Rob Wallace, Ph.D., is the director of the Greater Madidi-Tambopata Landscape Conservation Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society in northwestern Bolivia and southeastern Peru.
Since 1999, he has led research teams on jaguars, Andean bears, Andean condors, giant otters and various ungulates and primates, including the discovery of a new species of titi monkey. He is currently leading the Identidad Madidi, a multi-disciplinary expedition to probably the world´s most biologically diverse protected area.
In this installment of Beyond the Lab, Wallace, a grantee in the foundation's Andes-Amazon Initiative, discusses the inspiration he finds from various perspectives in working toward conservation.
What inspired you to become a scientist/researcher?
Even as a toddler I was hypnotized by animals. As a boy I spent long summer days exploring a small forest in the English Cotswold’s, and by the time I was a teenager a combination of the written work of Gerald Durrell, and the television series’ of Sir David Attenborough, had fuelled a passion for the world’s tropical forests. Almost twenty-seven years ago I visited the Andes-Amazon for the first time, and I have been head over heels ever since.
What topics/areas/problems in science are you most interested in solving?
I am fascinated by the importance of communicating and conveying scientific knowledge about the unprecedented biodiversity of the Andes-Amazon region with society, especially an increasingly urban public. In Bolivia, I am acutely aware that information and images on African and Asian megafauna are often more available and visible than that of the extraordinary national natural heritage. Identidad Madidi is an attempt to change that situation and increase national and international recognition of Madidi as probably the worlds’ most biologically diverse national park. It is also an opportunity to highlight the fundamental importance of protected areas for conservation, and the critical role of the Andes-Amazon region from the perspective of the biggest challenge facing humanity to date: global climate change.
How do your colleagues, mentors, students/postdocs and others help you achieve your goals?
As a multi-disciplinary team working together to document the record breaking biodiversity of Madidi National Park, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of my Identidad Madidi colleagues. They inspire me and everyday in the field I am privileged to learn something new about the fantastic biodiversity of the Andes-Amazon region. Over the years, I have benefitted from generous, and sometimes brutally frank, advice from several academic mentors. Over the years I hope I have been able to pass on some of that wisdom in my role as an advisor to Bolivian undergraduate and postgraduate students.
What gets you going every day (besides coffee) and how do you stay motivated?
I find the commitment and drive of others contagious. Most immediately this is exemplified by my colleagues at WCS and Identidad Madidi, but I am most inspired by people whose lives are dedicated to conservation in a more direct fashion, for example, the indigenous leaders and local people who quietly work to retain forest cover and implement sustainable development options for their communities. Whenever I feel tired, down or overwhelmed I think about them, and especially, my heroes, the park guards of the protected areas of Bolivia and the broader Andes-Amazon region and beyond, who spend much of their lives away from their family, in remote locations, defending the most beautiful places on Earth.
What are your greatest limitations/challenges as a scientist/researcher?
As a field conservationist, the overall challenge is to approach the conservation conundrum from two perspectives, on the one hand working with local people to develop solutions to make conservation of wildlife and wilderness compatible with their development aspirations, and on the other hand monitoring how wildlife populations and the ecosystems they inhabit respond to different intensities and scales of anthropogenic pressure. As a conservation scientist working to provide technical advice for decision making in some of the most complex ecosystems on Earth, it is also important to remember what we do know, whilst recognizing what we don't yet know.