Conservation Heroes

Some of the extraordinary people ICFC works with

Sori González Bernal and Adriana Hernández Alvarez

(2022 Annual Report)  When they saw vehicles passing along the beach on top of thousands of spawning grunions Sori González Bernal and her friends decided they had to do something to stop it.

The spawning of grunion (pejerrey in Spanish; Leuresthes sardina), is a unique phenomenon each spring at Golfo de Santa Clara, Sonora, México, an annual occurrence not unlike the more familiar spawning of horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay.  The spawning fish, in turn, attract thousands of Pacific red knots (Calidris canutus roselaari), a threatened shorebird that feeds on the eggs to fuel its flight to its breeding grounds in the Arctic.  But this one-month event coincides with the Easter holy week and attracts people in hundreds of vehicles that crush fish and hit shorebirds.  Adriana Hernández Alvarez knew this very well: for ten years this young researcher studied the ecological relationship between the grunions and red knots.

Those who know Sori admire her energetic embrace of advocacy for the environment and the conservation of nature.  Adriana joined forces with Sori’s team “Cuidando al playero rojizo y al pejerrey” (Taking care of red knots and grunions) in 2019.  Together they have had remarkable success: actively working with the community, they set up temporary rope lines to stop vehicles and people from entering this critical area.

Sori, Adriana, and their enthusiastic team (mostly women), are making history with the support of Pronatura Noroeste and ICFC by changing social behaviours and solving a serious conservation problem, giving hope to these two amazing species and their connected environment.

“In thirty years, I have seen and studied many human-caused threats to red knots on the Continent, but none of them impacted me as much as people driving on top of spawning grunions and killing migratory shorebirds.  In this Anthropocene era, Sori and Adriana’s determination inspire me in making a difference in the world.”

-- Patricia M González, ICFC Shorebird Project Coordinator

Dominique Bikaba

(2021 Annual Report)  A conservation leader in the highly important Congo Basin of Africa, Dominique Bikaba was personally impacted by conservation in an earlier era.

Dominique was born in the forests that are now Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When the park was expanded in 1975, communities within its boundaries were expelled, including his (a practice that has since been widely discredited.) Growing up in the region, Dominique had plenty of opportunity to see all kinds of wildlife. He was also able to witness the successes and failures of a succession of conservation programs. Fast forward to today and Dominique is leading Strong Roots, an organization he founded in 2009, to create a complex of community forests that will form a 6,000-km2 corridor between Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Itombwe Nature Reserve. The massive corridor crosses seven chiefdoms and ancestal forests of Bantou tribes and the Batwa Indigenous peoples. The effort involves an enormous amount of community coordination, education, and reforestation. It benefits people and wildlife, including the last remaining populations of Grauer’s gorilla (aka eastern lowland gorilla), a critically endangered subspecies that is a cornerstone of Strong Roots’ work. Ultimately, the corridor will reduce habitat fragmentation and allow for gorilla and other species’ movement within the landscape spanning Kahuzi-Biega park and Itombwe Nature Reserve. For this pioneering work, Dominique won the Whitley Award (for leaders in conservation) in 2018.

Dominique knows that concern for local peoples’ wellbeing must be at the heart of conservation work. “Any conservation action which does not care about human rights is another form of extractive industry”, he says. This was the impetus for Strong Roots to push for legislation on community forests in DRC—to give local communities and indigenous peoples legal responsibility to manage and govern their traditional lands to advance both conservation and sustainable livelihoods.

The Kayapo

(2020 Annual Report)  We have talked about the determination of the Kayapo to protect their lands in every annual report since ICFC began in 2007. There are no better allies in conserving the Amazon and its rich biodiversity. This year we salute the Kayapo, with a special shout- out to those who man the guard posts and actively protect Kayapo territories in other ways.

Much like the Sioux of the American plains, the Kayapo were a warrior nation and men were trained from boyhood to be tough, fearless warriors. This stood them in good stead decades ago as they made life so difficult for the Brazilian government that it ceded to the Kayapo a protected indigenous territory unparalleled in size anywhere.

