Erika Cuéllar, Lady Margaret Hall, 2005

“When I went to the Chaco for the first time and felt the connection between indigenous people and their environment, it was a magical experience,” says Bolivian conservation biologist Erika Cuéllar, describing the moment she fell in love with the idea of working in the Gran Chaco, a vast wilderness that spans Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. “This region does not look that exuberant from outside, but once inside you discover the extraordinary biodiversity hidden here.”

While high profile research, publicity and conservation efforts surrounding threats to global ecosystems and biodiversity have focused mainly on tropical rainforests, this has led to the neglect of other severely threatened ecosystems. Cuéllar, who completed her DPhil at Oxford in 2011, has focused her research on the Guanaco (a wild ancestor of the Llama), which has declined in numbers due to overhunting, uncontrolled logging and competition with livestock. “The Guanaco is a species listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, however it is a flagship species to spearhead the expansion of my conservation initiative from Bolivia into Argentina and Paraguay,” she says. “Although there are approximately 500,000 Guanaco in the wild, only three isolated populations remain in the Gran Chaco region. I believe that the fate of this one species can foretell the fate of many other species in the Gran Chaco.”

Unconventionally, Cuéllar has pioneered a strategy of empowering and training indigenous people to become ‘parabiologists’ who can be advocates for conservation issues in their own territory. The initiative also creates local employment opportunities and reduces labour-driven migration of young people to urban settlements. “Parabiologists are local people, usually hunters, whose natural and traditional knowledge of the landscape, flora and fauna make them excellent field team members,” explains Cuéllar. “With formalised training, the parabiologists are able to play a crucial role in advancing the research agenda in the entire region. As scientists and conservationists we need to be more humble and look for allies in local people instead of merely ‘helpers’. We need to work for sustainable, long term solutions for biodiversity conservation.”

In 2012, in recognition of her work in Gran Chaco, Cuéllar received a prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise. “The award has transformed the initial idea of an international conservation effort into reality,” she says. “Being able to travel and meet government authorities in Paraguay and Argentina has made a huge difference in terms of reaching agreements and obtaining real support. Our next challenge will be to galvanise NGOs, local policy makers and particularly governments in each country as part of a shared strategy for conservation and true involvement of local people.”