In her own words:
The following journal entry was penned by Graham during her research trip to Belize.
I slammed the door to
Field research, as Graham describes it, can be a “dirty, sweaty, tough” business, but as someone who loves the outdoors, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her preference is to work in hot climates, noting that her small frame (barely scraping 5 feet) is a benefit there. “I love the heat of the jungle,” she said. “It levels the playing field for me. The larger a person is, the more they suffer from the heat; with my size, it’s not a problem. I feel I can perform better – hike farther, carry more weight and work longer hours – than a physically larger person.” That spirit paid dividends during one particularly harrowing excursion in Belize’s Rio Bravo reserve. Trying a new approach to an old camera location, Graham’s team hiked more than 16 kilometers through foulsmelling marshes, thick jungle undergrowth and expansive grasslands to check equipment and collect memory cards. As the day drew to a close, Graham was still up to her knees in the muddy marsh, hacking her way through dense vines, all the while telling herself, “just one more step.” Such an experience might have resulted in a new career path for a less hardy soul, but not Graham. As she later wrote to friends at Berry, “It qualifies as my most favorite day of existence yet!” TRAIL OF LIFE
For the ocelots living on the Laguna refuge, such enthusiasm may represent the last, best hope for survival. According to Graham, these 20-to-30-pound cats have been decimated by habitat encroachment and fragmentation, as well as persecution by man. Now they face another eminent threat – inbreeding. There is physical room for population growth, but a lack of genetic diversity is preventing them from increasing in number. The research team is currently working on a project that will introduce new genetic strains into the ecosystem. “The size of the ocelot population makes the situation feel pretty desperate,” Graham said. “It is a heavy burden because there are not many of us who are fighting for their survival.” Ocelots aren’t the only animals threatened by genetic isolation. Other species worldwide
are struggling to overcome the consequences of smaller habitats fragmented by human activity. “The goal for so long was to create small Edens,” Graham noted of past conservation efforts. “It was a good short-term solution, but it’s not enough. Now we’re finding that the genetics can’t survive these conditions.” If Graham gets her way, she will one day have the opportunity to help these animals overcome their genetic isolation by developing natural corridors – sometimes spanning international borders – that will allow species to travel between habitats. FULL CIRCLE
As she draws ever closer to realizing her aspirations, Graham is still mindful of those times before she arrived at Berry when she felt compelled to keep her dreams to herself. “People tend to be condescending when a 17 year old mentions that they want to work with animals,” she related. “You always get a look stating very clearly that you should grow up already! So I just stopped saying all these dreams out loud. I figured I would show them instead.” And show them she has, first at Berry and now as an accomplished field researcher. Asked what advice she would give to current and future students, Graham stated, “Get out there and try it yourself. You’re not going to know until you’re out in the real world giving it a go. If you love it, it’s going to make everything else worthwhile.” Graham’s passion – “to make the greatest impact on the world of conservation that I can” – has already carried her halfway around the world and back again. And her journey has only just begun. B
Up close and personal: Graham observes a serval (a type of African wildcat) while working at the Cincinnati Zoo.
the old diesel truck and gave a sigh of relief as I cranked the engine. It had been a long day, and the Belizean jungle had taken its toll on me. The camera traps were set up throughout the Rio Bravo national park, and it was my job to check on their wellbeing. At the end of each day, I was covered with insect bites, exhausted and nursing one injury or another. However, I was extraordinarily excited as well because cradled in my backpack were the memory cards that held their mountains of information waiting to be explored. As I pulled out of the protected area, I was immediately greeted by the vast stretch of sorghum fields being fertilized by Mennonite workers. It was at this moment, as I straddled the dividing barrier between wilderness and agriculture, that a dark form flitted across the road. The movement
grabbed my attention, and I quickly focused on the little creature – it was a jaguarundi! I was awestruck and still gaping, open-mouthed, when two small kittens emerged from the sorghum fields. They crossed the road in a few easy bounds before disappearing with their mother into the thick undergrowth of the jungle. It was as if this small cat held all the answers. She was raising her kittens not only within the lands of the refuge, but also in the world of monoculture crops, heavy machinery and pesticides. This jaguarundi mother was teaching her kittens to navigate the lands of mankind. This was an important lesson for the kittens, but she had spoken to me as well. I could no longer ignore the impact of mankind because wild cats must coexist with humanity if they are to survive the current onslaught of extinctions.
BERRY MAGAZINE • FALL 2011