Fulbright Scholar Ivan Mauricio Vela-Vargas has brought his passion for wildlife research to the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Vela-Vargas grew up hearing of jaguars, tapirs, monkeys from his father, a professor who taught productive systems to indigenous people in Columbia. He began his professional journey in Colombia at Proyecto de Conservación de Aguas y Tierras (ProCAT), a non-governmental organization conservation project for waters and lands. While studying biological corridor and protected area design, he was introduced to the Andean bear and the effects of hunting, loss of habitat and a gap of information in their basic ecology.
“I love bears, but Andean bears have something that make me crazy. Their ‘favorite’ habitats are the páramos, the alpine tundra ecosystems most concentrated in Colombia, and the cloud forests, which generate the most water in Colombia. Andean bears are a bioindicator of the health of these ecosystems. For the indigenous people of the Andes (in Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia), they are the symbol of water, and a figure of power. Although they are an iconic species for Colombia—the Andean bear is in the logo of the Protected Areas System of Colombia—we don't understand much about the species.” Vela-Vargas said.
To fund his research, Vela-Vargas applied for the Fulbright Scholarship. Fulbright staff helped him with every step of the process, from identifying a mentor to applying to a graduate program, to navigating the visa process and making arrangements to move his family.
“My colleagues advised me to contact Dr. Koprowski. His scientific career was excellent. When I contacted him, he was a kind person and helped me in the process of applying to the University of Arizona,” Vela-Vargas said.
“I am very excited to welcome Mauro into the SNRE community where he adds to the diversity of scientific inquiry focused on enabling informed decision-making related to our environmental challenges. Besides his ability as a scientist, Mauro has the incredible passion and likeable personality required to make a difference in conservation. One can often be pulled in many directions by the many stakeholders and Mauro has the skills necessary to deftly navigate through the maze of interests and personalities. It is easy for me to envision Mauro as a leader in conservation with Colombia, Latin America and beyond.” said John Koprowski, professor and associate director, School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Along with The University of Arizona, Vela-Vargas’s research is conducted through The National Natural Protected Areas of Colombia and ProCAT Colombia and focuses on three main concepts. First, how the range of Andean bear habitats are distributed throughout Colombia, main threats for the species and biological corridors that may exist. Second, how different variables such as climate change and human populations are affecting the movements of Andean bears in buffer areas of Colombian national protected areas. And last, the main triggers of conflict between rural human communities and Andean bears in border areas of the National Parks.
After completing his research, Vela-Vargas plans to create a large-scale Andean bear conservation program in Colombia and promote knowledge in rural communities about ecological processes and ecosystem services the bears and their habitats provide.
Vela-Vargas's advice for other students is simple.
“Give your best effort. You are not working hard for a grade, but for your future. Enjoy your career; try to be the best in your field. Read a lot, question a lot and learn how to communicate. I created a goal of being a good scientist, through teamwork, honesty, ethics and enjoyment. When I got my bachelor’s degree I'd already published three papers and worked in different countries. Now I’m here, having a wonderful time, working hard, taking new classes, and meeting excellent people. I am giving 110 percent to have the best experience here.”
A Biological Corridor is defined by the Central American Commission for Environment and Development as "a geographically defined area which provides connectivity between landscapes, ecosystems and habitats, natural or modified, and ensures the maintenance of biodiversity and ecological and evolutionary processes."
The study of biological corridors, which connect different ecosystems and habitats is as important globally as studying individual habitats because it is not limited to animal to animal habitats. Borders between rural human communities and protected (or unprotected) animal habitats are often unsafe for both animals and people. Deeper understanding of these corridors as well as the movement, habits and conflicts of different species in them can increase safety and improve the livelihood of all residents.
ProCAT’s main goal is generating scientific information to support decision making of government agencies in Colombia, such as the national natural parks, environment ministry and other local government agencies.