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Chasing Snakes and Changing Minds in Rural Brazil

View from one of the peaks in Serra de Baturité, showing both mountains and lowlands of Ceará

For our 2021 Research Grant cycle, TRC selected its first international grant recipient: Projeto Cascavéis do Sertão, an effort led by Brazilian herpetologist Dr. Rodrigo Gonzalez. Projeto Cascavéis do Sertão, meaning Sertão Rattlesnakes Project, is an ongoing effort to conserve a montane population of Crotalus durissus (the Cascavel), by mitigating human-snake conflicts in rural Brazil.

In early March 2023 I had the opportunity to visit Brazil and accompany Rodrigo and the team on a "field campaign" into the mountains around Pacoti. The team included Rodrigo, a brilliant scientist with a great sense of humor; Thabata, the gung-ho leader of the associated Surucucu - known in English as the "Bushmaster" - project; Lucas, the master of all things amphibian; along with up-and-coming students and volunteers Guilherme, Robson, Lidia and Rafael.

The "campaign" entailed sleeping and dining in a monastery-turned-museum (Museu de História Natural do Ceará Prof. Dias da Rocha, MHNCE) and hitting the field almost twice a day for the better part of a week. Our targets, the elusive Cascavel as well as the equally cryptic Surucucu did not show themselves. Perhaps the tropical full moon was acting against us, perhaps its that large-bodied cryptic pit vipers are not easy animals to just find on demand. Fortunately for data collection and photography purposes though, a pair of neonate Cascavels did show up on the property of a local rancher who allowed us to relocate them to suitable habitat.

One of two baby Cascavel's/Neotropical Rattlesnakes relocated from an active ranch

However, hiking the hills and jungles of Serra de Baturité was only the "leg work" of the trip in the physical sense. In terms of effort, the real work was the slow progress forming relationships and building trust with the community. By slow, I mean to say that Brazilian (or perhaps just Cearense) culture includes a lot of "meetings to discuss meetings" - sitting down and sharing coffee (café) and tea (chá) to talk about sitting down for dinner at a later time, where they might discuss future plans for relocating rattlesnakes in the rural community and using them for research.

As the foreigner, I found this fun and exciting. Getting free food and tasting wonderful teas was a fresh change of pace from the public outreach events in my native tongue that I was accustomed to. On the other hand, I could see that Rodrigo and the team were a bit more tired of the process, the customary hoops that needed to be jumped through to make progress.

But progress was what I witnessed.

If only for a fleeting glimpse, a single field trip in an ongoing project, I could see where Rodrigo, Thabata, and their awesome crew had changed minds. I met people who were eager to -across the language barrier - show me pictures on their phone of rattlesnakes they had seen and look at pictures from my own phone of "Cascavéis dos Estados Unidos" that I have seen back home; others who had once killed every snake they found now slowly coming around and letting the team survey their property for new research animals.

In the end, it was an amazing trip and I learned a lot from our international partners. There was a lot to take in but North or South America, the idea remains the same - that outreach and forming community connections is a vital and pertinent part of conservation for venomous snakes and other less charismatic species.

Left & Right: Jardel, a local bed-and-breakfast owner and community leader shows the team (featured Rodrigo, Guilherme, and Lucas) where he has seen Cascavel's crossing or basking near the rural road. Center: Thabata weighs a juvenile Cascavel along with Guilherme, Rafael, and Rodrigo. Right: another section of road where Jardel has encountered a crossing rattlesnake.


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