Conservationists wear many hats

By Emma Shelly
Feb. 1, 2018 at 10:30 p.m.
Updated Feb. 2, 2018 at 1 a.m.

One of our shorebirds in hand so we can band it and collect data.

One of our shorebirds in hand so we can band it and collect data.    Contributed photo by Amanda Anderson for The Victoria Advocate

In college, I was fortunate enough to have a very good relationship with a very smart professor who worked in the field I'd dreamed about. Granted, he researched pikas (spherical little rodents) where I wanted to get into birds, but he was still a wildlife conservationist. He was a "go-out-there, get-your-hands-dirty-in-the-name-of-science" kind of guy. Someone who would spend summers in ridiculously remote alpine camps collecting pika droppings and winters editing for big journals and speaking at international conferences. "We wear many hats," I remember him laughing, a photo of the mountain-hobo version of him rubbing shoulders with a photo of the suited-up doctor version accepting an award.

"We" meant scientists in general and conservation biologists in particular. And the idea of "many hats" for one career was an appeal of the job for me, even if I wasn't able to articulate how neat I found switching tactics was until graduate school.

I remember teachers using words like "multidisciplinary" to describe wildlife conservation, and it's true: working in this field means working in, drawing from and straddling the border between many other fields at once.

Which is only fitting when you think about how big a goal "wildlife conservation" is. Preserving animals. Saving habitat. Maintaining and restoring what we have. Sounds simple enough when you boil it down to a few words, but much like the ecosystems we work in, everything is interconnected to everything else.

Whether it's collecting pika scat from boulders or surveying oystercatcher pairs from a boat, I personally still consider field work the heart of wildlife conservation. Research supplies data, which can then be used to draw conclusions about population trends, habitat use and patterns of immigration and emigration. This is the side of conservation that sees renowned scientists and graduate students alike out there slipping on tidal rocks, sinking hip-deep in mud, recording spider dances and hummingbirds feeding in slow motion and getting ill with all kinds of travel-related sicknesses. This is the physically demanding side of conservation, which churns out data - real-world data that can then be used to make real-world points. So instead of standing up and toeing the ground and saying, "Hey guys, we think, perhaps, just maybe, saltmarsh sparrows might be in trouble," we can stand up and say, "At the current rate of habitat loss, saltmarsh sparrows will be extinct in 50-100 years." We can pull up the predictions and say, "Here's the model. What can we do about this?"

Gathering the data is one face of conservation, and explaining it successfully to people who might not be familiar with the science is another. Conservation biology can't and doesn't study animals as static dots on a static map. It recognizes that habitats are changing, the landscape is morphing and at the heart of everything good and bad are people. Putting on the public relations hat is just as important as wearing the research one, if not more so. Explaining how the numbers matter, what the data show and why we should care is critical to raising awareness of conservation issues - which is why that same mud-encrusted scientist will clean up, dress up and attend everything from scientific conferences to college biology labs to town meetings.

There's a great quote I love to use before I start educational programs on birds and avian conservation. It comes from a man named Baba Dioum, who was born in Senegal. He went to France for forestry schooling before returning to Senegal and becoming the country's Director General of Water and Forestry. During the 1968 International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), Baba presented a paper with his now-famous quote. He said, "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught."

Of all conservation's many hats, I think Baba was right and those are the main three: "understanding" as it comes through research and field work, "teaching" by sharing what we've learned as scientists and "empathy" for the natural world that grows softly and very quietly through awareness and concern.

PS: Last year marked the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory's 20-year anniversary - 20 years of wearing these three big hats (and many smaller ones) and 20 years of working to protect birds and their flyways along the Gulf Coast. We will be celebrating this milestone with "Brew on the Bayou" March 10th from 4 to 8 p.m. at the GCBO headquarters in Lake Jackson. Join us as we celebrate our past and look to the future with great brew, fresh food and fantastic company!

Emma Shelly is the Education and Outreach Manager of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.


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