Overt warrior tradition has receded into the past. The Kayapo no longer raid other Kayapo and settler communities, and boys no longer train as warriors with the men in the “men’s house”, a central village meeting place that is still vital in all Kayapo communities. But their courage and their traditions remain.

Guard post duty involves patrolling long sections of rivers and border, dismantling loggers’ bridges,escorting illegal fishermen out of Kayapo territory and removing goldminers. The work can be dangerous. Last year 17 Kayapo from Bau village travelled almost three days by boat and on foot to an interior forest location where goldminers had cleared a clandestine airstrip. The Kayapo expedition surprised 40 armed goldminers, rounded them up, had their backers in town remove them by small plane and confiscated their equipment. If you visited a Kayapo village today you would find a people who are proud of their traditional skills— hunting, fishing, collecting wild food, gardening, navigating through forest, making everything from tools to dwellings, and enacting their great communal ceremonies. You would find independent joyful children, warm family relations and communities that function based on consensus. You’d also find a people with an amazing design sense, as reflected in their crafts, their body painting and beaded jewelry (worn by all). They are a people who know enough about outside society to know that while they have come to depend on some manufactured goods that they must buy, their desire is to remain Kayapo on the land that sustains them. And they will fight to preserve it.

Efraín Cepeda Duran

(2019 Annual Report)  From the moment you meet him, Efraín Cepeda’s passion for the natural world and its conservation becomes apparent.  Formerly an agronomist, his career in conservation began in 2007 as a reforestation assistant at Fundación Jocotoco’s Yanacocha Reserve, a place he describes as “truly spectacular”.  Jocotoco Executive Director Martin Schaefer comments on Efraín’s “tremendous personal growth and leadership,” adding “Perhaps most telling is that he now advises us on how to solve legal issues around some of the reserves he manages.”  This is because, as Director of Northern Reserves, Efraín is now directly involved in one of Jocotoco’s most ambitious conservation initiatives yet, the expansion of its Río Canandé Reserve.  Efraín and his family live in Quito, so his job requires much time away from home – a considerable sacrifice.  But he says “This is the largest conservation project in the Ecuadorian Chocó region and I am proud to be part of it.  Now I feel that with my work I can leave a positive footprint for conservation and that motivates me to continue.” ICFC donor Wendy Reimer recently visited Ecuador to see first-hand the results of her support and fundraising efforts for the Chocó project.  She credits Efraín with securing her continuing support and told us: “Efraín greeted us with a huge smile and palpable enthusiasm, despite the long drive from Quito to Canandé.  He shared a wealth of information regarding land acquisition and conservation efforts in this region.”  Bravo Efraín, keep up the good work!

“It has been inspiring to watch Efrain become one of the most effective leaders of our conservation programs in Ecuador.”

- David Agro, Chairman, Fundación Jocotoco

Rajeev Goyal and Priyanka Bista

(2019 Annual Report)  Rajeev Goyal and Priyanka Bista forged a highly innovative conservation effort In Nepal after coming to realize the potential of local villagers to become leaders in conservation.  Partners in life and work, the pair lead the KTK-BELT initiative that they refer to as a “Vertical University”.  As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Nepal, Rajeev, who trained as a lawyer, was dismayed at the haphazard and ecologically destructive development he witnessed.  This prompted a career shift and graduate studies focusing on the role of public schools in protecting natural ecosystems in Nepal.  In 2008, Rajeev was looking for a volunteer to design a green school in rural Nepal.  Priyanka, who was an architect, took that on.  She later studied the impacts of roads in rural Nepal for her Master’s.  Then while working in Nigeria, she came to realize the agency of young marginalized individuals.  Priyanka and Rajeev don’t seem at all phased by the enormous scale of their KTK vision.  KTK-BELT’s six “campuses” and associated reserves range from low elevation to the Himalayas and have enabled rural communities, elders, teachers, students, and youth to participate in safeguarding threatened landscapes and indigenous knowledge.

