Wildlife Crusader Takes the Helm at the Conservation School
By Tara Laskowski
Alonso Aguirre’s first experience with sea turtles was eating them with his family when he was a child in northern Mexico. Though the turtles were seen as a rare delicacy in that community, even then Aguirre didn’t feel quite right about it.
Now, many years later, Aguirre, executive director of the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation, has made a career protecting these marine reptiles and educating fishermen, veterinarians, and others about the need for their conservation.
This spring, for instance, he got a call from Alan Zavala, a professor and collaborator with CIIDIR National Polytechnic Institute in Sinaloa, Mexico, to help with an urgent problem. A graduate student had found a female Hawksbill sea turtle stranded at Jaltemba Bay with a large fishing hook stuck in its throat. According to the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative, protection of the critically endangered Hawksbills in the eastern Pacific is among the world’s most pressing sea turtle conservation issues; only a few hundred females are estimated to nest along the entire region’s coastline.
Could Aguirre help guide the hook-removal surgery from Northern Virginia?
Aguirre was the right man for the job. A veterinarian by trade, Aguirre worked in Hawaii for several years for the National Marine Fisheries Service, heading and pioneering the epidemiology program for endangered Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles. He is also familiar with the area where the injured turtle was found and often goes there to teach workshops on sea grass and sea turtle foraging ecology and conservation medicine.
Using x-rays of the turtle, Aguirre advised the team remotely on how to proceed and where to clip the hook for removal. With Aguirre and other doctors’ help, Jaltemba, the turtle, has recovered nicely. She was released in Jaltemba Bay, Nayarit, with the first satellite tracking device placed on a Hawksbill turtle in the state, so they can learn more about this at-risk species.
Aguirre has held many different positions, from teaching to policy making, all over the world. His career of more than 25 years spans postdoctoral research on wildlife−domestic animal disease interactions in Oregon’s national parks to service in New York as senior vice president of EcoHealth Alliance, which was a partner in the USAID-funded program PREDICT. The PREDICT project helps prevent wildlife-to-human virus outbreaks.
With PREDICT, Aguirre was part of a team that would go to specific geographic hot spots in 23 countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas to collect samples from wildlife most likely to carry diseases that can be spread to humans and look for pathogens. In one area, they found eight new viruses in bats alone.
“The way we travel now, the way we fragment habitats and cause environmental change—all of this is causing cascade effects everywhere, and we are beginning to see severe effects,” Aguirre says.
He notes that more than 8,000 people in 29 countries were infected with SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome), and almost 10 percent of those infected died within five months.
The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in 2009 after 30,000 confirmed human cases of the influenza A (H1N1) virus were reported in 74 countries. If H1N1 and the highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 mutate into a new virus, more than 400 million people could die globally.
With these factors in mind, Aguirre has turned his research focus on conservation medicine. Combining all elements of science, from ecology to psychology, molecular biology to epidemiology, conservation medicine looks at human health, animal and plant health, and ecosystem health to try to determine how all these factors contribute to disease, environmental change, and pollution.
Aguirre recently co-edited the textbook New Directions in Conservation Medicine: Applied Cases of Ecological Health, a follow-up to his Conservation Medicine: Ecological Health in Practice, which was written a decade ago.
Essays in the new book examine how policies and local communities can have an impact on change, and the writers look at how disease spreads from animals to humans, as in the cases of SARS and the avian flu. They also look at how stress can affect and destroy populations, and they argue for treating parasites as vital parts of our world rather than as pests.
“There has been a large decline of pollinators—butterflies, bats, bees—a 63 percent decline in North America. About half our fruits and vegetables need pollination,” says Aguirre. “We want to educate people about the different services that nature provides to humans, from medicines, shelter, climate regulation, pollination, and buffering of disease. It is better to protect them than to destroy.”
At the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virgina, where many endangered species are protected each day, the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation hosts undergraduate and graduate students for a semester of conservation studies like no other.
Highly qualified world experts, including Smithsonian scientists, Mason faculty, and colleagues from other United States and international conservation organizations, provide students with direct connections to the most current teaching, research techniques, and field work around the globe. Students thrive in a collaborative atmosphere of creative and analytical thinking. This fall, the program will also boast a new residence hall and academic and dining facilities.
Aguirre took the job as executive director because he saw it as a new opportunity. “I’m very frustrated that I don’t see a change in people’s behaviors. People are not sensitized to changes that are happening that are going to be bad for them, their children, and their grandchildren,” he says. “I thought [at Mason] we can create a new paradigm of teaching and the next generation of conservation biology leaders.”
This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.