Student - 23 februari 2017

‘On the island everything seemed so surreal’

Who? Maddie van der Poel (23), Master’s student of Forest and Nature Conservation
What? Master’s thesis on ocelots
Where? Barro Colorado Island, Panama

‘Barro Colorado Island is a complete scientific reserve in the middle of the Panama Canal. The island is part of the famous Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and is nearly untouched by humans. I was there during the low season when only fifteen people lived on the island and hardly anybody came to visit. I really enjoyed this situation as I could make deep relationships with the few people who were there.

I did my thesis on the population development of ocelots during the last 20 years. I spent a lot of time at the office processing photos from camera traps which are positioned all around the island. During my time on Barro Colorado Island I went through 140,000 pictures and made notes on the species, age and activities of the animals on them. I was lucky that my work was supervised by highly experienced and well-known scientists.

Sweat and dirt
I also did a lot of hard fieldwork. We went out five days a week to replace the camera traps and to look for dead animals on the trails. During the five-hour walks we had to cross streams, find our way through dense lianas and climb up crazy slopes. The two girls I worked with and I always made a competition out of it to motivate each other. We fell over a lot on the slippery trails and returned covered in sweat, dirt, spines and bugs. The shower was always the best part of these days.

During the trail walks we encountered the fascinating wildlife of the island. Once, we walked into a howler monkey totally by chance. It was sitting on a branch right next to the trail and stayed there to look at us. It was great to see the animal up close whose call woke us up every morning. We also saw many coatis, which look like a cross between a cat and a monkey. When you approach coatis you should always sing or scream to give them a warning. Otherwise, they might panic and hurt themselves while fleeing.

Real world
I went back home with mixed feelings. I had a great time so I was sad to leave, but I was really looking forward to getting back to the real world. On the island everything seemed so surreal.’