Earthwatch in Brazil

Meeting chaired by the convenor Geoffrey Catchpole

Dr Roger Moses

Retired space science engineer at Bristol University

20 February 2006.

The speaker related and illustrated his experiences when he joined the Pantanal Conservation Research Initiative in Brazil over a ten-day period in August 2004. The project was one of nine sub-projects, which each use several volunteer teams every year, organised by Earthwatch - an international environmental organisation committed to conserving the diversity and integrity of life on earth. Earthwatch engages people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment. Since 1971 the organisation has recruited over 80,000 volunteers in support of 2800 field research projects in 118 countries. The volunteers have contributed over 10 million hours to essential field work for universities, governments and non-governmental organisations. Volunteers share the costs of the projects as well as the labour-intensive teamwork work entailed. In 2005 Earthwatch Institute sponsored approximately 140 projects through the provision of £2.2 million in volunteer fieldwork grants. It claims that the projects so far have led to the discovery of over 2000 new species, the creation of new national parks, reserves and protected areas and, in general, has collected much crucial data which has better informed conservationists.

 

The Education Programme of Earthwatch offers awards to students and teachers, partly to enable field research to be undertaken but also to raise the awareness and understanding of environmental issues amongst future decision makers. Since its 1998 beginning the Programme has awarded 440 teachers from Europe for involvement in 70 field projects across the world. Field project reports have served as bases for National Curriculum studies in schools.

Dr Moses flew to Pantanal, a wetland the size of France in central Brazil, at his own expense in order to meet his team and assist with the research project to locate, track and study local fauna.

Amassing data is crucial for informed policy and such fieldwork is essential for that task. The Pantanal Conservation Research Initiative comprises nine sub-projects, on wetland ecology, frugivores (fruit eaters), peccaries, amphibians and reptiles, otters, bats, small mammals, birds and carnivores. Apart from the projects manager, the speaker’s team comprised a zoo curator and two high school graduates (competition winners) from Los Angeles and an American marine biology student, as well as local vets and biologists. The area for their study was at Campo Grande, Mato Grosso du Sol, home to one million people. When the team assembled they faced an eight hour drive to their working site, which is home to 20 grassland jaguars and 40 pairs of maned wolf, as well as many other creatures, including birds large (e.g. rheas, vultures) and small, tapirs, armadillos, alligators, pumas and pampas cats, snakes (e.g. anacondas), etc. The people in the area are not poverty-stricken and the farming is becoming increasingly intensive, which tends to restrict breeding possibilities and threaten wildlife populations.

The speaker illustrated his presentation with slides covering the location of the site, members of the research party and their equipment, hunting dogs, fauna located and depictions of the daily activities. Two days were spent in setting up 40 traps (big enough for a large dog) spread over 80 miles of dirt roads. The so-called ‘grassland’ was in fact very tough bamboo-like growth which made access very difficult, so wide track ways had been made by locals who used such roads as firebreaks, to control the frequent fires in ambient temperatures of around 40degrees. Animals would use them, so traps could capture them for temporary examinations by researchers. Every day radio-tracking collars were attached to captured animals, later to monitor their wanderings. All mammals and rheas were logged. Captured animals were given veterinary examinations, covering weight, biometry, heart rate, teeth, blood and body fluid samples, parasites, etc. after being tranquilised for periods of around one hour. The jaguar hunting hounds had to be looked after and exercised daily. Scats of animals were collected and examined. Laboratory work and data analysis included preliminary blood processing were undertaken by the specialists and all data was entered on databases. Individual animals being attended to and various aspects of the local situation were illustrated by the speaker.

Dr Moses concluded his presentation by questioning the overall value of such activities. Is such activity ‘just tourism’, however satisfying such hard work may be to participants? He (and the audience) argued that such research is useful, although it would be impossible without volunteer labour. Moreover it represents a significant funding source and its public visibility is valuable. The speaker conceded, however, that the ‘green’ credentials are more difficult to determine, since, for example, his flight probably put CO2 into the atmosphere, while there is no comparable saving in the research itself. Nevertheless, both he (and the audience in discussion) thought such activities are very worthwhile in terms of global conservation.

Geoffrey Catchpole