Meet Conservationists and National Geographic/Buffet Award Recipients Tomas Diagne and Patrícia Medici

What is a lowland tapir, and why is it critical to forest ecosystems in southern Brazil?

What’s threatening West Africa’s freshwater turtle populations, and what will inspire communities to take action?

Conservationists Patrícia Medici and Tomas Diagne dedicated their lives to answering these questions, and to honor their work, they received the National Geographic/Buffet Award for Leadership and Conservation at this year’s Explorers Festival. This award was created to celebrate Latin American and African conservationists that have demonstrated exceptional leadership to preserve and change the public’s relationship with the natural resources in their regions.

Born and raised in Brazil, Patrícia Medici has dedicated 27 years to the conservation of lowland tapirs and their remaining habitats in Brazil as part of the Brazilian nonprofit Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (Institute for Ecological Research). For almost two decades, Patrícia has also been the chairperson of the IUCN SSC Tapir Specialist Group, where she took part in developing an international network of 130 tapir conservationists from 27 different countries.

Tomas Diagne has been protecting turtles and tortoises in West Africa for the past 25 years. Through his efforts, he established Save Our Sulcata (S.O.S.), a nonprofit conservation organization to help protect African spurred tortoises, co-founded and built Village des Tortues in Noflaye, Senegal, a sanctuary and captive breeding facility, as well as created the African Chelonian Institute to further research captive breeding and reintroduction of all African turtle species to the wild.

To capture these awardees in action and to learn firsthand about their work, National Geographic sent photographers Katie Orlinski to Brazil and Richard Hammond to Senegal. Hear Patrícia’s and Tomas’ thoughts on this achievement:

Patrícia, do you feel like there was a moment when you knew that conservation would become your focus?

Patrícia Medici: People usually asked me, “When did you fall in love with tapirs? When did you know that tapirs would be the center of your of your life?” I always laugh because I don’t really have a romantic story to tell. I wasn’t in love with tapirs since I was a little kid. I didn’t even know what a tapir was. It was much, much later when I was in college.

I was looking for opportunities to get training courses that this professor from Sao Paulo University, where I was studying, he gave me a big pile of papers. He said, “Well, you want to get involved with wildlife conservation? You have to read a lot. You have to study a lot. So, just go ahead and read all of this.”

I learned that tapirs are so important because they’re very much responsible for shaping and maintaining biodiversity of whatever ecosystem they’re found. They’re herbivores. They’re vegetarians. About 50% of their diet consists of fruit. When they eat those fruits, they go through their digestive system. They actually come out much, much better prepared to germinate. We’re talking about animals that have huge home ranges —up to six kilometers in one night. So, we call them the gardeners of the forest. They’re critical, absolutely critical to the maintenance of forest ecosystems around the world.

I found it extremely interesting to learn that this one animal was capable of affecting biodiversity in so many different ways. That’s when I started looking at tapirs in a whole different way.

Patrícia Medici. Photo by: Katie Orlinsky

What about you, Tomas?

Tomas Diagne: When I was a teenager, I started collecting endangered tortoises I would find in the suburban area in Dakar. I would then take them to my father’s farm. It wasn’t really that far from the main city, so I would come back home with a group of chickens and a hidden tortoise.

Eventually, my father finally figured out that we had some strangers in the house. He said: “Hey, I don’t remember these!”. And I said: “No, no, no, dad. This was from the original group of animals I brought.” And he responded with: “Don’t play this game with me! My house is not a zoo! You need to figure out where you are going to free all these animals!”

That’s why I tell everyone, I was not born a conservationist. I became a conservationist. I was born just a kid who was highly interested in animals, but after that I evolved. This is when I decided to follow a career in conservation. My father said: “What the hell is conservation? Really, you have to find a different way to have a career and raise money than being in conservation.”

In West Africa, conservation is still is a new concept. People don’t know how someone can make a living by trying to save wild animals. That is not something in our culture, but someone needs to make the first step, and I think that’s what we’re doing.

Tomas Diagne, at home in Ngaparou, Senegal with a East African Serrated Mud Turtle. Photo by: Robin Hammond

I wonder if you could talk about the idea that doing the science is very important, but also communicating it is equally important. Do you have thoughts you can share on that?

Patrícia Medici: We felt like we had to collect that baseline data to be able to figure out the best strategies to conserve tapirs. We were publishing. We were writing grants. We were presenting in conferences. We were doing all the things that a good scientist should do. At some point, it just felt like we were preaching to the converted. We were not talking to the public. We were not bringing our results to the public, to the people who actually had the most power to actually do something for tapirs. That’s when we decided to establish a network of communicators, Brazilian communicators, journalists, photographers, artists, all kinds of people with experience on social media, websites, TV, radio, newsletters, every kind of media.

In Brazil, tapirs actually have a pretty serious PR problem. If you want to call a person stupid, or if you believe that somebody lacks intelligence, you call that person a tapir. It’s more or less the equivalent of “jackass” in English. So, it’s bad.

The fact that they associate this animal with lack of intelligence prevents people from feeling proud about having the largest land mammal of South America in their forests. This is something we have to change.

Communication is, in my opinion, it’s the way to go. We need tapirs to be on the news. We need tapirs to be photographed and profiled in art. We need them to be on TV so that people will hear about them, they will learn about them, they will care about them, and eventually develop that pride that I’m looking for.

The tapir, the Pantanal of Brazil. Photo by: Katie Orlinsky

What has your experience been, Tomas?

Tomas Diagne: In Africa, thousands and thousands of sea turtles are accidentally caught in fishing nets each year, and that is not sustainable anymore because all these sea turtle populations are declining.

Because of this, we’ve been organizing a yearly turtle festival. Inviting all five villages, giving talks, releasing specimens we’ve raised here in Gapro in the Rodan center.

I remember this generation of young kids when I arrived in 2002. The idea of releasing the turtles was so weird to them. When their parents would catch a turtle in their net, they would just eat them. The first time I tried to release a turtle back in the wild, they said: “Don’t do that. That is a meat, and you cannot do that!” Now those kids are releasing turtles with me. They’re getting involved and valuing conservation. They don’t think it’s that weird anymore to release a freshwater turtle back in the lake. I can see the evolution. It gives me hope.

In order to plant the seed, education is the weapon.

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