June 6, 2014
Wildlife biology students often send questions for our jaguar guardians on the Northern Jaguar Reserve. We forwarded some of these to Javier Valenzuela, a jaguar guardian since 2012, and the resulting Q&A below provides a glimpse of his life on the reserve…
1. What are your job responsibilities? How would you describe a typical workday?
As a jaguar guardian, my responsibilities in the field are to ensure no one enters the Northern Jaguar Reserve without permission, perform monthly checks of the motion-triggered cameras, change batteries and memory cards when necessary, list wildlife sightings (including jaguar prey species), and record animal sign – such as scat, tracks, scratchings, etc. I explore the area to put cameras at sites that have good potential to obtain wildlife photos, and I report when there is damage to the reserve infrastructure. I also address the ranchers’ concerns and try to find solutions to their problems.
In the office, my responsibilities consist of creating databases with photo records of all species and technical reports that examine where feline presence and prey species are evident. I compose a narrative and blog outlining what we have accomplished in the field. My work involves identifying individual jaguars from the photos and compiling award tables for the Viviendo con Felinos ranchers’ photographs of jaguar, ocelot, mountain lion, and bobcat. I set up meetings with ranchers to deliver prizes, discuss protecting wildlife on their ranches, and to keep them informed about the project. I also meet with students who are doing internships or a thesis.
When we are working in the field, we get up very early, have breakfast and pack all of the necessary equipment in order to check the cameras, such as batteries, memory cards, replacement cameras, etc. The time it takes to check a camera depends on the distance we have to travel. If the first sites are nearby, we can finish those by noon. When that happens, we will go out again in the afternoon to check another site that is fairly close. For camera locations where we have to hike farther, we will often return after 2:00 in the afternoon, and then we can only go to another site for a second trip if time allows. We review all of the memory cards while in the field and download the photographs taken that month. We live and work alongside the ranchers if we find them on their properties. At the office, we work as a team. The workload varies according to the importance of each project. I usually begin by composing the narrative and blog for that month’s trip, but there are often time-sensitive activities that need to be completed. Usually the work is calm and enjoyable. Our team is good at supporting one another when there is a larger workload.
2. What kinds of internships and previous experience did you have? What steps did you take to get your job?
My professional experience began with a bird monitoring project organized by ornithologist Aaron Flesch and the Sky Island Alliance. My work consisted of performing surveys and identifying trees where we had transects to observe and identify birds. Aaron introduced me to NJP, Naturalia, and the Northern Jaguar Reserve when he heard about the need for a new field biologist. After my interview yet before I was hired, I went on a trip to the reserve on a trial basis to evaluate my field abilities. Working as a jaguar guardian, I have learned how motion-triggered cameras work, how to compose the necessary reports, and have supported visiting field researchers from a variety of disciplines.
3. How many hours a week do you work? Do you ever work irregular hours?
It depends on the fieldwork, which can vary between eight to 13 hours a day. There is a mix of short and longer days depending on logistics and travel time to faraway sites. A week in the field can range from 56 to 70 hours. At the office, we work eight hours a day.
4. Does your job allow you to have a family life? Does it interfere at all?
When my work takes me to the field, I am away from home for a couple weeks at a time without my family. But I am 100 percent dedicated to them when I am in town and working at the office or on my days off. Sometimes my job interferes with important family dates or I am in the field when something serious occurs. Occasionally on my days off, I am asked to help out with work related to the reserve, but my family and I accepted this when I took the job and try to remain flexible. We know that there will be times when we are cut off from one another with no means of communication (telephone, Internet, cell phone) while I am in the field.
5. How many years have you been practicing in this profession?
Almost four years.
6. Did you have to move far to find work?
My hometown is about seven hours from Hermosillo. I had to seek work away from home since there are more opportunities in bigger cities. Now that I am here, it does not seem that far away. Some of the other people I work with come from further south in Mexico. At least I live and work in the same state (Sonora) where I grew up.
7. What’s most enjoyable about your job?
I like being in touch with nature and living a tranquil life outdoors, where I can hear birds singing, bees buzzing, and coyotes howling at night. There are many magical places on the reserve that are always a pleasure to visit. I like to explore a lot, and occasionally will go to the river and catch a fish for dinner after a day’s work.
8. Do you LOVE your job or is it tolerable?
This is the type of work I always hoped I would find. I believe working outdoors is the best job in the world. Stress, noise, and pollution stay behind in the city, and I am transformed in a place where I can really enjoy my work. I have fun and learn a lot from what I experience in the field each day.
9. Did you pursue a higher education degree that helped you?
After I received my bachelor’s degree, I could not advance my studies and pursue a master’s due to lack of funds. I have debts from my graduation and student loans that I am working on paying off, so that has curbed my desire to continue further study for now.
10. Did it take you very long to find work out of college? If so, what did you do for work while job searching?
Once I graduated, it took about eight months before I could find work as a biologist. During that time, I worked in a medical supply warehouse where I sorted the medicines that pharmacies order.
11. Do you find your job stressful? If so, how do you relax after a long day?
I do not find it stressful in the field. When possible, we all make a very good meal together that is typical for Sonora, like carne asada. There is more stress in town with the office workload and reports to complete. To relax, I just rest the best way I can.
12. If you had to do it again, would you pick this career?
I would definitely choose this career path again. Since I was young, biology was my first choice to study because it includes conservation. This is something I like and is very necessary today.