Ex-Guerrillas Turn into Citizen Scientists Using Their Knowledge of the Colombian Jungle to Protect Biodiversity

Reprinted with permission from World at Large, an online journal focused on travel, foreign affairs, health and fitness, and the environment.

After 2016, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, scientists realized that it was suddenly safe to explore the rainforests, mountains, and savannas from which FARC waged a 50-year guerrilla war—and these areas are counted among the most biodiverse and least-explored places on earth.

A few biologists who longed to journey to the heart of these places also seized the opportunity as the perfect way to bring 14,000 former guerrillas back into society in a meaningful way that could benefit not only them, but the country’s stunning biodiversity.

Colombia is often referred to as the world’s most biodiverse country. Although this is a hard thing to designate, since many species around the world of all kinds remain undiscovered, she does lay claim to the most bird species anywhere on earth—both endemic and migratory.

Who better to help protect Colombia’s wild spaces than those who know them best, pondered Jaime Góngora, a wildlife geneticist at the University of Sydney who is originally from Colombia.

Góngora now leads a group of researchers from the United Kingdom, Australia, and 10 different Colombian scientific institutions in a program that trains ex‑guerrillas to study Colombia’s native plants and animals—a program which to date has uncovered nearly 100 previously-unknown species.

RELATED: Dozens of Creatures Thought to Be Extinct Found Alive in ‘Lost City’ in the Jungle (Photos)

Peace with Nature

Peace with Nature now unites scientists with guerillas to help protect Colombia’s biodiversity and aid in the post-conflict situation for thousands of people, 84% of whom, according to Góngora, are interested in pursuing, of all things, river habitat restoration as their post-conflict career path.

Góngora and his colleagues are only too happy to help, and Peace with Nature began hosting citizen scientist workshops to help train eager folks to find, identify, catalogue, and study wild plants, insects, birds, amphibians, and more.

The preparation work was long and hard – between 15 and 18 months according to Góngora.

“We did the first regional workshop last March in a remote ex-combatant village named Charras in the province of Guaviare at the interface of three major ecosystems in Colombia: Andes, Orinoquia, and Amazon,” says Góngora, in an interview with Science Magazine.

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“There, we did a more comprehensive workshop and inventory of an ecotourism trail identifying more than 120 plant and animal species, which were uploaded to iNaturalist”.

iNaturalist is an app used by citizen scientists around the globe, that allows naturalists to document their country’s biodiversity inventories and to inform and highlight potential ecotourists of attractions in their communities.

“In some of the workshops, we have the presence of the police and military forces along with the ex-combatants,” explains Góngora. “I think what has surprised me most is the opportunity that biodiversity offers for reconciliation and healing after an armed conflict. These workshops have been spaces for a respectful dialogue about biodiversity and nature”.

WATCH a video from Peace With Nature… (File photo by Nishaan ahmed)

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100 Year-old Bachelorette Tortoise May Be the Last of Her Species – But She Has New Hope for a Boyfriend

Last year, in the recently expanded Galapagos Islands National Park, scientists made a “monumental” discovery when they found a solitary female tortoise on one of the islands where tortoises were thought to be extinct for over 100 years.

Because of its location, the animal was presumed to belong to the extinct species only found on that island, Chelonoidis phantasticus, the Fernandina giant tortoise, named for the Fernandina Island, one of the youngest and most volcanically-active in the famous Galapagos Archipelago.

The matriarchal tortoise is believed to be over 100 years-old, and it was immediately transferred to the giant tortoise breeding center on Santa Cruz Island and plans were made for a return to Fernandina to try and track down a mate.

In the meantime, blood samples were sent to Yale University to determine whether or not she is indeed a member of the extinct species.

Two months ago, in December 2019, a team of 10 scientists and park rangers ventured to the island and found evidence that confirmed the presence of at least one more turtle on the island.

“The trails suggest that there is still at least one tortoise on the island, but the dense vegetation, especially ferns, made it impossible to locate,” said Washington Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative.

