Erika Cuéllar, co-coordinator of the Bolivian Committee for the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), recently received a Rolex Award for Enterprise. Her project will support the conservation of the Gran Chaco region in South America by training local people with the skills needed to manage this region sustainably.
As the founder of two Bolivian non-governmental conservation organizations, Erika is known in Bolivia for her dedication to conservation. She initiated a project that got people living in the Gran Chaco region of Bolivia involved in conservation, and today, local people can receive accredited training as parabiologists. People trained as parabiologists have the skills to carry out scientific survey methods allowing them to collect and report information about the environment and conservation threats. Funding from the Rolex Award for Enterprise will ensure this training can continue, benefitting both local communities and the Gran Chaco.
The Gran Chaco is an extensive hot and arid area that is spread across parts of Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina. Described by some as one of South America’s great wildernesses, this area is being damaged by extensive cattle grazing, the construction of a gas pipeline from Bolivia to Brazil and the extraction of groundwater. Living in the Gran Chaco is a wealth of wildlife including the Guanaco (Lama guanicoe), the White-lipped Peccary (Tayassu pecari) and the Jaguar (Panthera onca).
Erika has chosen the Guanaco, a species listed as Least Concern on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, as a flagship species to spearhead the expansion of her conservation initiative from its roots in Bolivia into Argentina and Paraguay. Although there are approximately 500,000 Guanaco in the wild, only about 200 remain in Bolivia and Erika believes that the fate of this one species can foretell the fate of many other species in the Gran Chaco.
The Rolex Award for Enterprise not only gives Erika an opportunity to extend her Guanaco conservation programme into additional countries, but it will also provide an opportunity that allows more local people to make conservation a long-term employment option. Erika hopes that those who train as parabiologists will be able to play a critical role in policy-making at all levels, from within local communities to a national level.
Already the award has allowed Erika to put her project into action. Contact has been made with government authorities in Argentina and Paraguay and now that she can travel to meet these authorities it will make a big difference to obtaining the support needed to make the project happen. In Bolivia, she has already met with local representatives and reinforced conservation initiatives that had already been put in place. The Rolex Award has also allowed Erika to hire three parabiologists to join the research team that will develop this conservation project.
“The environment of the Chaco is rapidly deteriorating,” said Erika Cuéllar. “Yet we can still protect the guanaco, and what remains of the Chaco, if the three countries work together.”