Barbara Réthoré and Julien Chapuis are two biologists who explore Central America to alert the world on the urgency to preserve it.
by Julia Migné
Barbara Réthoré and Julien Chapuis are young explorers who went on a 200 day-long expedition in Central America in 2013. Their goal was to meet with local conservationists and showcase the actions that are taken there to preserve the environment. We met with Julien to learn more about their project and hear about their upcoming plans as Nat’Explorers.
Inkline: Could you summarise for us what NatExplorers is all about?
Julien: The idea Barbara and I had behind launching this project was to lead scientific expeditions, principally in the Tropics. We are focusing our wor on the biodiversity hotspots, so far in Central America from Panama to Ecuador passing by Colombia.
The idea is to explore these zones while carrying out multidisciplinary expeditions covering both the scientific research aspect and the environmental awareness one. Using these tools we want to create interactive content which can take the form of exhibitions, documentaries, conferences, workshops as well as educational activities for primary schools and classes for university students.
I: How did you come up with this project?
J: While doing our Masters, Barbara and I thought of this project. We wanted to use behavioural sciences in preservation and protection of natural habitats so we created an association called Conserv-Action.
This association was created as we needed a basic framework to develop this first idea of expedition that we carried out in 2013. The idea was to go meet the local actors involved in nature preservation in Central America, so we left on a 200 day-expedition from April to November 2013.
I: How did you manage to fund this expedition?
J: We funded a part of it using personal funds but we also had a big part coming from Crowd-funding with some private donations. When we left, we had collected around half of the funds that we considered necessary to manage the 200 days. And we decided to take the challenge of leaving without having the entire sum and see how it would go once we would start blogging our progress.
We wanted to see if the public would react positively to our adventure and see if the media would relay our action. And it did work! Week after week, we received more and more donations and that allowed us every time to reach new places, to stay a week longer on the field, and to finish our project. We managed to go till the end of our expedition as we had planned.
We also used the sponsoring to reduce our costs. It helped us with the costs of some of our equipment like camp and bivouac equipment and the filming gear. Finally, we also used companies’ sponsorship, where we explained our project to CEO’s and how it could be of interest for their brands to collaborate on it. It’s important not to hesitate to go talk to certain companies which share common values with the project you want to launch.
I: Did you already have a list of all the people you wanted to meet there?
J: Mostly yes. We spent quite a lot of time pre-expedition defining our route, our journey log-book, and the vast majority of the people, around I would say 80%, we visited in Central America had been agreed upon before leaving. But we also stayed open minded during our trip and felt free to go check on other projects when suggested by people we were meeting if we judged them interesting.
This was one advantage of being well-prepared, we could let space for the unexpected and it allowed us to have some amazing surprises and nice discoveries on the way. That was notably the case at the end of the expedition in Panama, where we met unexpectedly with other scientists. We learnt a lot from them and are still in touch with them today.
I: Did you manage to fulfil all the goals you had planned during the expedition?
Yes and maybe even beyond our expectations! Other than visiting people working on endangered and emblematic species, we got to really know so many people scientists and volunteers for NGOs. We learnt a lot from all of them, much more than we had thought we would. We really developed strong friendships with those people and I think our biggest success was that we continue working with them even today. It’s probably the best lesson of all.
I: So following your expedition you released a documentary of your journey?
J: The film was released last year and we are still trying to showcase it as much as possible through cinema projections, festivals, university conferences. Our goal being to inspire and give other young people ideas of action to realise. It’s not about them reproducing what we did on the field but more to help with them developing their own projects and valuing those who decide to go with their projects.
I: Did you have any experience of filming before going to Central America?
Not at all! We didn’t have any experience filming beforehand which is why we had some minor problems at the beginning. So we learnt on the job and were lucky enough to know a few people who do work in the broadcasting world, notably a close friend who is a wildlife filmmaker who briefed us during half a day before we left. Then by filming every day during 200 days, we learnt little by little, our shots improved and our sound recordings as well.
I: You recently went back on a new expedition, could you tell us why? Tell us more about it.
J: We went back to Panama in May and June of this year with few of the people we had met back in 2013, including a primatologist with whom we had been searching for a critically endangered monkey species. This time we went into a few zones in Panama which were before unknown to scientists. (phrase it better) We consider that the potential for new discoveries is very important, not to say gigantic.
It is kind of a race against the clock to protect these places which are not yet impacted by human activities and where we know, or at least assume, that the biodiversity is very high. It’s important to start protecting these areas before they start being impacted by deforestation, overexploitation, pollution…
I: What’s next?
J: At the moment, we are running a meta-project called Between Two Americas, which brings different media together such as a film, an exhibition. In parallel, we are starting to work on the post-expedition of May-June 2016. We are also working on new exhibition content which would complete the other one.
We want to launch a short film to explain the goals of the expedition and also promote the project to find new partners and sponsors to be able to go back to Panama in the Darien. The idea would be to go back there with a slightly larger team to realise an inventory of the biodiversity there which would be much more important than the few days we spent there this year. So more time, more funds and more people. We hope to around the end of 2017.
Another thing that is very important for us is to share our field discoveries with a public as wide as possible. For us, our targeted public goes from elementary school pupils to postgraduate students while reaching the general public as well. Sharing all of this is really important because it’s a key aspect of exploring and traveling.
I: What advice would you give to the new generation of scientists and explorers?
J: It’s important to chase your dreams and to attempt the adventure. Nothing says that it will work but if you don’t try you will never know. Importantly, believe in yourself and in your convictions and give yourself the means to succeed. Sometimes it can take a while but you need to believe in your project and it’s important to surround you with the right people.