To Leeanne Alonso, not much could be better than camping in a pristine rainforest far from human civilization, exploring the endless expanse of green, and studying the myriad creatures that keep the ecosystem going.
"The hardships of living and working in mud and rain without the basic comforts of home, and the dangers of tropical diseases, are easily forgotten when you get a chance to explore a place where no scientist and few humans have ever set foot," says Leeanne. "The scientific treasures and discoveries are more than worth the minor risks and lack of comfort."
Leeanne has had the privilege of exploring many such remote sites over the past 13 years as Director of CI's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP). The program was created in 1990 to quickly provide the biological information necessary to catalyze conservation action and improve biodiversity protection in a given geography. RAP surveys, which typically last three to four weeks, bring together teams of tropical field biologists to conduct rapid, first-cut assessments of the biological value of selected areas. Leeanne has organized and coordinated over 40 RAP surveys across the globe; she has many stories of the challenges of reaching such remote places and the excitement of sharing discoveries and results of a day's sampling with other members of the RAP team.
From Graduate Studies to Landing the Dream Job
Leeanne first learned about CI's RAP program in 1992, when, as a graduate student, she became interested in measuring species richness in tropical ecosystems. She took a discussion course on conservation biology with famed biologist and former CI Board member Dr. E.O. Wilson, who encouraged her to investigate how species data can guide conservation decision making. For her class project, she compared various aspects of species inventory programs from universities and museums and concluded that the RAP program was the best at directly applying the survey data into conservation planning.
This piqued her interest in getting involved in RAP, so when Dr. Wilson was invited to collect ants on a RAP survey to Peru but could not go, she heartily volunteered to go in his stead. She was disappointed that the expedition didn't take her along then, but she was delighted six years later when an even greater opportunity came along: She landed her "dream job" of running RAP.
A Day in the Life: Dangers and Rewards
The dream job did not come without its difficulties. Some of Leeanne's most worrisome moments came during an AquaRAP survey in the Okavango Delta of Botswana, where hippos and elephants roamed freely throughout the RAP camp and crocodiles lurked in the waters as RAP scientists splashed about collecting fish.
IN DEPTH: Learn how RAP scientists detect elusive species.
"As director of the RAP survey, I am responsible for everyone's safety, so it's a bit nerve-wracking when I know the team is in a dangerous situation," explains Leeanne. And it's especially disconcerting when scientists put their data collection before their safety.
"One day a very large elephant was approaching the group, who were all in the water sampling. I asked them to quickly get into the truck, but all of them insisted that they gather their samples first. This delayed the group considerably, and we only just got in the truck before the elephant got to us!" Leeanne recalls.
Leeanne reports that on most RAP surveys, there is little danger from animals since most bite or attack only if threatened. In tropical rainforests, the main danger is venomous snakes, which usually bite only herpetologists who pick them up. The greater danger is catching diseases (such as malaria and leishmaniasis) from biting flies, as well as accidents. Leeanne and her colleagues plan every RAP trip carefully to minimize the risk of accidents and disease exposure.
VIDEO: A day in the life on expedition: Leanne Alonso tours the RAP camp
While RAP expeditions come with their own challenges, they also bring Leeanne many rewards. "One of the greatest joys of a RAP survey is the fact that we have a group of expert scientists all surveying different taxa so we can share our discoveries with each other. Thus, while I survey ants, others find snakes, frogs, bats, katydids, plants, fish, and other creatures which they bring back to the camp and show to the rest of us," says Leeanne. "It's exciting to see birds and bats and other animals up close and to learn about them from the experts."
EXPLORE: Learn more about a few of the species RAP scientists have discovered on expedition.
It has been especially exciting for Leeanne to be one of the first people to see some of the beautiful frogs, fishes and insects found on RAP expeditions that are new to science. In 2009, RAP scientists found over 100 species new to science in just one three-week survey in the Muller Range Mountains of Papua New Guinea, demonstrating how little we still know about our planet. "My motivation comes from being able to experience the beautiful places that we are working to protect and seeing firsthand the incredible biodiversity of these areas," says Leeanne.
The opportunity to work with and train local scientists and students is also a key benefit of RAP. "The future of conservation in tropical regions depends on the local people, so it's critical that there are well-trained biologists in these regions," says Leeanne. "RAP surveys always involve a collaboration between international and local scientists who can share techniques and experiences and learn from one another."
