This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Teaching eco ethics in the Ecuadorean rain forest

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On a muddy road in an Ecuadorean rainforest in 2002, Jordan Karubian happened upon an anteater hacked by a machete and near death — an apparent victim of wanton cruelty. Local boys were puzzled by Karubian's distress. So what, they thought, it's just an animal, right?
 

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Jordan Korubian with Rosa and Jorge in Ecuador, taking notes on the purple-throated fruitcrow.

It was an epiphany for the young scientist, who at the time was a UCLA postdoctoral fellow specializing in the evolutionary biology of the region's rare birds. He realized then that academic research aimed at preserving endangered habitats may be futile without local buy-in.

Karubian had gone to Ecuador to build bridges between academia and local residents in the name of conservation. Few regions are in greater need than the Choco rainforest in northwestern Ecuador — widely recognized as a conservation priority because of its ecologic diversity and disappearing habitat. About 90 percent of the rainforest has been lost to timber harvests and land clearing. Sixty of its more than 500 bird species are found nowhere else. But residents, isolated and largely impoverished, are heavily dependent on the timber extraction and slash-and-burn agriculture that have contributed to the forest's near-collapse.

"They're not bad people; they just need to put food on the table," Karubian said. “We help raise awareness of how amazing the habitat they live in is.”

Since 2002, Karubian has served as Latin America director of the UCLA Center for Tropical Research. His primary focus is a program in Ecuador that schools some 2,400 local children and adults each year on the importance of conservation to their survival.

Karubian has traveled a long distance since his early undergraduate years at UC Santa Barbara. While he “always loved being outdoors … going on hikes and interacting with nature,” he spent his first three years of college majoring in English literature. Then came a life-changing study abroad program in Costa Rica. “I had hands-on experience in the rainforest,” he recalled. “That’s really what did it for me. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do.”

He switched majors, graduating with a B.S. in ecology and evolution. Then, enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Chicago, he served as a visiting scholar in the Department of Biology at Australia National University. There, he conducted his doctoral research on the evolution of the red-backed fairy-wren, a species of tropical bird that, perplexingly, has two types of male birds — one that looks exactly like the species’ female, the other presenting bright plumage.
 

Jefferson and Jury, two of the local kids in the program.
Jefferson and Jury, two of the local kids in the program.
Karubian continues to pursue his Australian research when he’s not in Ecuador, where the conservation program has trained dozens of locals in field biology. Five residents work fulltime to gather and record data for research on the rainforest's endangered species — oddly named birds such as the long-wattled umbrellabird and banded ground-cuckoo as well as more pedestrian-sounding birds, amphibians and insects. One important research project is tracking how tropical birds move seeds around the forest, “a very ecologically important process for sustaining the rainforest,” he noted.

Several of the local participants have even co-authored peer-reviewed journal articles and attended academic conferences to make presentations. The program also aids teachers in developing environmental education curricula.

Next on Karubian’s want-to-do list is working in the Mata Atlntica, a region of tropical and subtropical forest that runs along the Atlantic coast in Brazil. He already has a willing partner for that effort: His wife, Renata Dures, a Brazilian ecologist and evolutionary biologist on faculty at the University of Missouri. The couple met at an ornithology conference in 2006 and have been working hand-in-hand ever since.

For more on Karubian’s work and the UCLA Center for Tropical Research, see the website.
 
View a video of some of the strange and spectacular animals found only in Ecuador's Choco rain forests.
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