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A New Jungle Book: Teaching Eco Ethics


By Phil Hampton

Published Jan 1, 2009 8:04 AM

Jordan Karubian with Rosa and Jorge, taking notes on the purple-throated fruitcrow.

On a muddy road in an Ecuadorian rainforest in 2002, Jordan Karubian '02 happened upon an anteater hacked by a machete and near death — an apparent victim of wanton cruelty. Local boys were puzzled by Karubian's distress. So what, they thought, it's just an animal, right?

Jefferson and Jury, two of the local kids in the program. Photos courtesy of Jordan Karubian.

It was an epiphany for the young scientist, then a post-doctoral fellow specializing in the evolutionary biology of the region's rare birds, who realized that academic research aimed at preserving endangered habitats may be futile without local buy-in.

Karubian had come to build bridges between academia and local residents in the name of conservation. Few regions are in greater need than the Choco rainforest in northwestern Ecuador — widely recognized as a conservation priority because of its ecologic diversity and disappearing habitat. About 90 percent of the rainforest has been lost to timber harvests and land clearing. Sixty of its more than 500 bird species are found nowhere else. But residents, isolated and largely impoverished, are heavily dependent on the timber extraction and slash-and-burn agriculture that have contributed to the forest's near-collapse.

Take a peek at a the strange and spectacular animals found only in Ecuador's Choco rain forests.

"They're not bad people; they just need to put food on the table," Karubian says. Today, he heads a UCLA Center for Tropical Research program that schools some 2,400 local children and adults each year on the importance of conservation to their survival, aids teachers in developing environmental education curricula and trains local residents as field biologists — all while conducting research critical to the preservation of habitat and endangered species.

Dozens of locals have been trained in field biology and five residents work full time to gather and record data for research on the rainforest's endangered species — oddly named birds such as the long-wattled umbrellabird and banded ground-cuckoo as well as more pedestrian-sounding birds, amphibians and insects. Several of the local participants even have co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles and attended academic conferences to make presentations.

"When I began work on this project, my life changed completely," says Jorge Olivo, a member of Karubian's Ecuadorian team. "I began to give more value to the natural world that surrounds us."