My earliest memory of being asked to contribute towards conservation was at the Minnesota Zoo as a kid, touring with my family. We turned the corner in the reptile hall and at the end of the exhibit there was a box that said something like A Dollar can save X amount of rainforest. Consider donating to help our efforts. And even as a young child I was incredibly skeptical. What was going to happen? Was I going to drop a dollar, or five, or ten, into that box - and miraculously deforestation would stop? A tree would stand strong, alone in a wasteland? We walked by it, my parents paying it no mind.
That ambiguous mentality towards conservation persisted until I came to work at The Field Museum, when I was introduced to the Action Center team. The name in itself evokes the idea of superheroes: crime-fighters in capes, launching over the Amazon with Captain Planet and Mother Gaia. Turns out that image isn’t as realistic as it is sincere; this group really is a major boots on the ground initiative towards conservation. They are the dedicated botanists, anthropologists, ornithologists, and biologists of every assortment dropping into various areas of South America to conduct biodiversity assessments of uncharted rainforest in order create informed legislation that protects those areas. They’ve endured disease of every kind - Giardia, malaria, yellow fever, dengue, leishmaniasis - parasites, fungus, chiggers, botflies, waking up with snakes in their tents, held up at gunpoint from confused locals assuming they’re from the illegal logging industry. Two famed biologists died in a fly-over in 1993 - Ted Parker and Al Gentry pioneered this field of rapid biological assessment, creating the foundation for the decades-old legacy we carry on with their conservation mission in mind.
And in the process these groups have secured and protected 23 million acres of wilderness of the Amazon headwaters. Looking at this map you realize that conservation initiatives are happening one area of forest at a time - slowly, with the help of new legislation, growing education, and heightened awareness of the issues at hand.
In mid-October, I’m helicoptering into the Peruvian rainforest with this crew. It’ll be the first time Tom films out of the country - I’ve never been to South America. I’m getting my yellow fever vaccine on Monday and despite reviewing field guides and laying awake imagining the heat and mosquitoes and cacophony of the forest I’ll never be fully prepared for what we’re going to encounter in these biologically uncharted areas.
We need to change the face of conservation from donation boxes asking for a dollar to real, relatable, actionable plans for preserving native wilderness. If it takes me getting a botfly in Peru to do so, I’m in. I just hope you’ll come along for the adventure.