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Training the Next Generation of Conservation Stewards

Training the Next Generation of Conservation Stewards October 28, 2009

Researcher, educator, and activist Chris Vaughan takes big steps toward making a small footprint

Talk to Chris Vaughan for ten minutes and you’ll probably hear a dozen (or more) ideas about how to preserve the environment. Don’t be surprised if most of those ideas involve educating people – especially young people – about respecting the earth and all its organisms.

ACM Costa Rica Program Director Chris Vaughan

A researcher, educator, and activist, Vaughan has spent the past four decades tirelessly sharing his passion for conservation and biodiversity – mentoring students, writing books and scientific articles, working to establish parks and nature reserves, helping community groups, raising funds for conservation projects, and developing educational programs whose graduates have been instrumental in conservation efforts throughout Latin America.

He’s also practiced what he’s taught. For much of the time he lived with his family on a farm in Costa Rica, growing a good share of their own food. For 15 years they were even “off the grid” until electrical service was extended to their locale.

In his new post at Director of the ACM Costa Rica programs, Vaughan is focusing his remarkable knowledge and experience – and wealth of ideas – on educating new generations of students. The position brings Vaughan’s career full circle, since he first went to Costa Rica with ACM when he was a college student.

A great mentor, and the excitement of field research

Summers as a child spent fishing in the Chesapeake Bay and a mother who brought home orphaned animals – dogs, cats, birds, and most anything else that crossed her path – sparked Vaughan’s interest in nature and led him to pursue a biology major at Grinnell College. His junior year on the ACM Costa Rica program, though, really kicked those interests up a notch.

“Going to Costa Rica was as much getting away from the U.S. for a year as it was seeing a different world,” said Vaughan. “Once I got there and was in the rain forest and seeing things I never even imagined, it just sort of blew me away.”

The program also gave Vaughan a taste of field research and a firsthand understanding of the impact a teacher can have on a student. “I think (the independent research project on the program) was one of my most valuable experiences,” Vaughan noted. “I had a great mentor, Charles Schnell, who’s a Grinnell graduate and had been on the Costa Rica program himself. He was an advisor with the ACM program and was working on his Ph.D. from Harvard in Costa Rica. He sort of took me under his wing when I was a student, and in a sense I wanted to do the same afterwards with other people, because I got so much from him. That summer I also worked for the world-famous biologist Dr. Daniel Janzen and learned a lot from him about plant-animal interdependence.”

Chris Vaughan (standing) in 1985, as an advisor on the ACM Costa Rica field research program, with students (to his left) Judith Magnan and Tina Niven. Since graduating from college, Magnan has served as Coordinator of Academic Services for the ACM Costa Rica programs.

A year later, after graduating, Vaughan returned to Costa Rica as a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to work with a group doing surveys for the country’s National Parks Service. “I was basically a scout who would go out with my backpack and look at areas they had picked as potential sites for parks and reserves,” said Vaughan. “After carrying out basic inventories en situ, I wrote several executive decrees to create Corcovado, Chirripo and Manuel Antonio national parks.”

Vaughan was hooked. “I just fell in love with the areas, the biodiversity, and the people living there,” he said.

After earning a Master’s degree, Vaughan began teaching courses in wildlife management for the Universidad Nacional in Costa Rica. It clicked. He continued teaching courses in tropical field and wildlife ecology at the university for the next 27 years, as well as at other institutions in Costa Rica and for many years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned his Ph.D.

He also served as a key advisor for many years to students doing independent research on ACM’s spring field research semester in Costa Rica. In all, Vaughan advised about 70 ACM students on their projects, co-authoring two dozen scientific papers with students. He did, indeed, return the mentoring he received as a college student.

The excitement of being in the field, conducting research, never grows old for Vaughan, and he passes that enthusiasm along to his students. “It offers the students a new world,” he said. “It could be macaws or sharks or cloud forest frogs or vegetation. It allows you to be in the midst of it – you’re not in the classroom. You’re out in the field. You’re seeing reality.”

