Central America’s Wildlife Through the Eyes of Its People… and Their Cell Phones

By Jeremy Radachowsky

As a child, I spent hours poring through pictures of wildlife in books and magazines. My most treasured possession was a field guide to reptiles and amphibians, its page corners deeply worn from my thumbs. It was the first real book I ever read cover to cover (multiple times, at that!) but the pictures were what captivated me and took me to exotic lands. Before the internet, the only way to learn about distant wildlife was by having physical access to books or documentaries. Children fell asleep dreaming about jungle animals with open books on their chests and bedside lights still on.

Our world has changed. Now anyone with a cellphone can access information about most things on earth with the flick of the thumb. Today the challenge is not accessing information, but rather sifting through the deluge, and discovering meaning in this vast, globalized world.

But in this fast-paced world, how can people feel engaged, inspired, and empowered to take part in saving wildlife? At WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), we see an opportunity to use the same technology that has made our world so complex to connect people with nature in an authentic and meaningful way.

We are excited to announce “Voice of the Jaguar” – a cellphone and social media-based campaign to engage Central Americans to be the eyes, ears, and voice for the region’s threatened wildlife. Across Latin America today, about two-thirds of the population owns a smartphone—a number expected to increase exponentially over the next few years. With this access to smartphones has come increased use of social media. Today in Mexico and Central America, nearly 60 percent of the population is connected through Facebook. That means that tens of millions of Central Americans are carrying fairly high-quality cameras in their pockets at all times and are connected to each other like never before.

In this day and age, it is no longer necessary to own a professional camera to get involved in wildlife photography; this image of a wildlife photographer using a conventional camera was taken with a cell phone (Photo credit: Jeremy Radachowsky)

Taking advantage of these trends, as part of the wider campaign we have launched a cellphone-based photo competition – “Eyes of the Jaguar”, inviting the people of Central America to showcase the wonder and plight of the region’s wildlife through their own eyes – and cell phones. The photo contest will engage nearly 100,000 Facebook users throughout Mesoamerica, reaching some of the region’s most remote forest areas. Our aim is to collect the widest possible range of entries and we are encouraging both cellphone camera and conventional camera entries.

Not only will users submit photo entries, but they will judge and comment on the submissions online. In this manner, we can take the pulse of Central America’s feelings about wildlife, and understand what types of images motivate people. We will also ask our photographers to tell the story behind each photo. We know there are deep connections between people and wildlife and we want to hear about them.

The top images will be selected by a stellar panel of judges, including renowned wildlife photographer Steve Winter, nature journalist Sharon Guynup, WCS staff photographer Julie Larsen-Maher, and Fernando Martínez Belmar – one of the region’s most respected wildlife photographers.

The three winning photographers will earn a trip to one of the greatest remaining wild places in Central America, Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve, where they’ll be accompanied by Fernando to practice and hone their photography skills and see wildlife firsthand.

Central America comprises only 0.5 percent of the world’s land surface, but is home to about 7 percent of the planet’s biological diversity. Given intense threats to wildlife, such as habitat destruction and illegal trade, a motivated public must speak up for the region’s animals, forests, and oceans. (Photo credit: Fernando Martínez Belmar)

For conservation to be successful, motivated citizens must feel connected to their natural heritage and take ownership of its protection. Although cellphones are the medium, the photo campaign is less about the technology and more about connecting people to nature. Photos have the power capture a moment and transport the viewer to an exact place and time, just as the images in my field guide transported me from my bedroom to the tropics as a child.

We hope to harness social media’s broad reach to go beyond the screen and motivate our followers to get outside and capture stories about the wildlife of their diverse region. Some of those images and stories will tell of good news, and some bad, but most importantly, they will make the busy viewer stop, think, feel, and be inspired to speak up for the animals, forests, and oceans.

At WCS, we are ready to be inspired by our friends and colleagues throughout Central America. You can follow the competition at the WCS Mesoamerica & Western Caribbean Facebook page, and we will post back here with the competition’s results.

We invite you all to join us on the adventure!

[Note: The “Voice of the Jaguar” campaign and the cellphone photo competition are supported by funding from CAFTA-DR Environmental Cooperation program, the Overbrook Foundation, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.]

Dr. Jeremy Radachowsky is Director of the Mesoamerica and Western Caribbean region at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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