P.I.C: Partners in Conservation

Her brown eyes meet his over a wooden table. “No, you tell it, you tell it. I’ll just chime in, in case you get it wrong,” she says. He smirks and she lets out a little giggle, shifting her attention from his face to her folded hands on the table. I can see a hint of crimson under Anthony’s dark grey five-o-clock shadow, and his smirk turns into a full-on smile. He keeps looking at her as he tells me how on his way to turning in one of his own projects, he stopped in a coffee shop, and drew up a conversation with another person waiting in line. It was her, Karen. “We started talking” – about conservation, perhaps – “and haven’t stopped talking since.” That was 18 months ago.

Karen Burke Da Silva and Anthony Higgins live in South Australia, but their deep-rooted relationship with nature and conservation brought them to the lush landscapes of Costa Rica. They’ve been traveling from biological station to national park, interviewing researchers, naturalists, students, and other Costa Ricans on how conservation hits home for them. Traveling on a teaching award Karen received—she’s a biology professor–the two are figuring out what makes countrywide conservation work. How does it tick? And how can they bring that conservation “mojo” back to their own country, and possibly the rest of the world?

At Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, Karen teaches a first-year biology course that Anthony, a physiotherapist, likes to sit in on sometimes. When they’re not in the classroom, they are out taking photos for a virtual classroom on Facebook, Do You Care About Conservation, where Karen’s students and others are following along”. Anthony is acting as photographer and videographer on their expeditions around Costa Rica. They both make it a point to gather some type of content everyday – whether it’s a photograph of the jungle, an interview, or an anecdote to share and get the students involved.

Anthony has long searched for the reason why some are more inclined to be more environmentally conscious and why others are not. However, he began his studies doing physiology and mostly working with athletes. Still, he kept pursuing the question, ultimately taking classes at Flinders University, where he met Karen at that nearby coffee shop.

Karen, originally from Montreal, Canada, has always had an up close and personal relationship with nature. As a child, she frequently took outdoor excursions and grew to be curious about animals of all types. For her master’s thesis, she worked with chipmunks and watched their behavior when they felt threatened. To create these “threatening” situations, she would make a model in the shape of a large bird, then move it as if it were swooping in. At the sight of the swooping bird’s shadow, the chipmunks would scurry. Karen would track this reaction and see if it differed with a bird model standing on the ground, or even with an actual predator around – her cat. She wanted to study the behavior of these animals when they felt they were in danger. And in a way, she has never stopped studying animals in danger, whether they are chipmunks, clownfish, or even humans in a changing world.

After this major project, she moved to working with clownfish and doing conservation outreach through projects at the university.

The Saving Nemo project was one of these projects. She leads a large group of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as volunteers, in breeding clownfish to sell to local pets shops in order to decrease the number being taken from the ocean as pets. Clownfish, also called anemonefish, are a crucial part of the ecosystem where they live. They form a partnership with anemones – large, living structures in the sea. The clownfish protect the anemone from predators, and the leaf-life formations of the anemone allow the clownfish to hide themselves and their young from their predators. The clownfish also eats the undigested food from the anemone, and the anemone absorbs the nutrients from the clownfishes’ excrement. This partnership is a strong one. And if one of the partners gets taken away, the other just can’t deal.

Perhaps this is why Anthony and Karen are here now – together. Partners have to keep close.

And along with their ties to each other, it was Karen and Anthony’s overlapping passion for protecting the environment that led them both to Costa Rica, a Mecca of conservation. The country’s well-established laws and values incubate successful conservation tactics. Costa Rica has enacted a series of laws that make it illegal to hunt for sport, and these laws impose other fines and penalties for those who keep wild animals as pets.

“They’re way ahead of a lot of places,” Karen says. Anthony jumps in. “A neighbor will call – even if it is on his best friend – will call and say, ‘so and so has got a wild animal on their property.’”

In a way, they are both studying how humans are adapting to this ever-changing world, and if we perceive the danger – of misusing our natural resources – right in front of us. The two are trying to find ways to bring what might be the solution to a better understanding of the environment back to not only Australia, but also the globe. Conserving what we have on this Earth is all we can do with such finite natural resources. And to have found a place that so deeply understands this notion is a treasure to be shared. And that’s what this couple is doing.

They continue to tell me about conservation strategies – ways that we can bring this passion for nature everywhere.

Anthony chuckles, looking over at Karen often, who smiles wide too. It’s like they’re telling the story of how they met all over again. Something about talking about the successes of conservation makes them giddy. Their excitement is palpable, and just might be the main ingredient to further a global love affair with the environment.

Diamond Ebanks is a second year Ph.D student in the Curriculum for the Environment and Ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies environmental inequality, communication, and all-around how to be a nice person.
By: Diamond Ebanks
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