Biologist Erika Cuéllar, a Bolivian native, has a fierce dedication to protecting the Gran Chaco, which is under increasing threat from deforestation, large-scale farming, and cattle ranches. After completing research for her Ph.D. in 2007, she realized there was untapped potential to be mined—and groomed—among those who’d provided valuable expertise and context.
“These people could not just be forgotten—they are capable of doing so many things to protect the wild environment and face the challenges of conservation,” she says. “They’re intelligent and capable, but many spend half the year working in cities. I wanted to give them a chance to be professionals, stay home with their families, and take care of their own territory.”
Cuéllar decided that Gran Chaco could be best served by a professional conservationist program drawn from the ranks of locals who live closest to the forest, including hunters. Adapting paramedic-style training, she developed a parabiologist program that turns out field experts adept in science and conservation skills.
“Like paramedics, parabiologists use their specialized skills to save lives—in this case, their ecosystem, the land that belongs to them,’’ says Cuéllar, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Rolex Laureate. “Parabiology is also a way to invest in the involvement of local people, to give the rightful owners of the land a way to make informed decisions about the territory and its future in a changing world.”
Cuéllar hopes to extend parabiologist programs in Ecuador, with a focus on Chaga, the tropical parasitic disease that’s impacting rural areas across South America. She’s also also developing conservationist programs for Dubai and Oman, where she recently spent 11 months training local researchers in a wildlife inventory of three wadis in the Jabal Samhan Nature Preserve.
read more: news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/erika-cuellar-explorer-moments-rain-forest-South-America/
article: Gary Strauss
photo: Thierry Grobet, Rolex Awards