Article

Sergio Avila is a wildlife biologist.

Photograph by Kimberly Dumke

By Kimberly Dumke

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sergio is a wildlife biologist and the Northern Mexico program coordinator with Sky Island Alliance (SIA), a grass-roots organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of native species and habitats in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

EARLY WORK

Born in Mexico City, Sergio was raised in Mexico’s Zacatecas state. Both of his parents are medical doctors. They helped Sergio and his brother develop an appreciation of nature and geography.

“We spent a lot of time outdoors, and I grew up feeling a connection with the land,” says Sergio. “From a young age, I loved animals, especially predators, and cats were the group I most preferred. I used to dream that I had a lion.”

High school was a turning point for Sergio. “I had a teacher who made me see I could expand my interest in nature by studying science.”

After receiving a degree in biology from the University of Aguascalientes, Sergio spent nearly a year living with the Tarahumara people in the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua, Mexico. He conducted wildlife studies in order to help protect the area from the impacts of logging.

"I learned more about biology in that time than I did in four years of college because it was applied biology,” he says. “I first learned about tracking there. The Tarahumara are master trackers. They can even track individual people and are able to point to footprints and say, ‘That is my cousin.’ They also taught me about the medicinal properties of specific plants."

Sergio also has a master’s degree in arid lands management from the University of Baja California.

MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK?

Spotting or finding evidence of wildlife, especially species that are at risk. In January 2010, an SIA remote camera photographed a jaguar 48 kilometers (30 miles) south of the U.S/Mexico border. These were their first pictures of the elusive animal in the region.

Sergio also finds it exciting to see the results of specific projects, such as road restoration. SIA was asked by the U.S. Forest Service to help close duplicate and illegally created off-road vehicle roads. “It is so rewarding to visit areas that were damaged and see the return of the native landscape,” says Sergio.

MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK

Getting people to think beyond, “Is it useful to me?” and “Should I be afraid of it?” so they see the value of protecting the land and wildlife. “Newer generations know a lot,” says Sergio. “We have to teach what to do with that knowledge. Also, while children are the future, we need political support of conservation efforts.”

HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?

“The science of describing, depicting, or representing the Earth, the land or specific parts of it and all its features—live and not live.”

GEO-CONNECTION

Sergio does wildlife research and is involved in conservation projects in the Madrean Archipelago, a diverse area in the southwest U.S. and northern Mexico. This research requires an awareness of the land and how living things adapt to it.

Sergio monitors the presence of mammals, including big cats like mountain lions, ocelots, and jaguars. This sort of research uses tracking skills, such as knowing what paw prints belong to what animal, how far animals travel, what their preferred den or shelter is, and whether the animal is active during the day or at night. Sergio works to protect, preserve, and restore the cats’ habitat in this ecosystem.

Sergio must communicate with different groups of people on both sides of the border. He educates the public and enjoys talking to students and other groups about the area’s Southwestern Sky Islands and his organization’s work.

Despite their name, sky islands are not surrounded by water— they are mountains surrounded by valleys. Even though the mountains are part of a range, they are so isolated from each other that each mountain develops its own unique ecosystem, making it a sort of “island” rising from the valley.

Even though the area’s sky islands cover a large geographic region, many people haven’t heard of them. “People motivate me with their questions and interest,” he says.

As the Northern Mexico program coordinator for SIA, Sergio is working with Mexican ranchers to conduct scientific research. He also educates them about the geographic value of conservation and using the land in a sustainable way. “I do not tell them they should not ranch,” explains Sergio.

“It may be what has always been done and is part of the culture. I just provide information about the benefits of allowing land to return to its natural state. This can include financial benefits from ecotourism, such as a bird-watching group paying to visit the ranch.”

SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST

Besides studying science, Sergio suggests learning about conservation and the challenges surrounding it.

Sergio tells aspiring biologists to have a good work ethic. “You have to look for opportunities and go where the job takes you. Don’t do something just because it may be convenient.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

arid

Adjective

dry.

biologist

Noun

scientist who studies living organisms.

canyon

Noun

deep, narrow valley with steep sides.

Encyclopedic Entry: canyon

communicate

Verb

to exchange knowledge, thoughts, or feelings.

conservation

Noun

management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

Encyclopedic Entry: conservation

convenient

Adjective

easy or available.

depict

Verb

to represent or draw.

ecosystem

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

Encyclopedic Entry: ecosystem

ecotourism

Noun

act and industry of traveling for pleasure with concern for minimal environmental impact.

grass roots

Adjective

made up of people who are not socially or economically elite and do not represent the government.

jaguar

Noun

large spotted cat native to the Americas.

landscape

Noun

the geographic features of a region.

Encyclopedic Entry: landscape

logging

Noun

industry engaged in cutting down trees and moving the wood to sawmills.

mammal

Noun

animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

medicinal plant

Noun

plant used to cure or comfort people or animals suffering from disease.

mountain

Noun

landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

mountain lion

Noun

large cat native to North and South America. Also called a cougar, puma, catamount, and panther.

ocelot

Noun

spotted American wildcat.

ranch

Noun

large farm on which livestock are raised.

research

Noun

scientific observations and investigation into a subject, usually following the scientific method: observation, hypothesis, prediction, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.

restoration

Noun

repair of damage to an ecosystem so that it can function as a normal self-regulating system.

sky island

Noun

mountainous ecosystem where a single mountain is so isolated from nearby mountains that it is ecologically distinct.

Tarahumara

Noun

people and culture native to the Sierra Madre Occidental of northern Mexico.

wildlife

Noun

organisms living in a natural environment.

work ethic

Noun

dedication to a job or project.


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Writer

Kimberly Dumke

Editors

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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