RAP teams also take note of human impacts on the environment — and recognize the importance of partnership in achieving CI's objectives. "I love meeting people from different places and learning about their culture," she says. "I usually buy a traditional dress from each place we work, so I have quite a varied wardrobe now!"
LEARN MORE: CI partners with many academic institutions to conduct RAP surveys.
Ensuring Conservation Successes and Human Well-Being
It is critical to RAP that the data collected on a RAP survey, and the subsequent reports published, are used to obtain conservation success and ensure continuation of nature's essential services to people. "RAP data have been used to protect over 20 million hectares of pristine habitat, to train a new cadre of conservation scientists in many countries, and to convince local communities and governments of the importance of biodiversity protection," Leeanne says.
An example of this can be seen in Suriname, one of Leeanne's favorite places to study, where most of the country is still covered by extensive, pristine forest. "It's so inspiring to fly over miles and miles and miles of forest and to explore the beautiful inselbergs of Suriname," says Leeanne. "We're excited because we recently received funding to conduct two RAP surveys in southeastern Suriname over the next two years. CI-Suriname and RAP are working together to raise awareness of the importance of southeast Suriname as a conservation corridor as part of the 'Suriname Green' strategy. There are also plans for a road to be built through southern Suriname that will change the entire landscape, so we need to collect a solid baseline of biological data to inform this road and other development activities."
As part of CI's new mission, RAP is also expanding its data collection to include more focus on natural resource use and the links between species, ecosystem services and human well-being. "RAP has always, and will continue to, provide baseline data needed for all types of conservation and development action," explains Leeanne. "RAP is a highly flexible tool for collecting all kinds of field data."
A Love for Trees and Little Animals
Leeanne's interest in nature began during her childhood in Southern Ontario, Canada, where she collected salamanders, grasshoppers and snakes in the woods near her home. "I have always loved being outdoors," she says, "even though my family didn't really do much camping or anything. I just felt a profound love for trees and all the little animals."
This love for nature led Leeanne to study zoology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she took an entomology course and discovered the fascinating and diverse world of insects. Part of her curriculum in the honors program allowed her to explore the integration of science and the liberal arts, which has benefited her in her position at CI as she creatively incorporates scientific data into conservation planning.
For her senior thesis, Leeanne studied the ecology of fire ants in Texas and lived on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica for a summer. That first trip to the tropics hooked her on conservation. "I thought the forests, beaches, animals, and plants were all so amazing that I felt that I needed to do something to help keep these around," Leeanne says. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University as a student of famous fellow ant lover Dr. Wilson. She has since discovered several new species of ants, one of which is named after her.
FROM THE BLOG: Through the magnifying glass, by Leeanne Alonso
Leeanne has incorporated her passion for ants into her RAP work by surveying ant diversity along with colleagues who help her with the identifications. Her twin 10-year old boys, Miguel and Antonio, like to collect and identify ants with their mom. "I want to impart a strong love of nature to my sons and other children," says Leeanne.
It's a fondness that, Leeanne says, many people lack these days. "People, including myself, sit in an air-conditioned house and don't want to be bothered by the humidity and biting flies outside," she says. "There's very little reason for people to connect to nature these days, and thus they don't realize how much nature does for us. We need to get people back outside to reconnect with nature."
VIDEO: RAP scientist Jessica Deichmann demonstrates the hazards of drying laundry in the field.
This is especially true for insects, which many people revile but which Leeanne sees with awe. Leeanne says that one of her personal goals is "raising the profile of ants and other invertebrates so that they are considered as worthy of conservation as much as the giant panda and rhino." All species fit together in a complex web of life that supports the well-being of humanity around the globe.
20 Years Down — Here's to Another 20
RAP has continued to evolve in the 20 years since its inception. This year, Leeanne and the RAP program published a new book, Still Counting…Biodiversity Exploration for Conservation: The First 20 Years of the Rapid Assessment Program, which documents the history and conservation impacts of more than 80 RAP surveys.
"The last 13 years has been an incredible adventure for me," says Leeanne. "I have had the pleasure of working with brilliant collaborators to make amazing discoveries leading to conservation action all over the world." Here's to RAP's next 20 years!