flow. Our group had already gone to the border once before, but it felt just as surreal each time. And even though I’m familiar with borders in Belize, the barriers here seemed so barbaric. Having seen the destruction documented in the short film ”American Scar,” it was heartbreaking to witness these natural areas being destroyed. One positive from all this is that we checked wildife cameras so close to the border that we saw the impacts humanitarian groups have on migrants, as they had left out food and blankets along the migrants’ path.
The Border Wildlife Study quickly became my favorite part of the trip, as we got the opportunity to navigate to the camera locations. Our gracious guides took a step back so we could experience the trial and error of navigation. If we were headed in the wrong direction, they allowed us the chance to correct ourselves and understand that there’s a need for flexibility when it comes to conditions out in the field.
Before the Path of the Jaguar internship, I had never been camping. So being fully immersed in the Sky Islands was the best way to appreciate the flora and fauna in all their beauty and biodiversity. I will say all the monsoon rain and thunderstorms did make sleeping and collecting data a little more difficult, but being surrounded by such passionate people kept our morale high.
From swimming in canyon lakes and natural pools to bird watching at Coronado National Forest, I couldn’t be more grateful for the experience I’ve had with Sky Island Alliance. Previously I’ve worked with organizations that say they value diversity, but saying so is one thing. With SIA, it felt genuine and I could clearly see their passion and impact on both sides of the border. I felt welcomed into this internship, and throughout the week I felt empowered being surrounded by women of color who were working toward similar conservation goals. SIA staff were truly great guides, and I won’t forget this experience or all that I learned.
Photos by Samai Bhojwani.