Biodiversity, climate change, the environment - these are all issues that we hear a lot about these days, so it was exciting to hear first hand from a group of youngsters (that we sponsored) about their experience of conservation in Honduras.
The four girls who came to talk to us - Lily Eddy, Sophie Devereaux, Izzy McMeeking and Ellis Bore - all took part in a recent expedition to Honduras with Operation Wallacea (OpWall), an organisation that gives young people the chance to learn about conservation through hands-on field experience. The girls are all students at Kent College, and were accompanied on their visit to us by their teacher, Mrs Jody Moseling. Each student received a grant from our Millennium Scholarship Trust Fund of £500 towards the £3,500 cost. (The Millennium Scholarship Trust Fund was set up by The Rotary Club of Canterbury to mark the Millennium, with the aim of 'advancing the education of young people who live, work or study in Canterbury and to instil principles of good citizenship by providing financial assistance to those who wish to give service to a local or overseas community'. To date we have helped over 50 young people and given grants of well over £30,000.)
The girls took it in turn to tell us about their experiences and the research work that they helped assist, illustrating their talk with plenty of pictures that they took during their July expeditions to Cusuco National Park and Utila Island Coral Reef.
First, the girls reminded us that Honduras is a small, mountainous Central American country with a population smaller than England. Twelve youngsters went on the trip in total, learning about conservation projects and conservation techniques, and doing research work alongside researchers. One of the girls described their trip as a "huge adventure" in which they were able to gain "new experiences while taking part in a real conservation project".
Their journey started off with three flights in 24 hours. Acknowledging that such travel was very polluting, the girls told us the conservation projects need the help of such youngsters with data collection; conservation efforts also need the funds that such trips bring in. Operation Wallacea has a ‘ClimateCare Calculator’ which allows those travelling by plane etc to offset the carbon cost of their travel.
On arriving in Honduras, the youngsters stayed overnight in a hotel before travelling to the national park by a combination of buses and 4x4s. The local population was very welcoming and hospitable. The youngsters stayed at base camp for three nights - where the girls told us they shared facilities with various others, including large spiders!
The girls kicked off their research activities by taking part in a habitat survey – during which they helped researchers measure the height and circumference of trees and the density of soil to calculate the carbon storage of the forest. (This in turn helps researchers work out how much carbon dioxide is taken up. Large companies can then buy carbon credits, providing a sustainable way of decreasing global warming.)
The youngsters also helped a team of researchers study the population of insects using light traps, to which the insects are attracted. They learned that the scarab beetle population is really suffering and told us of horrifying instances of scarab beetles being used as living jewellery with pins inserted through their bodies. Our group also took part in invertebrate studies in which they used dung-baited traps to attract dung beetles. The girls were excited to find a creature that was a cross between a spider and scorpion.
A canopy access team gave the youngsters step-by-step instructions on how to climb trees using a system of ropes and pulleys. They went as high as 40 metres – from where they had “amazing views across the forest canopy” and could hear monkeys and other wildlife.
Next, they went on a 3-hour trek to the next camp. Again, they had unusual experiences – like "peeing using a funnel "and finding themselves in the middle of a thunderstorm. At night they would hear howler monkeys. They learned "how different life can be on the other side of the world".
They helped a team of bat researchers survey bats and learned to identify different species; they were told that research indicates deforestation correlates with a decrease in bat fertility.
Working with herpetologists, the group learned to tell the difference between male and female lizards. A viper that was discovered behind a hammock was duly measured. The youngsters also carried out snake tracking using a special piece of equipment – basically, the louder the beep the closer the snake! Frogs were measured and also swabbed to check for presence of a deadly fungus. On their first night the girls were lucky enough to come across a frog from a critically endangered species.
The girls also studied birds – and saw “a whole variety of birds” during their endeavours. They saw a red-capped manakin (famous for its quaint ‘moonwalking’ dance), a resplendent quetzal (a bird with a magnificently coloured tail), and several pairs of toucans. By listening out for bird calls they were able to assist with a bird survey.
So far the girls had only covered their first week in their talk! Next they told us about their second week, which took them to the OpWall marine site of Utila Island. While there, they stayed in a local guest house, travelling around in tuk-tuks. As well as snorkelling, the youngsters had the option to learn how to scuba dive – our group did the PADI course and all four are now certified divers.
Again, at Utila they assisted in actual research projects. They learned how different creatures can affect the environment – for instance, they learned about a type of microalgae that eats coral and threatens to wipe out coral reefs, while certain sea urchins help keep the sea clean. The group helped with a microplastic survey at one of the beaches – and were "horrified" by what they discovered. Scuba diving allowed them to take part in underwater surveys. They learned to use different hand signals for different creatures and record this data. They also learned how rising sea temperatures are causing coral bleaching and affecting biodiversity, with some species under threat of extinction.
Finally, the girls told us of their own experiences with deforestation and poaching. They were told how some locals were destroying ‘OpWall’ cameras, and saw animal traps laid down by local poachers. While there they were shocked to see a local ‘VIP’ pocket a scarab beetle. All voiced their alarm on learning of the affect of palm oil plantations on biodiversity.
The group drew their talk to a close by thanking us for our donation towards their costs. By helping to fund them so that they can take part in research, we have helped support nature conservation in Honduras. Moreover, the experience has affected each of the youngsters; they all spoke of their involvement being “inspirational” and influencing their career choices. They ended with a brief video of their trip.
We hope that the students will go on to inspire others and to keep involved in some way with nature conservation efforts. Perhaps, one day, we will hear more about the careers they have taken up.
Picture: The girls, pictured with their teacher and an illustrated poster that they had made about their expedition to Honduras. Picture credit: Rotary Club of Canterbury.