Staff from the Amazon Rescue Center in Peru tag and release a manatee that had been under their care.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only has created an opportunity to come together (figuratively) as people; it also offers a potent reminder of how intricately connected we humans are to the wellbeing of other creatures. In celebration of Earth Day, we interviewed a young social change leader who is making a career of protecting wildlife and helping local communities understand how our actions impact animals and ecosystems.

Cristian Vé​lez Ramirez, 33, is a YouthActionNet® fellow and the Environmental Education and Ecotourism General Manager at the Amazon Rescue Center (CREA) in Iquitos, northern Peru. The center cares for and—under normal circumstances—educates the public about wildlife such as manatees, ocelots, and spider monkeys. Cristian's responses below have been translated from Spanish.

In the context of the global pandemic, what's one thing would you most like the world to know or think about the relationship between communities and ecosystems?

What we know so far about this disease is that it passed from a species of wildlife to humans, and it is not the only case. Throughout the history of humanity there are many examples of zoonoses that have had different impacts on the world. All species in nature play an important role—there is an ecological balance. This balance is often broken due to the constant trafficking of wildlife species, putting at risk the health of the ecosystem and people. In the city where I live, Iquitos in the Amazon, the main source of food is the Belén market. This market is a "time bomb," because a great variety of wild animals [including monkeys, tapirs, and turtles] continue to be sold, either for consumption or as pets.

What aspect of the human-animal or human-environment balance do you think is most misunderstood or taken for granted?

From my point of view, in Peru, it is something as simple as "wild animals cannot be pets." Selling live specimens is a latent risk, since that specimen will be in contact with people and some disease can be transmitted to humans or vice versa. We put ourselves at risk, and we put the species at risk. We must be aware of our great responsibility in this regard, remembering that trafficking exists because there is a demand for these species, either as pets or for "tourism." It is time to be sustainable citizens.

What, if anything, about this situation gives you hope, from an environmental or community perspective?

What gives me hope—or to try to see the situation from a positive perspective—is that because [COVID-19] is something happening in all countries, people can become aware that this problem related to fauna is not isolated. It will occur not only in cities close to the jungle where wildlife is trafficked, but the problem may come to you—whether you live in a small town in the Amazon or a borough in New York. So, we should all be responsible for stopping wildlife trafficking. Definitely, this will generate more people to pay more attention to the environmental problems that we face as a society, such as global warming, and above all, that we look for ways to involve ourselves as citizens in seeking solutions in this regard, adopting environmentally conscious and just behaviors.

Especially during a crisis, what other angles or insights do you think must be taken into account when working with communities and creating policy?

Conservation projects are key to raising people's awareness, but also to generating economic alternatives to replace negative traditional relationships with fauna and ecosystems. That's why it is essential to strengthen and promote more conservation programs. State policies should be oriented to this and support projects that have already had a positive impact on society for several years. It is impossible for people to care for the fauna if they are starving or in extreme poverty. I see a concrete example every day in my city, where, despite being prohibited by the quarantine, thousands of people in vulnerable situations take to the streets every day to generate economic income to survive.

It is time to evaluate ourselves as a ​society—and especially in these times—to come together in solidarity and to be more just and resilient.

 

The Amazon Rescue Center (CREA), which relies on visitors for funding its rescue and conservation program, is closed to outside guests during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the work Cristian and his colleagues do, and consider donating. 

Photo courtesy CREA