Gerardo Garcia has been on the leading edge of recovering endangered amphibians, reptiles, fishes and invertebrates for over two decades. In the early 1990s he was instrumental in the recovery program for the Mallorcan Midwife Toad of Spain, a program that brought the species back from Critically Endangered to Vulnerable and is widely hailed as a model species success story. Gerardo has brought together ex situ and in situ conservation with research and training initiatives to build capacity for species conservation close to a dozen countries from Montserrat to Madagascar and Bermuda to Bolivia. Gerardo continues to make a difference for the conservation of amphibians in his role as curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates with Chester zoo and as chair of the Amphibian Taxon Advisory Group with the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums. We had a chance to catch up with Garcia about what drives his passion and what this award means to him:
Q. How did you develop your passion for wildlife?
It may sounds like a classic but “I have always been like this”! Although I don’t come from a family with a history of interest in science or in particular biology, my family members were very close to nature. My mother and her family were shepherds from the centre of Spain and I was lucky to see wolves crossing the hills near the village where used to spend the summer holidays when I was young.
Since I was a kid, my parents always supported my obsession to see animals and during the weekend and holidays we were always visiting new locations. On my way back home I was hiding, inside my pockets or into small containers, lots of bugs and a range of other animals that I had found during my trips. My mother was always “prepared” to discover something when she was doing the laundry in case I had forgot some of them in my trousers. She was even more adventurous when she was sweeping under my bed and regularly discovered boxes and jars containing a whole range of animals, from adders to rescued baby bats!
My passion kept growing and everybody knew that nothing would make me happier than getting a book about animals or a gadget to carry in the rucksack that accompanied me during little escapades to the mountains surrounding Barcelona city.
Teachers during my entire career were always very supportive and kept encouraging this dedication to observe wildlife. My family slowly started to realise that it was much more than a hobby for me and that I needed to pursue my passion through my studies.
One of the biggest decisions I took at that time was to decide to study biology at the University of Barcelona and to specialise in zoology. This decision was accepted with a certain hesitation by my parents because they didn’t believe that this type of degree would drive me to obtain a “proper job”. Since then my entire life has been dedicated to get a strong academic background (I finalised my PhD at DICE Kent University in the UK) and to build as much experience as possible within both the zoo and conservation sectors.
So it all started when I was a child really, and somehow I never grew out of it!
Q. What is your favorite part of working in the field?
My favorite part is that moment when you’ve already spent a few days in the field and you start familiarizing yourself with the habitat and its wildlife. This is when all your senses are soaked by the magic of that mini universe! The combination of calls, lights, movements, smells… produces a unique performance that only the ones present on that precise instant can understand. It could be anywhere from the ponds of Madagascar to the mountains of Mallorca.
Those unique moments when you’re searching for the species, collecting data or simply having a little break before you continue the trip are never recorded. No photos, no videos, just those exclusive experiences that will be engraved in your memory forever. Somehow it is like a “call of the wild” to return back and be surrounded by nature. Each time will be different again and slowly you get more and more enchanted by that dream from which you don’t want to get out of.
Q. What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The development of conservation programs in different countries from beginning to end! Even though conservation never really ends and only evolves in time, it is an amazing atmosphere when you get in touch with the first contact in country to understand the scenario of the species, and end up spending a lot of your time reading the written reports from the past, connecting with the partners to draft an Action Plan. That is something that I really love to see, how bit-by-bit the jigsaw starts to take shape. The initial results that we start getting after designing the methodology in the field and evaluating the equipment are also incredibly rewarding.
Q. You’ve been actively involved in many conservation success stories for amphibians, do you have a favorite highlight from your career so far?
It is very difficult to pick just one because in each project I’ve experienced moments that will stay with me forever.
If I had to pick one though I would pick one of the very strong and challenging experiences I endured few years ago. Almost as a prophecy in 2007 I worked on a documentary for National Geographic with Dr. Don Church on the eventual impact that the chytrid fungus could have on the Mountain Chicken Frog (Leptodactylus fallax) in Montserrat. Two years later the alarm was raised with mass mortalities of frogs recorded in one particular site. We developed a rapid response team and accompanied by my always-supportive veterinary colleague, Javier Lopez, we collected all the samples required to confirm the chytrid outbreak on the island and witnessed the beginning of the extinction of the species in Montserrat. We didn’t have much time and there was only one single island with potentially still health frogs that could provide us with a chance to secure a rescue population outside Montserrat. With the help of the island authorities and partners on the rescue programme, we managed to evacuate 50 adult frogs and we had to convert a small plane to fit all the crates in order for the translocation to be made possible.
It was one of the most challenging projects I worked on so far due to the emergency and logistics! Twenty years later we are still fighting for the species survival.
Q. How has working with the Chester Zoo been an asset to your conservation efforts?
Chester Zoo provides me with the opportunity to expand the connection between the different taxonomic species programs in our Curatorial department and in the field. Focusing on key fundamental conservation questions for the long term protection of various species gives a different dimension to my work and provides me with endless opportunities to learn. For example, the connection between the Golden Mantella frogs, the lemurs and the local communities living inside Mangabe protected area is a perfect example of this interconnectedness.
The long term partnerships and commitment in country have also been a great support to develop these new conservation programmes during the last few years and provides me with a base for a strong future.
Having the commitment of Chester Zoo to develop capacity in country and working with the communities is a priceless support to all these programmes.
Q. What do you love about amphibians in particular?
I love their astonishing diversity of breeding strategies and their remarkable adaptations to almost every single habitat! They never stop to surprise me and every single time I visit a new country, a new place or simply goes in the field at a different season I discover more about how such a delicate taxon have managed to be so adapted to their environment.
Q. What does this award mean to you?
The recognition to my family, friends and colleagues who have been supporting me since I was a kid. The acknowledgement of all those years of support, patience and faith letting me work in conservation and making it contagious. A burst of energy to continue moving forward with the aim of engaging people across the globe to create a better world for our generations.
Q. Are you hopeful for the future of our planet’s amphibians?
Sadly, now is not a good time for amphibians. There is a long path to go but I’m hopeful that we’re starting to be more aware of the fact that we must stop this rapid decline. We have to stop thinking about the benefits we are reaping today and need to focus on the importance of our actions for tomorrow! It doesn’t matter if we are not the ones seeing the big changes or witnessing the full recovery of the species we are working on now. The simple image of providing the future generations with a healthy planet is providing me with enough hope and energy to pursue working towards that goal.
Q. Why should everyone care about saving wildlife?
Because we’re not that different to anything else living on this planet! We’re as vulnerable as many other species and we can’t hide behind our superiority anymore. By saving wildlife we are saving ourselves!
Q. Do you have a favorite amphibian species? If so, which?
It’s hard to pick one species in particular but I do keep an eye out at the moment for an incredibly fragile species that urgently needs our attention: the Harlequin Mantella Frog (Mantella cowanii) from Madagascar. Also, very closed to my heart and to my Catalonian roots, is the Critically Endangered Montseny Brook Newts (Calotriton arnoldi). Hopefully we will soon send some new ex situ bred newts back to the mountains that I used to visit when I was a kid!