My spring break: Thailand, wildlife trade and the control room

Marissa in the Committee II meeting room on the last day of the conference. Photo courtesy of Marissa.

Today you’re hearing from Marissa Altmann, a College of the Atlantic (Bar Harbor, Maine) student and the first youth U.S. delegate to the first youth delegate for the international conference on wildlife trade, known as CITES COP 16. Photo courtesy of Marissa.

The legal trade in plants and animals provides most of the world with food, timber, medicines and other materials. On the other side is the illegal trade of wildlife. It involves enormous flows of money second only to the drug trade.

Human uses of animals and plants are often culturally, emotionally, and even politically driven. As a student at the College of the Atlantic in Maine’s Bar Harbor, I believe we need to understand these relationships to find practicable ways to conserve our natural resources.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora, an international treaty that regulates the import and export of threatened species, seeks to do this.

And this March, I got to be the first youth delegate that the U.S. has ever sent to its convention, the 16th Conference of Parties, called CITES COP 16, in Bangkok, Thailand.

Watch a video on COP16 sucesses or click here for more about U.S. CoP16 priorities and outcomes.

Wildlife trade involves complex networks of biology, policy, and human-wildlife relationships–all of which I studied while pursuing my undergraduate degree in human ecology.

CITES is a well-supported and flexible convention that considers sustainable use, livelihoods, conservation management plans, and scientific research collections like the mammal collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where I interned during college.

Today you're hearing from Marissa Altmann, a College of the Atlantic student and the first youth U.S. delegate to the first youth delegate for the international conference on wildlife trade, known as CITES COP 16. Photo courtesy of Marissa Altmann

Photo, courtesy of Marissa, is from Wat Arun in Bangkok, Thailand, during the March 2013 conference.

I was able to attend the COP as a youth delegate because I expressed interest, since I knew it would be the perfect chance for me to experience these negotiations and gain a more complete understanding of the global state of wildlife trade. I was nominated by a Congressman, the former President of my college, and people that I met in Washington, D.C. I attended on behalf of the mammal collections that I helped with at the Smithsonian.

Being a delegate was amazing. I got to know the rest of the U.S. delegation–dedicated employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, State Department, Forest Service, and U.S. Agency for International Development. We ate meals together, sat together during committee meetings, and worked together in the control room (them on negotiations, me on social media and papers for school).

I saw firsthand how species are granted protections under the convention, how working groups are formed, and how conservation plans are discussed. I was exposed to a plethora of information, and left feeling confident about my choice to study science-human-policy relationships with the goal of applying an interdisciplinary perspective to environmental and wildlife conservation.

My interest in the natural world came from my parents, who both have advanced degrees in the sciences. When I was younger, I loved going to natural history museums, going on hikes, and identifying every living thing that I could find. I realized the importance of preserving biodiversity once I began taking classes in biology. It wasn’t until college that I really understood, through my experiences in natural history collections, how little we know about the organisms that we share our planet with, and how much we depend on one another.

I decided to take some time before selecting a graduate program to gain experience working at the ground level of conservation efforts. Communities help inform science and policy by contributing their knowledge of the natural world; their involvement is needed to create and enforce viable solutions to environmental problems.

Marissa curating Epomophorus (a genus of bat) specimens at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in summer 2011. Photo courtesy of Marissa.

Marissa curating Epomophorus (a genus of bat) specimens at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in summer 2011. Outside of classes, Marissa says she likes trail running, yoga, cooking and spending time with friends. “I usually have some sort of research project going on, like studying bats in Acadia National Park, or the human-wildlife relationships described in memoirs and field notes from a Roosevelt expedition,” she says. Photo courtesy of Marissa.

The opportunity to serve as the U.S. youth delegate at CITES COP 16 was a wonderful chance for me to bring a youth perspective to the proceedings and to report the negotiations to an environmentally-conscious twitter audience. Hopefully I have encouraged a wide range of students to become engaged in these important issues, because I am convinced that crossing disciplines is the way to solve these kinds of real-world challenges.

Learn more about Marissa:

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