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A follow-up expedition on January 24th failed when Fernandina’s resident volcano, La Cumbre, began erupting, creating impossible weather conditions for tortoise hunting.

In a call yesterday to the Galapagos Conservancy, GNN learned that the blood test results from Yale have not yet been completed. The Virginia-based Conservancy, one of the primary organizations involved in the Fernandina tortoise project, is still hoping to find a second tortoise to help confirm the exact species of the female found in 2019.

Fernandina female – Courtesy of Galapagos National Park Directorate

“Right now there is only one extant sample in the world and that’s a taxidermy male tortoise collected in 1906,” Johannah Barry, President of the Galapagos Conservancy told GNN.

Barry says it’s prudent to point out that just because the old gal was found on an island where the resident tortoise species is the Fernandina, doesn’t automatically make her one—because, as Barry points out, sailors from the 1950s, and even the 1960s, were often moving tortoises around.

“I can understand why people are excited. It’s either going to be, ‘wow, it’s a Fernandina tortoise,’ or ‘wow, it’s not.’”

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The last time one of these tortoises had been seen in the Galapagos was 112 years ago, a male—and there is no record of ever seeing a female. So, a positive identification from Yale biologists would turn out to be a very big ‘wow’ indeed.

ALSOBaby Tortoises Survive on Galapagos Island for First Time in 100 Years

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Brazilians Get Juicy Tax Breaks When They Adopt Animals, Plant Trees, or Hail Historic Roots

A slew of Brazilian cities are passing laws that offer tax deductions or exemptions for citizens who want to pitch in to restore the health and beauty of their communities.

Whether by increasing tourism, restoring historic city centers, or boosting beautification by planting trees and maintaining their lawns, there are several ways residents of Goiânia, Belo Horizonte, Quinta do Sol, or Saraba can reduce their Brazilian property tax (IPTU), by anywhere between 30–100%.

Shopkeepers in Goiânia can receive a 2-year exemption from the IPTU if they help restore the original Art Deco-style of the city’s historic center by remaking their facades and storefronts to conform to the original 1950’s Parisian-inspired character.

For anyone who’s traveled to South or Central America, the site of a stray dog is nothing unusual. In the city of Quinta de Sol, the Rescue Program for Abandoned Dogs is a measure to encourage citizens to adopt stray dogs in exchange for a tax break.

Dog lovers can get 50% off their tax bill for big dogs, 40% for medium-sized dogs, and 30% for miniatures.

LOOK: Stray Cat With No Ears Finally Adopted After Shelter Worker Crochets Her a Pair of Purple Ones

Known for its jabuticaba trees, Sabara is offering anyone looking to save some money on their IPTU a 5% deduction for every jabuticaba tree they plant in their front or back gardens.

Photo of jabuticaba fruit trees by Vania Wolf, CC license

In the cities of Belo Horizonte and Minas Gerais, a homeowner can get an IPTU exemption if they maintain a wild garden on their property. Described in the law as ‘private ecological reserves’ the specifics of the legislation reads that the reserve of anyone seeking an exemption must contain “primitive or semi-primitive natural conditions” that aid in the “preservation of the biological cycle of species of fauna or flora native to Brazil”.

MORE: Hotel Helps Dogs Get Adopted By Allowing Long-Term Guests to Foster Shelter Pups During Their Stay

As a way to ease the burden for those who have served, Fortaleza is offering exemptions for WWII veterans. The city of Acros is following suit for citizens with debilitating or chronic diseases like certain cancers, Alzheimer’s, and MS. Acros has issued 20 tax exemptions since 2017 for people with catalogued chronic diseases.

With a score from the World Bank of 1.68 out of 7 ranking the “burden of government regulation,” with 1 being the most burdensome, any break from the taxman will likely be a welcome relief for the citizens of Brazil.

And with more trees, primitive reserves, happy doggos, and art deco restaurants to show for it, visitors to the South American country will likely be just as happy.

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