“Rajeev, Priyanka and the KTK Belt team in Nepal are providing the type of leadership, action, creativity and unending commitment needed in order to save our home planet.”

– Ryan Gellert, Patagonia General Manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa

The village of El Rosario

(2018 Annual Report)  El Rosario in Nicaragua has shown that a rural village can be a great field partner.  El Rosario (on the Cosigüina peninsula of Nicaragua’s northwest Pacific coast) provides the only access to a nearly 20-km long beach that has long been known to locals as a major nesting area for sea turtles. With few employment opportunities, the illegal harvest of sea turtle eggs for human consumption has always been one of the most accessible sources of income for local families.  Prior efforts to deter the harvest and protect the sea turtles had been short-lived and of uneven success.  In 2016, local community leaders proposed a grassroots project that has engaged dozens of local residents to turn from “poaching” to protecting.  Several egg harvesters were hired for the full nesting season (7 months) to collect turtle eggs and bury them safely in a hatchery that is monitored around the clock.  “Freelance” harvesters now have the option of selling their collected eggs to the hatchery instead of taking them to market in the city (a more costly and illegal option).  In 2018 alone, 13,134 olive ridley sea turtle hatchlings were safely returned to the sea from the hatchery.  As well, a local wildlife biologist was employed to design and implement an education program for local children that discourages littering and illegal harvesting of wildlife.  Nearly all residents of El Rosario benefit directly or indirectly from the project – a win-win for nature and people!

Claudio Delgado Rodríguez

(2018 Annual Report)  On meeting Claudio in person, one realizes immediately that you are with someone who knows the lay of the land. The next thing you find is that everyone you meet knows Claudio as a friend of the community. Claudio is the Director of Conservación Marina in Valdivia, Chile, a coastal conservation organization he co-founded in 2003. He says, “My main motivation is to aid and promote a better human to nature relationship, particularly in regard to global climate change that is already evidenced in our wetlands and shorebirds.” Claudio seemed to understand when creating Conservación Marina that a “holistic approach” was best. The group includes biologists, anthropologists, and environmental educators who share a common goal: to ensure that their work contributes to the conservation of marine diversity so that it can be enjoyed and understood by future generations. ICFC partnered with Conservación Marina to protect five coastal wetlands near the town of Maullín. With this project, Claudio has led efforts that have been much more successful than expected (see page 28). All who know him are proud to be a part of what he has created with his team!

María Marta Chavarría Diaz

(2017 Annual Report)  Most of us have had the good fortune of having a teacher whose passion for their subject and depth of knowledge inspired us. The children of the small fishing village of Cuajiniquil are lucky to have that in María Marta Chavarría. Cuajiniquil lies close to the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG), where María Marta works as the assistant director for biodiversity. An insect and plant taxonomist, María’s knowledge spans the natural sciences. In her spare time, she runs the biosensibilización marina after-school program in which children learn about the marine ecosystem in a hands-on way. From La Casita, a small building steps away from the sea, children collect marine specimens to study before returning them to the sea. María leads them on snorkeling expeditions, camping expeditions and even, occasionally, a whale watching one. María is loved by her students. Someone we know drove into Cuajiniquil in a white car similar to María’s and experienced children running out of their houses and shouting “María!”. And she has fostered a love of learning about the natural world. Children in the program organized their own birding group – Los Trogones. Some have become skilled photographers. Parents in the village hear from their children, bubbling with enthusiasm, about what they have learned and they ask María, what about us adults? She is working on it! Field trips for people of all ages in the broader area bordering ACG are being considered. Significantly, the growth in understanding of the marine ecosystem in the community of Cuajiniquil has been accompanied by amelioration of the problems of overfishing and illegal fishing in ACG’s marine sector. Bravo, María!