Creating a program in wildlife conservation

In mid-October, 2009, with dozens of his former students and colleagues from around the world looking on, Vaughan was honored for his role in founding the first graduate program in wildlife conservation in Latin America, the International Institute for Wildlife Conservation and Management (ICOMVIS) at Universidad Nacional.

Chris Vaughan being honored for founding the International Institute for Wildlife Conservation and Management.

The seeds of the program were sown in the early 1980s. “At that time, there weren’t any similar programs outside the U.S., Canada, and Europe,” said Vaughan. It made sense to start training people in wildlife and conservation biology in parts of the world where they would be working, but it took three years of hard work for his efforts to bear fruit.

“We were able to attend a meeting in Panama of the heads of wildlife agencies from throughout Central America,” Vaughan said. “Part of the reason I was invited to the meeting was to propose a master’s program in wildlife conservation. The agency heads endorsed it and we were able to get funding from the World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Vaughan served as director of ICOMVIS for several years, as well as professor, researcher, and thesis advisor. “It was very exciting – lots of fieldwork, lots of research, but also looking for money” from agencies and foundations, said Vaughan. “I’d have a suit and tie on one week, meeting with donors, and then put on my field clothes the next. I guess going to the field kept me sane.”

Since it was established in 1984, the Institute has drawn students from nearly every country in Central and Latin America. The program’s 174 graduates have gone on to work in non-profit organizations and governmental institutions – such as wildlife agencies and natural resource agencies – and as university professors and researchers. “We consider the program’s graduates to be the cutting edge leaders in Latin America in use of biotic or wildlife resources,” said Vaughan.

The program’s accomplishments have been widely recognized. In 1995, Universidad Nacional and the Institute received an award from the Rainforest Alliance for their work in conservation and training people to protect tropical rainforests. “I was there to accept the award the same year that Ted Turner from CNN also got an award (from the Alliance),” said Vaughan, “so that was great fun.”

Contacts bring opportunities for students

It’s midway through the fall semester, and Vaughan is moving at his usual quick pace. This week, Rodrigo Carazo, a former President of Costa Rica, will speak to the ACM students at Vaughan’s invitation. The two met in the 1990s through a mutual friend after Carazo had heard about Vaughan’s conservation work.

“I was going past (Carazo’s) house last week and I thought, Why don’t I just leave him a card and ask him if he’ll come to talk to the students,” said Vaughan. “He called me on Monday and said ‘Sure.’”

“He’s a very charismatic person,” Vaughan said of Carazo, “and is like a Jimmy Carter for Costa Rica.” During his term as president in 1978-1982, Carazo reactivated the Treaty of San Jose, which set up an Inter-American Human Rights Court in the Costa Rican capital. He also founded and is President Emeritus of the University for Peace, a United Nations institution headquartered in Costa Rica.

Vaughan expects that Carazo will talk about how Costa Ricans can have a high quality of life while maintaining a small ecological “footprint,” or amount of land required to support an individual’s consumption of resources. These are the kinds of social, economic, environmental, and cultural issues that typify the Introduction to Costa Rica class that Vaughan teaches.

In the current assignment for the class, the students are calculating their ecological “footprint” in three places – at home in the U.S.; with their host families in San José, where the program is located; and in rural Costa Rica where they spend two weeks with host families.

“One student who had done the calculations came up to me, shocked, saying that they had found a 10 to 20 times difference (in the size of the footprint) between the U.S. and Costa Rica, and wondering if that was possible,” said Vaughn. “I said, I think it is.”

Training the next generation

Three years ago, Vaughan returned to Grinnell College to receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree from his alma mater, which lauded him for contributions “toward understanding and training the next generation of conservation stewards and involvement in environmental issues.”

With each new generation of college students who go to Costa Rica to study, Chris Vaughan’s contributions continue.

Links for more information:

  • ACM Costa Rica programs

Language, Society, & the Environment (fall semester)

Field Research in the Environment, Social Sciences, & Humanities (spring semester and spring trimester option)

  • Costa Rica service stories – article in the St. Olaf College Manitou Messenger on October 8, 2009 about Chris Vaughan and the ACM Costa Rica programs
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