From fear to friendship – Insights from leading crocodile researcher Dr Marisa Tellez

“I knew what I wanted, and I went for it” says Dr Marisa Tellez.

From about 5 years old, instead of playing with dolls, Dr Marisa Tellez was evolving her knowledge of the world’s top predators. Starting with her love for great white sharks, Marisa became fascinated by this species that survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Learning of their pivotal role in the ecosystem and how human fear threatens their existence, inspired Marisa to become an advocate for predators. Now Marisa thrives in the field of crocodilian conservation in Belize, running the Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC), a Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) she founded in 2016.

Marisa holding 4 American Crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) that are only a few weeks old. Credit: Marisa Tellez.

From animal flashcards to co-founding an organisation

Marisa reflects on why she works in conservation: “I was about five years old and one Christmas or birthday, my Dad gave me a stack of three books, and one of them was about great white sharks. I just fell in love with sharks, so that’s what got me into predators.”

Fast-forward to 2005, Marisa graduated with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in Zoology and a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in Cultural Anthropology. She shares her post-graduation struggles of finding work experience: “then I couldn’t find anything to work with wildlife”.

She finally entered a hands-on position at the eco-station, a small wildlife sanctuary, gaining experience in community education. From there, she went to the LA Zoo, where she decided to venture back into Academia, resulting in her receiving a Master’s and PhD in Biology. Now an Executive Director at CRC, Marisa loves spending her time out in the field, alongside organising grants and projects.

One thing is clear from Marisa’s career path – she forms life-long connections
and never burns her bridges. “Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve kept a contact”, says Marisa.

Connections, connections, connections

Marisa’s connections from as early as her time at the Eco-station have allowed her
to collaborate and partner-up and ultimately, succeed in the conservation field. “Collaboration is key”, Marisa shares.  She progresses her career by networking, which involves forming leadership skills by asking questions and speaking out. “You can’t give up – you need to keep going and you’ll eventually get that yes”.

What’s one of the proudest moments of your career?

Growing up, Marisa never saw women, or people of colour being considered as crocodilian experts.  But in 2022, she was asked to appear in National Geographic’s show, ‘Something Bit Me!’ to educate viewers on the science behind crocodilian attacks.

Here’s Marisa featuring in a Nat Geo’s ‘Something Bit Me!’ episode about American Alligators:

Following her appearance on the show, Marisa received messages from families sharing their daughters’ excitement and aspirations of becoming a scientist after watching her on TV. Not only is Marisa a leading crocodilian advocate, she’s also an inspiration who breaks down barriers, and proves that conserving wildlife is about connecting with people and forming communities.

Marisa’s advice to those following in her footsteps

“Always keep a foot in the door with something around wildlife [wildlife opportunities] to make sure your skills and knowledge stay up to date. Science and conservation are constantly changing so you always want to try being up to date with that kind of information.” Marisa’s advice to early scientists is to attend conferences, meetings,
and events because you never know who you’re going to meet.

The CRC participating in the IUCN/SSC-Crocodile Specialist Group meeting in Chetumal, Mexico in July 2023. Credit: Marisa Tellez.

“Constantly try to find those volunteering and internship opportunities”, says Marisa, “and if you’re paying for something, make sure that you’re truly going to receive back.”

She explains that internship fees are effectively conservation donations, that contribute to research excursions, equipment, etc. Particularly with smaller non-profits [NPOs] such as CRC, wildlife opportunities provide invaluable skills and experience, and at the same time, you’re giving back to the boots on the ground in conservation.

CRC progress

Heading into their 7th year, CRC has achieved a lot in a short time, and continue to expand and collaborate. Not only do they promote crocodilian conservation throughout Central America, but they also:

  • Partner with the Placencia Humane Society (PHS) to create a Wildlife Triage Centre and act as a rescue responder.
  • Conduct avian health and biodiversity monitoring during migratory season.
  • Were the first to initiate green Iguana population surveys in Placencia Lagoon in Southern Belize.
  • Are the first responders for manatees around Placencia Lagoon, Belize.
  • Perform drone surveys to monitor the Placencia Lagoon population.

… and the list goes on. It doesn’t stop there; CRC has plans to commence a primate programme, and initiate a satellite station in Dominican Republic in 2024.

Building the next generation of scientists

“We [CRC] have internship and volunteer opportunities, and we also invite graduate students to come and do their research here. One thing I try to stress with our internships is that it’s more of a mentorship programme – we’re putting our energy into you to build your confidence and scientific knowledge.”

Interns receive 1:1 mentorship, with the possibility of working with other non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) and linking with regional partners. “Especially when it comes to wildlife conflict, the experience that they’ve [interns] learned here has helped them get jobs. And long-term interns have even published papers.”

Marisa continuously reflects on her projects and internship programmes, and how they can be improved as she is passionate about providing the highest standard, built on a strong foundation of science and conservation. She often speaks with applying interns to provide an understanding of what their experience will consist of, so they feel accomplished with their time spent with CRC. “We’re [CRC] really trying to build the next generation of scientists and conservationists.”

You can find out about CRC’s opportunities here.

Tolerance and co-existence – The importance of community outreach

Community outreach is a critical part of CRC’s work. The surrounding community has learnt to co-exist with crocodiles and are even educating new neighbours to the area. Marisa feels there’s a lot to learn from rural ancient indigenous or indigenous communities but that it gets overshadowed by modern society.

CRC’s work with local communities in Belize is crucial in establishing a connection between humans and some of the most important animals in our ecosystem. She feels solutions for co-existing with wildlife can be discovered in indigenous communities.

Community outreach is an integral part of an intern’s journey with CRC, Marisa explains “so you get a more holistic understanding of what true conservation is”.

“Interns learn the language for successful community outreach in Belize which is home to 6 ethnic groups and various religious backgrounds and age groups. Marisa is surprised that so many programmes don’t push community outreach. You’re doing research for no point because you’re always going to be struggling for conservation.

The American Crocodile (C. acutus). Credit: Marisa Tellez.

Marisa shares the objective of community outreach: “We’re not trying to convert people into crocodile lovers; it’s just about tolerance and co-existence, building that scientific knowledge. From 8 years old, Marisa has been passionate about forming the bridge between people and nature once again.

You can learn more about the CRC’s work via website or Facebook page, or follow Marisa’s work on LinkedIn.

 

 Author Profile | Jenna Douglas

Jenna has an undergraduate degree in Zoology, and strives
to begin her career in the Environmental Field.  You can connect with Jenna on LinkedIn.

Interviews, Organisational Manager, Senior Level

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