What is tiny, utterly adorable, and will steal your heart with one blink of its big black eyes? That would be the Cozumel raccoon, or pygmy raccoon, a little-known species of raccoon that is found only on one small island off the Yucatan Peninsula. What is more amazing is that this cute creature is critically endangered, with only a few hundred left in existence, making it one of the rarest carnivores in the world — yet little to nothing is being done to save it from extinction.

That won't be the case for long, if conservation photographer Kevin Schafer has anything to say about it. He recently went to the island to document the species, and as a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, he knows how powerful a few good photos can be. Following them every day around the mangrove swamps they call home, Schafer returned with these beautiful images that give us a glimpse of the lives of these cute creatures as well as the problems they face.

pygmy raccoon

The Cozumel raccoon is similar to its larger cousins in general appearance, but ever since the Cozumel island separated from the mainland well over 100,000 years ago, these raccoons have undergone some significant changes. They're much smaller — hence the "pygmy" status — and have a golden yellow ringed tail as opposed to the black-and-grey ringed tail of our more common raccoon neighbors.

The IUCN lists this species of raccoon as critically endangered, with a declining population. The Cozumel raccoon faces four main challenges to survival:

  • They live only on one part of one small island and thus have only limited habitat
  • There is no escape for them from the impacts of habitat loss to human development for the tourism industry and sea level rise due to climate change
  • They are susceptible to diseases brought there by invasive species
  • They fall prey to non-native predators, from domestic cats to boa constrictors
And a fifth problem that doesn't seem as ominous but could eventually be just as deadly is the junk food they are fed by exuberant tourists who don't know any better. Their normal diet consists mostly of crabs, with frogs, lizards, insects and fruit making up the difference. Sour cream and onion potato chips shouldn't be on the menu, but sadly this and other human foods are too easily foraged at picnic areas.
pygmy raccoons photo

Schafer noted that even signs telling tourists not to feed the raccoons would be beneficial, but there is nothing displayed about their critically endangered status, let alone rules for engaging (or not) with them. And it's more than just a lack of signage. The Cozumel raccoon is officially protected, but there isn't much outside of that label being done to help them, including laws protecting them or land set aside for them. With only around 500 left in the world, there isn't a lot of room to ignore them.

Ideas for conservation have included preserving the mangrove and semi-evergreen forests in which the pygmy raccoons live, halting development in the area and making it off-limits to any new development. Captive breeding is also a possibility, if there are conservation zoos willing to take on the expense. And of course, removing non-native disease-carrying predators like feral cats would be a huge benefit to the species.

Right now, any large-scale conservation efforts are mostly still talk, but initiatives for protecting habitat and dealing with non-native predators are underway, and hopefully not too late. Those helping to make a difference for these raccoons also include Schafer, through his photography, and local conservationists. In fact, all the photos of the pygmy raccoon by Schafer will be donated to a local organization in Cozumel, Mexico, that is working to protect this critically endangered species, which can help with future public awareness campaigns.

You can also find out more about the International League of Conservation Photographers, a nonprofit that helps photographers make a positive impact with their images.

pygmy raccoons

pygmy raccoons photo

pygmy raccoons sign photo

pygmy raccoon sorts through human trash

pygmy raccoon in a tree with the sunlight behind it

pygmy raccoon in the mangrove

2 pygmy raccoons play

Related posts on MNN: