Eco-Lessons From Afar
- Rob Cullivan
- Gresham Outlook - Features
Mary Nemmert recalls the high-pitched scream as the figure rose in the moonless night to confront her and her companions.
'Everyone just froze and freaked.'
Nemmert, who teaches second grade at Butler Creek Elementary School in the Centennial School District, had been walking down a Pacific coast beach in the Central American nation of Costa Rica last August. She and her companions, who hailed from Europe and Canada, were volunteers with ASVO, an organization that works to preserve environmentally protected areas of the nation.
The group was looking to rescue endangered sea turtle eggs, which poachers could sell for as much as $1.75 apiece. The eggs are coveted because they're considered a culinary delicacy.
But there was nothing delicate about the being that confronted the group, Nemmert says, noting that a dog named Pulga accompanied her and the other volunteers.
'The dog started going crazy,' she says. 'We thought it was a poacher.'
For fear of scaring off sea turtles seeking to lay eggs in the beach sands, as well as tipping off poachers to its presence, the group had been walking the beach without using flashlights.
However, as the mysterious figure screamed at them, the flashlights went on, Nemmert says. That's when the group realized it wasn't a poacher confronting it, it was a Tamandua, a banded anteater.
'It looked like a cartoon character,' she says. 'But it had no visible face, just a long skinny snout. Startled by Pulga, it stood on its hind legs and began a funny kung-fu-like dance while making a kind of eerie screeching, howling sound.'
Fortunately, the creature backed off and ran away, and once the volunteers stopped laughing, they were able to resume removing turtle eggs from their nests and bringing them back to a nursery where they could remain until they hatched.
Nemmert's trip to Playa Matapalo, Costa Rica, was sponsored by Yahoo!, and organized by G.A.P. Adventures, which specializes in eco-tourism, or environmentally friendly tourism. A longtime leader in conservation education at Butler, she was randomly chosen for the trip by Yahoo! out of several nominees submitted by the Centennial district.
Nemmert has taught in the district for 28 years and has long been interested in environmental issues. She said students in the Butler Creek conservation club encouraged her to work to save sea turtles.
'There's no reason why they need to become extinct, and they're a beautiful creation and just in that we need to preserve them,' she says, adding, 'They're just a creation from God. They're just these big awesome ancient creatures. On land, they're so awkward. In the sea, they're beautiful and graceful and kind of peaceful.'
The ASVO volunteers and the local poachers essentially engaged in a nightly race to get the sea turtle eggs, she says.
'It's kind of scary the first night because you think you're going to get killed,' she says. However, it's an unwritten rule honored by ASVO and the poachers that whoever gets to the sea turtle nests first gets the eggs, she says, so there's actually no threat of violence.
In addition to working with the sea turtle eggs, Nemmert rescued a sloth that had apparently been attacked by dogs and nearly drowned in the ocean. Nemmert brought it back to land and placed it beneath a tree, which the sloth slowly climbed up.
She also visited various other sites in Costa Rica with her husband, Tom, including an active volcano and an elementary school.
When she returned to Oregon, she gave a presentation on her trip to the Butler Creek conservation club. She says she hopes to go on another such eco-tourism adventure again.
'I love animals and wildlife, and I care about our world.'
Chasing Butterflies in Vietnam
Like thousands of other Americans, Rich Kirstein has vivid memories of Vietnam.
Fortunately, however, his are not of war but of butterflies.
Kirstein, a social studies teacher at Barlow High School, went to Vietnam in October on an expedition organized by Earthwatch Institute, an international environmental group based in Maynard, Mass., and the National Geographic Education Foundation, and supported by the Gresham-Barlow School District.
Kirstein acknowledges that Vietnam is the not the first travel destination that comes to mind for many Americans. However, the former enemy of America defies the images people might have. Most of the people living there were not alive during the war, he says, adding that he encountered no bitterness or suspicion from the natives, only hospitality and warmth.
'On the face of it, Vietnam is a communist country,' he says. 'But on the ground, it's go-go capitalism.'
And with capitalistic development comes the potential for environmental degradation in the densely populated land of 80 million people, he says. That's why environmentalists are concerned about butterflies in Tam Dao National Park, 45 miles northwest of Hanoi.
'It's one of the few areas in Vietnam set aside as a nature park,' he says of Tam Dao. 'There aren't many untouched places in Vietnam.'
And pressures are growing to develop a resort in the park, which is about 80 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide. Hence, researchers want to monitor what's happening to the hundreds of butterfly species there, he says.
Due to their diversity, high visibility, short life cycles and specific habitat requirements, butterflies are acutely sensitive to environmental change, and are considered an 'indicator species' whose condition signifies what's happening in the environment.
'As go the butterflies, so goes the rest of the environment,' Kirstein says, noting that the number of butterflies as well as the number of species that can be tracked point to the relative health of a particular ecosystem.
The teacher joined volunteers from the Channel Islands, Pakistan, the Czech Republic, Australia and Brazil helping a Vietnamese research director compile data on butterflies, moths, and other insect and plant species.
By netting butterflies - doing the 'grunt work' - the volunteers enabled the researcher to achieve in a few days what might have taken months if he had to do the research alone, Kirstein says. However, he stressed that the volunteers' endeavor for science had its less than stellar moments.
'It was kind of comical to watch us run around and try to snag these butterflies with our nets.'
The research will be used in discussions about limiting or even prohibiting further development in the park, he adds.
While in Vietnam, Kirstein says he was impressed with the hospitality of the locals and moved by the poverty of the villagers he met.
'There were a number of families living throughout the village in little more than tarps and shacks.'
He's aware that such poverty drives the desire for development in poor nations like Vietnam, and that one of the challenges humanity faces is learning to coexist with other species in a healthy way.
'The more places that I travel, the more I'm struck by the beauty of this place we live in, and I want to take care of it,' he adds.
And Earthwatch sponsors trips for educators like him for a reason.
'The hope is that the educators will come back and tell that story to the students and spread the gospel, so to speak.'
Kirstein doesn't just talk to his students, he encourages them to participate in environmental work. For example, he says he is planning to bring a group with him to Main City Park, 219 S. Main Ave., from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, to help with removal of invasive plants and the planting of native plants. The volunteer effort is also taking place at the same time Saturday, Jan. 26, and is being organized by the city of Gresham and AmeriCorps.
The teacher notes that his students have participated with him in other such activities. For example, in November, he and his students tossed salmon carcasses in a creek in Mount Hood National Forest. The effort helped nourish the water's ecosystem, he says, and also made an impact on his students.
'My freshmen may never remember anything we did in the classroom, but they are going to remember the day we went in the cold and the rain and threw dead fish in the creek.'
His trip to Vietnam has whet his appetite for future such excursions, he says.
'For me to go off to Vietnam and chase butterflies was very strange,' he says with a smile. 'The whole thing was deliciously different for me.'
For more information on Kirstein's trip to Vietnam, visit http://kirsteinvietnam.blogspot.