An Epiphany in the Wildlands
How Conservation Experiences Change LivesPosted on: July 16th, 2020
Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #14
Thirty-three years ago, I was a young researcher just out of a two-year visiting professorship at West Virginia University. While looking for my next job, I made my firsts forays into the wildlands of Northwestern Costa Rica. I fully intended to make a life and career out of my research in a poorly studied tropical region. My topic? Aquatic insects, especially the tiny non-biting midges, a harmless but essential species for the ecology of rivers and streams and their food webs. For three exhilarating months, I immersed myself in the forests and wild areas. With no electricity, no running water, and impassable roads, I was isolated for weeks. I focused on exploring, collecting samples of insects, and coming up with ideas that could be funded by large research grants. It was the adventure of a lifetime. Protected by the invincibility that youth, ignorance, and passion give a person in these circumstances, I had frequent wildlife encounters and dangers galore. Totally in love with science, research, and discovery, I could envision myself doing this for the rest of my life.
But life is not something we can thoroughly plan ahead of time. While exploring rivers and streams, forests, pastures, and jungles; climbing extinct volcanoes, and discovering species never before seen or named, I encountered what I would call today “the tropical human challenge.” I was embedded, immersed, and participating in rural life in a developing country that was struggling to understand its role in the destruction and protection of nature. The area where I eventually spent the bulk of the next decade, the Guanacaste Conservation Area, was an enormous cultural and natural restoration experiment. It combined the purchase and protection of a vast natural area composed of large chunks of amazingly intact tropical forests, plus large expanses of abandoned pastures filled with invasive species.
Additionally, it involved developing an economic model that offered education, health care, job opportunities, and long-term financial stability to make these things stick across generations. Those months were the drivers of my epiphany. I realized that conservation is a social science, done by humans, because of humans, and for humans. Conservation aims to create a positive, regenerative, nurturing relationship between humans and the nature that sustains us. I left research l and dedicated the next three decades to pursuing conservation goals in Central and North America.
Over its six and a half decades of existence, Lindsay has rested in several conservation action pillars, sometimes emphasizing one or another. The combination of animal care through the wildlife hospital and the education of children and adults about their role in nurturing a better relationship with wildlife has been an enduring thread through the organization’s history. The incorporation of captive wild animals that could not be returned to the wild due to injuries or imprinting with humans supported another unique Lindsay trait: the ability to have closeup encounters with wildlife and learn from them. We eventually added a curated museum collection with 16,000 specimens, community outreach programs, job and training opportunities for students, technicians, interns, volunteers and youth, and scientific research in veterinary science and conservation. Every program and every action we undertake falls under this broad conservation umbrella, where science takes on providing knowledge and information to help us shape each interaction with the public and each conservation step.
Over the next decades, our goal is to share and put to good use all of the knowledge we have acquired through our history of conservation and wildlife care. Our wildlife hospital’s database is unparalleled in its scope and depth and includes tens of thousands of data points about wildlife injuries, diseases, health conditions, and more for over 160 wild species. Our accumulated knowledge of wild animal diets, rehabilitation, and husbandry enriches this information.
Additionally, Lindsay has been the training ground for dozens of veterinary students, wildlife rehabilitation technicians, and animal keepers who come to learn new techniques for alleviating suffering, preventing injuries, and keeping animals healthy. Our education programs have matured over the years, and are enhanced by a corps of dedicated and skilled volunteers who have dedicated their lives to saving and protecting wildlife. We are so fortunate to have these volunteers with us, and we have greatly missed them these last few months.
My life changed when I realized that I could dedicate my career to research and acquiring knowledge about places and species that could disappear in my lifetime, or I could spend the bulk of my professional life working to protect and preserve those habitats and those species through my efforts in conservation for this and future generations. The combination of scientific research, wildlife and ecosystem protection and management, education at all levels and ages, and affirmative action have been the threads that have shaped and directed my professional life. These are the same threads that have guided Lindsay Wildlife’s development for more than six decades and are the foundation on which to continue to build and grow. I can’t think of a better way to wrap up a career in conservation than to work in an organization that so closely matches my professional goals.
Carlos L. de la Rosa