Q&A session with the two Indianapolis Prize nominees

Acclaimed animal conservationists Gerardo Ceballos and Carl Jones have been nominated for the 2012 Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. The two University of Wales Alumni are among 29 nominees who have devoted their lives to saving the Earth’s endangered species.

The work of all the Indianapolis Prize nominees spans the globe, representing a range of species and locales.

Gerardo Ceballos, who graduated from the then University College of North Wales, Bangor  with an MSc in Ecology, is a native of Toluca, Mexico, and has been nominated for being a world leader in evaluating and designing conservation strategies. His groundbreaking research has led to the protection of vital ecosystems in Mexico that shelter dozens of endangered species. Most recently, Ceballos conducted the most comprehensive jaguar study worldwide, including the first jaguar census in any country.

Carl Jones, who obtained both his MSc and PhD from the then University of Wales, Swansea, is the scientific director of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) and international conservation fellow of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. He has been recognized for his achievements in bringing rare species on the brink of extinction back to long-term survivability. He has been involved in the recovery of five bird species including the Mauritius kestrel, the pink pigeon, and the echo parakeet.

Here they answer questions on their careers and what this nomination means to them

How has your degree helped to contribute to your career, what skills did you learn?

Ceballos: My Bachelor, Masters, and Ph.D. degrees were fundamental in the development of a professional and very successful career.  They provided me with the theoretical background, the technical skill, and experience to develop my professional interests in a sound way. I believe that it would have been literally impossible to become a well-known environmental scientist and conservationist without the proper academic training.

I am particularly fond of my years in the University of Wales at the Bangor Campus, where I did my master degree. I was very young (21) and was eager to learn as much as possible. My Masters was in Ecology. I remember the great academic atmosphere, the friendship with my fellow classmates, and the very nice landscapes surrounding the university. 

My degrees were instrumental in helping me to shape my interest in developing a scientific career that was problem solving oriented. I learnt the basic theory of ecology, evolution, conservation, and scientific method. I had the tools, knowledge, and skills provided by my degrees, and followed my passion and my instincts!

Jones: I have always known what I wanted to do for as long as I can remember.  I wanted to work with wildlife, to visit remote areas and to contribute to the conservation of the most endangered species. But dreaming is not enough and I realised that I needed some higher qualifications. 

I started my Master’s degree in Swansea in 1978 studying developmental strategies in owls. I had only been registered for a few months when I was offered the job to run the conservation project in Mauritius. This was my wildest dream coming true and when I got to Mauritius I had no time to think about owls so I changed the title of my research to “Studies on the Biology of the Critically Endangered Birds of Mauritius” and studied the Kestrel, Pink Pigeon and Echo Parakeet.  From this study I was able to formulate a number of ideas about how to conserve these species and this then helped lay the foundations to subsequent work on them. After my MSc I registered for a PhD at Swansea on the Pink Pigeon. 

To be effective in conservation biology it is desirable to have a master’s degree or a doctorate.   Getting a PhD was a big step for me and overnight I felt I had gained a new level of respect.   

Having a higher degree illustrates that you have reached a standard of critical thinking and knowledge, and politicians and decision makers often give you more time, and your views are given more weight which is essential if you want to achieve results as a conservationist. 

What does being nominated for this award means to you?

Ceballos: Being nominated for this award is an honor for me, because it is recognition of my work and dedication to save nature. The recognition gives me strength to continue working hard on conservation issues and being nominated also helps to publicize the severity of the extinction crises and the need to act. Finally, it is recognition to my university, which provided the platform to develop my research and conservation projects, and an honor to my country.

Jones: The species I have spent my career working with are relatively low profile. Therefore, when I was nominated I was thrilled since it is good to get some recognition for the work that we have done but also for the species. 

It is not only the mega-fauna that are important; the world is full of amazing wildlife that we know little about but in their own way they are often as interesting and as ecologically important as some of the more well-known species.   

As a conservationist my goal is that the species I have worked with will continue their evolutionary histories and fulfil their ecological roles way into the future.  I hope that my successors will be able to see Mauritius Kestrels soaring and swooping over the Black River Gorges in Mauritius and hear the dawn chorus of Pink Pigeons cooing and the screeching of the parakeets.  The conservation of endangered species is very achievable and I hope that awards like the Indianapolis Prize helps convince people of this.

What advice would you offer current student wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Ceballos: My advice is that they should devote their professional life to any topic that is their passion. That is, probably, the most important issue. I think that the more formal education they have, the better. If they are inclined to do a PhD, they should do it and they should never lose faith.

They should be as creative as possible, without fearing to fail. They should understand that failure is part of the process of learning. They should work really hard and focus on a specific topic that satisfies them professionally and is compatible with their private life, and finally, they should enjoy every day.

Jones: My mentor and boss for the early part of my career was Gerald Durrell the writer, naturalist and zoo owner.  Gerry believed that individuals could make a difference.  We have to have dreams and rise to challenges.  

There is a lot to achieve and the world is a wonderful place but we need to look after it.  Any student wanting to work in conservation need to get suitable qualifications but they also need practical experience working on field projects.  To be a good conservationist you need practical and academic skills.  Dream achievable goals and go for them. 

Gerardo Ceballos:Ceballos-healdshot

Carl Jones:Carl Jones with echo parakeet