Interview with David Whitacre, The Peregrine Fund

By Diane Jukofsky, Rainforest Alliance

“Virtually every organization in the Petén that is working in conservation or land-management has hired one or more of our project alums.”

For more than 10 years, the Peregrine Fund did field research on birds of prey and other birds, and their habitats, in the Petén of Guatemala. Part of the success of this project was due to the involvement of dozens of local residents, many of whom became highly skilled, biological field technicians.

Project director David Whitacre explains why involving Peteneros was so important to this project’s success:

Using RadioTelemetry, the Maya Project Team Followed this Female Ornate Hawk-Eagle during the First Three Years of Her Life -- Photo by David F. Whitacre.Because of the way the project was designed, we had to involve local people — we had such a large crew in the field. Throughout the project, we involved about 100 local residents. About 35 of them worked for us for several years. We also involved graduate students from the United States and Guatemala, but our strategy was to work largely with people who live in the area of study, who are going to stay there when the project concludes. It was an extremely effective strategy.

The local people we hired taught us how to go out into the Petén and stay alive. Most were slash-and-burn farmers. The only requirement we had was that they needed to be able to read and write, because they needed to be able to take accurate field notes. People who actually had some experience in the woods got preference, but that includes an awful lot of people in the Petén. Since much of our research took place in the forest canopy, chicleros were worth their weight in gold to us because they could already climb trees.

We gave a lot of people a chance — most people worked out, though not everyone did. We used an apprenticeship model. We had a number of graduate students involved in the overall project and various sub-projects, as well as professional biologists working for the Peregrine Fund. They would work in the field alongside the local guys, who would then pass their knowledge to the next group of field assistants who got involved in the project.

There might be a group of three or four people working on each project. Initially, we might have a graduate student doing a particular project for his or her Master’s Degree, but then we would keep that project going after the graduate student left, and so many of the local guys ended up being project chiefs. Sometimes they would work with one bird species for several years, then another species. So, they got experience with several different kinds of birds of prey.

Estuardo HemandezConducts a Raptor Point Count from an Emergent Tree-Top Above Talk's Forest -- Photo by David F. WhitacreThere were never any expectations that our project would go on forever. These guys knew they would have to fledge and go on to something else. But I think that everyone who was involved got a lot of good experience. They all went away with a letter of recommendation from us. Of the 25 or so who became really highly experienced as field biological technicians, at least a dozen have continued to make their living this way, doing biological research, land-use or conservation work in the Petén. Virtually every organization in the Petén that is working in conservation or land-management has hired one or more of our project alums.

We invested in these local men who are born and bred in the Petén and are likely going to live out their days in the Petén. The educational norm in that area is to get through the sixth grade — if you’re lucky. Many of our guys had not been through the sixth grade, and so we helped them with weekend school programs. We hired a truck for them so they could get to school on weekends, so they could finish what’s called the secundario básico.

We also provided a full scholarship for three of our project alums, to complete a three-year college program in conservation and management of tropical forests. These three men are now in positions of considerable responsibility. Julio Madrid is now chief of fauna for the northern Petén region of CONAP, Guatemala’s chief agency in charge of managing protected areas. Hector Madrid is a regional forester for INAB, Guatemala’s national forestry agency, and Normandy Bonilla is a specialist in management of community forestry concessions within the Maya Biosphere Reserve.

One of the things that proved so satisfying in the end about involving all those local people, was the degree of commitment and true interest in the project that they had in the project. This was really mind boggling to me.

Julio Madrid, is now in Charge of Fauna for Protected Areas of Northem Peten, Observes an Ornate Hawk-Eagles nest from a Tree-Top Blind -- Photo by David F. WhitacreFor example, recently I was reading through field notes of Rodolfo Cruz, who was in charge of ornate hawk-eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) field work for about four years. At one point, he and a couple of his co-workers had to try to track down and capture a female hawk-eagle to replace a weak transmitter. She was in a part of the forest that was quite far from the road. Rodolfo and his group went off with backpacks and food, prepared to spend the night. But they couldn’t catch her, so they decided to spend another night, basically out of food. They still couldn’t catch her, so they elected to spend yet a third night out there. By the third night, their batteries were going, and they had just one flashlight left. The forest was really flooded at this time, so they were up to their knees in water, sometimes up to their chests, hiking barefoot through the forest in the dark. So, it wasn’t just a job to these guys. They really loved doing the work. (We never did catch the hawk, who kept moving around. But we had a radio on her for almost three years.)

One of my most memorable photos is of Rodolfo. He is sitting at a cardtable outside our research station, typing up his annual report on our ornate hawk- eagle research. And sitting across from him is his 10-year-old son. Rodolfo is a corn farmer, but here he is carefully writing up his biological report while his young son watches.

These guys became legends in their own time in the Petén. If you have a question about birds, anyone in the conservation community there is likely to send you to Julio Madrid or one of the other veterans of our Maya Project.

Right now, I’m finishing a book that reports on the results of our raptor studies. Many of these local men are co-authors of chapters, and it’s no exaggeration to say that several of them have more experience with some of these raptor species than anyone else in the world.

We feel that these guys accomplished something miraculous. They did it, not us. All we did was reveal the fact that they had a very deep and abiding interest in natural history and conservation. We gave them some training, and we discovered a cadre of really smart, really dedicated individuals. All they needed was an opportunity to get into this line of work.

I feel that the progress of conservation in the Petén really benefited from our having invested in this small group of remarkable local individuals.

Clearly, people like this exist everywhere, not just in the Petén.

More About This Project


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