“I wanted to know why my kids prefer being with you to TV"

-- Mother of one the children in the after-school program run by María Marta, after Maria took her and other mothers up a remote high hill called Cerro Ingles on ACG’s Santa Elena Peninsula

Sayam U. Chowdhury

(2017 Annual Report)  When it comes to learning more about the Critically Endangered spoon-billed sandpiper, Sayam Chowdhury would be the first to leap from the boat and knowingly land in knee-deep mud. From the minute we contacted Sayam to inquire about how ICFC might help protect this diminutive yet iconic shorebird, we were infected with his enthusiasm to rescue this species from the brink of extinction. Sayam is Assistant Coordinator of the International Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force, and has toiled in behavioral ecology, research and conservation of globally threatened species in Bangladesh and beyond for the last 12 years. Other species he has worked to protect include the masked finfoot and Baer’s pochard. Most rewarding, he says, has been his work with the "spoonie", which has blossomed into a year-round occupation for him. Before the ice and snow has fully receded from the remote northeast shore of Russia, Sayam was there to assist the “head start” incubation program, where the first clutches of eggs are collected and incubated to hatching. The chicks are then quickly transitioned to life in the wild. Happily, many of these released spoonies have returned to breed in subsequent years. Sayam and other colleagues rush to greet them again on their next major stop in China’s Yellow Sea, where a few spoonies may be fitted with the world’s smallest satellite transmitters. For most of the non-breeding season Sayam is based in his home country of Bangladesh where his efforts focus on the key problem of illegal hunting. His work with local village conservation groups to develop alternative livelihoods has helped to all but eliminate hunting at key shorebird sites in Bangladesh and Myanmar. So successful has he been that Birdlife International has declared him and his field partners with BSCP and BANCA the Birdlife Species Guardians for spoon-billed sandpiper.

“To make a real difference when trying to save a species you need people with ideas as well as those with passion and commitment. Sayam has all of these in abundance."

-- Dr. Nigel Clark, Scientific adviser to the Spoon-billed Sandpiper Task Force

Barbara Zimmerman

(2017 Annual Report)  Okay, Barbara is on ICFC’s staff, but she is also a bona fide boots-on-the-ground conservation hero. A tropical ecologist, Barb did field research for her Master’s and PhD degrees on amphibian and reptile communities in the Brazilian Amazon. In becoming acquainted with the Kayapo Indigenous people, she saw a great opportunity. She realized that the Kayapo’s determination to protect their land  ̶ the largest tract of tropical forest under some form of protection in the world ̶ was key to the survival of this biodiverse ecosystem. She saw that because of increasing pressures of deforestation and colonization, they would need outside help, and she was instrumental in developing the needed institutional and financial support. Barbara was hired by Conservation International to establish and lead the Kayapo conservation project. One of her first steps was to establish a biological research station in collaboration with the Kayapo community of A’Ukre. Crucially, the respect she earned with the Kayapo enabled Barb to lead the creation and development of three Kayapo NGOs, which work with international partners. In 2009 Barb joined ICFC and she continues to lead the Kayapo project, spending months of the year in the Amazon. For Barb, who sometimes says she is “married to the Kayapo”, the cultural survival of the Kayapo, who live in remote villages and retain their traditional skills, has been as important as the biodiversity benefits. She has dedicated her life to this one place and people, and the world is the better for it.

“The Kayapo conservation success story is a result of Barb’s vision, courage and doggedness."

— Anne Lambert, colleague

Paul Ferber

(2016 Annual Report)  Paul Ferber followed an idiosyncratic path before arriving on the frontlines of marine conservation. Paul dropped out of school at 14, took a series of construction jobs, worked as a florist, landscaper and an arborist before training as a policeman for a few years in his native England. He left the UK in 2006, moving to SE Asia to follow his passion for scuba diving, becoming a master scuba instructor and teaching in Cambodia. There he became dismayed at the damage from illegal fishing trawlers which were scraping the seabed, destroying seagrass beds, clouding the water with silt and endangering seahorses and other marine life. In 2008 Paul formed Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC) which is now based on a tiny island where Paul lives with his wife and five children. After being the driving force behind Cambodia’s first MFMA (marine fisheries management area), Paul and MCC’s team were invited by the Cambodian government to extend their work to a new province and now spend their nights carrying out patrols to chase illegal fishing boats, working closely with local authorities to confiscate illegal equipment and enforce local fisheries laws. Although the Cambodian Ministry of Fisheries is onside—including posting an officer with an AK-47 on Paul’s chase boat—it’s a constant battle and dangerous work. Paul has been shot at with spear guns, attacked with swords and axes and one of their boats was rammed and sunk. Paul, a self-taught marine biologist, his team and international volunteers conduct biological research in and around MCC’s marine protected area and deploy anti-trawling devices. These heroic efforts are paying off: gradually, the marine ecosystem is bouncing back and Cambodia is learning from MCC what can be done. Paul is currently co-chair of the National Subcommittee on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, and when not chasing boats, cleaning the beaches or being dad to his 5 future conservationists, Paul spends his days developing documents to support the Royal Government of Cambodia on fisheries and conservation issues.

