EA Costa Rica naturalist

Mark Wainwright and University of Illinois students examine a katydid at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica.

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Each spring, my colleagues and I in the Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability major at the University of Illinois, in cooperation with the program director for Allen Hall, offer a class for undergraduate students on sustainability and environment in Costa Rica. The class combines a series of campus lectures over the course of the semester with a nine-day trip at spring break.

Our intent is to enable students to experience how the questions we grapple with in the context of the U.S are addressed in a country that’s vastly different in many respects, from its geology and ecology to its politics and social norms.

While in Costa Rica, we snorkel to observe the life of a coral reef, hike on a volcano, tour sustainable farming operations and take guided walks through various ecosystems, including a tropical rainforest on the Caribbean coast and the cloud forest near Monteverde.

Among the speakers we hear from along the way, one who students really vibe with (to use a new verb I’ve learned from them recently) is a British-born naturalist and educator named Mark Wainwright, to whom I’d like to introduce you. Wainwright’s broad range of interests and expertise, however, make it difficult to sum him up in a standard thumbnail sketch.

For example, he has written and illustrated a number of highly acclaimed field guides, including “The Mammals of Costa Rica, A Natural History and Field Guide,” which was characterized in the Journal of Mammalogy as an “excellent reference for serious naturalists, tour guides, educators and researchers who teach or work in the tropics” — and which was judged by one of my former students to be so excellent that he borrowed my copy and then never returned it.

Since taking up residence in Costa Rica in 1991, Wainwright has also worked with field biologists researching butterflies and amphibians, and he serves as an instructor and guide for courses in tropical ecology throughout the year. On top of all of this, he’s a leader in the long-term, ongoing effort to preserve the cloud forest ecosystem and an incredibly engaging speaker.

The fact that you are reading this column suggests you’re unlikely to be enrolled in my class going to Costa Rica next spring and be able meet Wainwright in person there — so you might be wondering why I want to introduce you to him. It’s because you will have not one but two opportunities to hear him speak right here in central Illinois early next month.

On Tuesday, Oc. 1, he’ll speak at the UI College of Law on the massive decline and surprising partial recovery of amphibians around Monteverde in recent decades, with attention to how what’s happening there reflects the dire circumstances humans have created for amphibians around the world. This talk will take place from 4 to 5 p.m. in Room D at the UI College of Law, with a reception to follow. It’s free and open to the public.

Then on Wednesday, Oct. 2, Wainwright will be the guest speaker for a special dinner hosted by the Land Conservation Foundation, a central Illinois nonprofit whose mission here is nearly identical to the mission of the organization Wainwright currently leads in Costa Rica. The talk is titled “Saving Land, Saving Species: Lessons for Central Illinois from Central America.” Tickets and advance registration, which is open through Sept. 15, are required, and available at landconservationfoundation.org.

On a separate note, registration is now open for the 2019 Congress hosted by the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) at the UI. Environmental justice is the theme of this year’s gathering, at which the public is welcome and which takes place Sept. 24-25 in the Illini Union. Registration information is available at sustainability.illinois.edu/outreach/isee-congress/isee-congress-2019/.

Rob Kanter is a clinical associate professor with the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu.