“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.
It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a whole community to provide a healthy world for that child. Many, if not all, ecological problems stem from human actions, as much as we’d like to think otherwise. But providing people with an education in conservation can help reverse many problems caused by people who simply lack an understanding of their place in nature.
The idea of providing an ecological education to entire communities would eventually become reality thanks to Scott Pankratz and Julie Osborn, two scientists who studied Costa Rican sea turtles together in the late 90’s. This was some time after the resurgence of the environmental movement, a movement that pushed governments and institutions to create nature reserves throughout the world and to implement unprecedented protections for endangered species. While these changes certainly advanced the cause of conservation, it became increasingly clear to Scott and Julie that they were not enough to reverse the decline of many protected species. In Costa Rica specifically, they observed locals eating the eggs of endangered sea turtles and litter strewn throughout local beaches that served as their nesting grounds.
Their solution was to create an educational course that they could use to get students from nearby villages involved in conservation. The first such class was held in the year 2000 on the subject of sea turtles, specifically focusing on how to measure and tag them, as well as count their eggs. The experience had a tangible impact on the students and other inhabitants, instilling in them a desire to protect other wildlife and resources endemic to their local environment. The demonstrated success of this first class eventually lead to Scott and Julie founding Ecology Project International (EPI) as a center for conservation education.
An Ecological Tour de Force
The EPI’s mission is to bring ecological education to local communities by creating partnerships between students and scientists to solve some of the biggest conservation issues. EPI currently maintains six ecological programs that allow students to participate in applied research projects in locations as far flung as the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific and Yellowstone National Park in the American West. Each program is designed to teach students how to conduct ecological field work including observations of specific species and evaluating their health and population size. As part of their learning experience, students enrolled in the international programs are immersed into the local culture through shared meals and group outings with local students who participate in the same ecology program. EPI sets the goal of having 60% local students and 40% international students participating in each program. In 2014, an average of 74% of all program participants were local students, providing even greater opportunities for cultural exchange and ecological education.
The conservation of the leatherback sea turtle remains one of EPI’s most important objectives, with its efforts now encompassed in the Costa Rica Sea Turtle Ecology Program. As a keystone species, the leatherback sea turtles are crucial to maintaining the ecological balance of the ocean ecosystem. Their primary source of food comes from jellyfish (or jellies as they are properly called), of which they are voracious eaters. According to some researchers a single leatherback can eat over 400 pounds of jellyfish in a single day. Their enormous appetite for jelly flesh plays a crucial role in controlling jellyfish populations across the world’s oceans, as they are one of the very few species that prey on them.
In recent years, it has been posited that the decline of sea turtles and other predatory fish species has led to a population explosion of jellyfish in the Pacific and along major coastlines. Large blooms of jellyfish have become a common sight along the shores of Japan, California, and even the southern coast of England during the warm summer months. This has led to increasing concerns that jellyfish are becoming the dominant marine species in some parts of the world’s oceans, contributing to the decline of vital fish stocks that both humans and apex marine species depend on.
That makes EPI’s work with leatherback sea turtles all the more important. Students involved in the Costa Rica program work directly on the world’s most important nesting sites for the leatherback sea turtle. During the night, students and researchers scour the beaches to locate their nests and collect data such as population size and egg count. During the day, work is focused on restoring nesting turtle habitats along the shore. But when they aren’t working on the beach, they are out in the rainforest learning about its unique ecology and the species that call the jungle home.
EPI maintains an extensive presence in the Galapagos, an archipelago of islands made famous by Charles Darwin’s observations of their biodiversity. In the years since Darwin’s voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, the islands have become a protected national park & marine reserve under the government of Ecuador. EPI brings international students here every year to work right alongside local students on conservation projects that benefit some of the most threatened species in the world.
Students are introduced to the Methuselahs of the animal kingdom, the giant tortoise; a species that is found in only a handful of places in the Pacific. These slow aging and slow moving tortoises live longer than 100 years on average, with the oldest reaching over 200 years of age. They are the keystone species of the Galapagos, essential for both seed dispersal and maintaining the natural landscape of the islands.
Students conduct population studies alongside field researchers to track their recovery, as there are as few as 19,000 tortoises left in the entire archipelago. The species of the Galapagos, as well as other Pacific islands, were nearly wiped out at the turn of the 20th century as they were heavily used as a source of food and oil. Modern conservation efforts on the part of EPI and other organizations allowed the Galapagos tortoise to make an incredible comeback from a population low of 3,000 individuals during the 1970’s.
Part of the decline of the tortoise was caused by the introduction of invasive species, such as rats and goats, along with a host of plants that threaten to alter the biosphere of the islands. Students work to remove these invasive species as part of the EPI program, focusing on species that pose the greatest risk to native plants.
The Yellowstone Wildlife Ecology Program provides an ecologically educational experience that’s a bit closer to home for American students. In this program, students are exposed to the wide open west and the wild species of buffalo, wolves, and elk that inhabit Yellowstone National Park. Students who participate in the Yellowstone program gain the opportunity to work with some of the largest conservation institutions in the country such as the US Fish & Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, and the US Forest Service. Both The Nature Conservancy and the US Fish & Wildlife Service work with EPI students to remove fences from around Yellowstone that impede the migration of pronghorns and other migratory animals. The US Forest Service maintains a wildlife monitoring program in Yellowstone, allowing EPI students a chance to investigate bear signs and track the movements of species throughout the park.
The Yellowstone program serves as an introduction to outdoor exploration just as much as it serves as an introduction to wildlife ecology. Students are taught valuable outdoor skills, as well as the principle of Leave No Trace, a credo that hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts follow to ensure their presence leaves no lasting impact on the environment. Of course, the beauty of the Grand Prismatic Spring and the awe-inspiring sight of a geyser erupting are more than enough to kindle the spirit of conservation in anyone who visits Yellowstone.
The Sea of Cortez lies between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico. It is one of the most biologically diverse seas on the planet, yet is under constant threat from pollution and an overzealous fishing industry. In order to meet the conservation challenges posed by this unique stretch of sea, EPI maintains a couple of programs that focus on specific parts of the Baja ecosystem. In one program, students spend their time aboard a research vessel studying the whales who call the sea home, including humpbacks and blue whales. Students learn to spot unique markers for each whale, helping researchers identify individuals within a pod so they can study their behavior over a long period of time. Students also don a snorkel and venture beneath the waves to study marine habitats up close. Armed with a waterproof clipboard and marker, students take inventory of the species present in certain parts of the sea helping to assess the overall health of the ecosystem.
On land, EPI maintains courses for studying the ecology of Espiritu Santo island in the Sea of Cortez. The island, and many others like it, are home to sea turtle species essential to the ecology of both the sea and its terrestrial denizens. Much like the Costa Rica program, students are tasked with studying sea turtle population and marking nesting areas for future study, along with conducting a detailed census of underwater species located around the island. Ample time is also spent exploring the somewhat paradoxical desert climate of the island, a habitat that supports unique desert species such as the black jackrabbit. Their work helps keep tabs on the health of the island which is part of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves maintained by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).
Conservation for the Future
Since its founding, EPI has become a preeminent educator for some of the most fragile species and biomes on the planet. The partnerships they forge between local communities, international students, and ecologists are unique collaborations that simultaneously educates students and locals in ecological research and aid in the conservation of species for future generations. The significance of their work will only grow as climate change introduces new challenges for ecosystems the world over. But EPI and its fellow conservation organizations are prepared for the future, with new conservation partnerships in new places being forged every year.