“Paul has enormous courage in tackling real problems with minimal resources. I hope he can find a way to stay effective while staying safe. If I had a Paul in every country where we work, my life would be much easier.”

— Amanda Vincent, PhD, Director, Project Seahorse; Professor, Univ. of British Columbia; Chair, IUCN SSC Sea-horse, Pipefish and Stickleback Specialist Group

Susan Canney

(2016 Annual Report)  A soft-spoken research associate at Oxford University, zoologist Susan Canney seems an unlikely candidate to take on bad guys in Mali. And yet she has achieved what Vance Martin of WILD Foundation calls “nothing short of a miracle.” It began when she was asked in 2003 to analyze radio collar data for the largest elephant migration in Africa. After three years studying the migration of Mali’s desert elephants over a range the size of Switzerland, Susan forged the Mali Elephant Project (MEP), with backing from WILD. To address water shortages and habitat loss in the elephant range, MEP developed a highly effective model of elephant conservation through community engagement. The model was put to an extreme test in 2012 when incursions by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb caused the government to flee the area, leaving lawlessness and heavily armed groups in its wake. The courageous MEP field team carried on, including employing hundreds of young men in surveillance brigades. Despite being paid only in food, none of them joined the jihadists because theyfelt the MEP work was more “noble”. MEP recently spearheaded Mali’s first ever anti-poaching unit and spurred a new Presidential Directive that requires all Ministries to work together to prioritize the protection of their endangered national treasure, the desert elephants. Because of the spillover benefits MEP has had in countering the jihadists, Susan now works with multiple Ministries, the Malian army and other partners striving to restore peace in the region, including UN Peacekeepers, for whom Mali is their most dangerous mission.

“The anti-poaching team is a unique, interagency effort and is the first time I've ever, anywhere, seen such a collaborative, on-the-ground force. Susan has led this effort with professional skill and commitment. What she has achieved with our partners is nothing short of a miracle.”

— Vance G. Martin, President, WILD Foundation

Patricia González

(2016 Annual Report)  The name and the face of Argentinian Patricia González seem to be known to the entire flock of ornithologists, bird conservationists, and shorebird lovers one might encounter in the Western Hemisphere, despite being no self-promoter. For over 20 years Patricia has devoted nearly all her waking hours to the cause of understanding the biology of the red knot, its migration needs, and its protection from all possible threats. Although one might imagine that Patricia herself has grown wings since she’s been to nearly every important red knot site in the Western Hemisphere, most days she may still be found in her hometown of San Antonio Oeste in northern Patagonia. Patricia has inspired and opened doors for many students who went on to forge their own accomplishments, and has united groups and led successful conservation battles in the Bahía de San Antonio area. Energetic and fearless, she retains a sense of wonder and joy about her work, such as when she recently reported to us higher numbers of juvenile red knots in the austral summer of 2016-2017 than she has seen in years. She noted that with some adults weighing 200 grams, they have plenty of fat to fly the 5,000 to 8,000 kilometers to their next stop, on route to their breeding ground on Canada’s northern tundra.

“She has the grit, the determination, and the skills. She knows her science. She was schooled the hard way, learning birds with her grandfather’s heavy binoculars and a black and white field guide.“

— Deborah Cramer, author of The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey

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