Exploring to preserve the natural world
By Eva Van Den Berg
The waters of the Amazon, the longest and fastest-flowing river in the world, are home to a huge and extraordinary fish whose origins go back to the Cretaceous period, a time when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. The arapaima (Arapaima gigas), also known as the pirarucú or paiche, can easily reach 3 m in length and 200 kg in weight, and according to the Brazilian biologist and fisheries expert João Campos-Silva, has been a basic foodstuff for the peoples of Amazonia throughout the ages. Nevertheless, this magnificent ancestral animal, the largest freshwater scaly fish in existence, has suffered a significant reduction in its numbers in the wild due to overfishing, the fragmentation of its habitat and the contamination of the waters it inhabits, and has become extinct in many areas. Fortunately, Campos-Silva, a passionately-committed 36-year-old biologist, has been doing everything in his power for some time now to try to reverse the delicate situation in which the arapaima currently finds itself, which has led him to be selected as one of the five winners of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2019, an accolade that has supported innovative projects to improve life on Earth for over four decades. Among them are initiatives of men and women from all over the world who make full use of their considerable talents to preserve the terrestrial biosphere, that slender layer of barely 10 kilometres in depth in which all the living creatures of our planet co-habit in close proximity.
This is certainly the case of João Campos-Silva, who, in collaboration with local associations and the leaders of the fishing industry, has conceived a plan to save this species and has proven that not only can it return in force, but it can also be an economic incentive to energise local communities. “The protection of the lakes that interconnect with the rivers of western Amazonia has made it possible to increase by thirty-fold the number of local arapaimas”, he explains. “Not only that, it has also paved the way for the recovery of the populations of manatees, giant otters, giant turtles and black caimans that were on the verge of disappearing. At the same time, the recovery of the arapaimas has generated new investments of thousands of dollars that have favoured forest communities undergoing difficulties.” With the recognition afforded him by Rolex, João Campos-Silva would like to extrapolate this local experiment to 60 other communities for the purpose of quadrupling the number of arapaimas in just three years. “The additional income from fishing and the managing of its resources will create schools, health clinics and jobs, especially for women”, he explains. Saving the arapaima, he concludes, is a general antidote against poverty.
Working along parallel lines to this Brazilian more than 14,000 kilometres away, another scientist, Krithi Karanth, a 40-year-old biologist and conservationist, dedicates her attention to another interesting project in her native country, India, that has also won her a Rolex Award for Enterprise. In this country, the second most populated nation on the planet, wild animals are confined to barely 5% of the national territory and, as the human population increases, points of friction multiply between a local wildlife including leopards, tigers and elephants — that is becoming increasingly scarce, and the inhabitants of the zones adjacent to the national parks. Karanth, a specialist in the management of this type of conflict (which had already won her the support of National Geographic some years ago) has managed since 2015 a service called ‘Wild Seve’ (‘seve’ means ‘service’ in the local Kannada language) through which compensation can be claimed for the losses caused by the fauna mainly the destruction of crops by elephants and the loss of livestock due to attacks by tigers.
“Although the Indian Government pays five million US dollars per year in compensation to farmers and inhabitants for the damage caused by animals, the individuals compensated by the State are only a small fraction of the population that is really affected by this type of problem”, she concludes. Through Wild Seve sources of conflict are identified and a service is currently provided for half a million people living in 600 villages near the national parks of Bandipur and Nagarhole, in the state of Karnataka. To date, some 14,000 claims have been presented by 6,400 families for a total value of 200,000 US dollars, which has reduced the level of hostility and increased trust between conservationists and local communities. Now, thanks to the support received from Rolex, Karanth has proposed to expand Wild Seve to a thousand more villages and to test a series of measures in highly conflict-riven zones to reduce the damage done to crops and increase levels of safety for people, cattle and fauna. Not only this: in addition, she is developing another initiative, called ‘Wild Shaale’ (‘shaale’ means ‘school’ in Kannada), which is an educational programme focussed on conservation which will be delivered in 300 colleges in highly conflictive zones, attended by up to 20,000 children, and which aims to focus on the perception that local residents have of the fauna with which they co-habit. Her final objective? To turn this initiative into a model of community conservation for the entire world for all those people who live in close proximity to wildlife.
Conscious that today more than ever we need to safeguard our ecosystems, Rolex has also decided to confer awards for other conservation projects in the Associate Laureate category. Those recognised were the British biologist Emma Camp, focussed on the recovery of the coral reefs, and the Argentinian ornithologist Pablo García Borboroglu, who has been studying penguins for over 30 years.
After a long time spent exploring coral habitats all over the world, Emma Camp has identified corals that survive despite the extreme and hostile environmental conditions in which they live. Specifically, she has located communities of coral in waters that are warm, acidic and with low oxygen levels surrounding mangrove swamps, which seem capable of adapting to the ecological conditions that man is causing in coral reefs. According to Camp, these “focuses of coral adaptation” may provide the key to understanding the survival of these organisms in the context of the current climate emergency. The biologist aims to locate these focuses in the northern part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, record their most resistant species and transplant them to the most devastated zones. “We need to be creative”, declares this explorer. “We need to take a second look at the natural world, to see how it has survived for such a long time, and to use this knowledge, combined with innovation and technology, to try to conserve what we have.”
For his part, Pablo García Borboroglu dedicates all his efforts to reversing the alarming situation in which many species of penguins find themselves. “Of the 18 species that live on our planet, more than half are currently in danger of extinction, and for the majority the situation is only getting worse”, comments this ornithologist and president of the Global Penguin Society. “Penguins are accurate indicators of the health of our oceans, since they are sensitive to all the changes in their habitats.” Overfishing and climate change are some of the most worrying threats affecting them, since they both lead to food shortages. This is the reason why these birds travel further and further from their colonies to find fish with which they can feed their young. “To find food they swim hundreds of kilometres, and when they return, their chicks have often already died of starvation”, explains García Borboglu.
His project aims to improve scientific knowledge of three essential species — the Magellanic penguin of Argentina, the King penguin of Chile, and the Fiordland penguin of New Zealand — to formulate science-based recommendations to guide their conservation. To this end he wishes to involve local communities and colleges in Argentina in the study and conservation of these penguins, and to establish a model that other countries can follow. He also plans to work with local and national governments and with landowners to improve decision-making concerning subjects that affect the conservation of the penguins, for example, contributing to the creation of new protected marine reserves.
A whole series of projects that remind us, once again, that conserving the wildlife that inhabits our planet means nothing other than preserving the long-term future of our own species.
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