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María Elena Barragán-Paladines

In the wonderful country of Ecuador, the diversity of reptiles and amphibians is incredible and Maria is doing a fantastic job to learn more about them and conserve them.


What is your current job?
I am the Executive Director of an Ecuadorian NGO, Fundación Herpetológica Gustavo Orces, that administrates The Quito Vivarium, which was created in 1989. The main objectives are to learn more about amphibians and reptiles and to conserve the great diversity of Ecuadorian herpetofauna.

Biologists come from different parts of Ecuador and countries from around the world to study and conserve this rich group of animals. Before 1989, most biologists and efforts were invested into mammals and birds. When the founder and creator of this NGO first came to Ecuador, he was surprised at how diverse the herpetofauna was but there were not many researchers working on them. Right now, we are the only Ecuadorian organization focusing specifically on reptiles and amphibians.

Six months after the organisation was formed, I started working there as a volunteer while I was studying biology and I was immediately amazed with the reptiles there and I knew that is where I wanted to be. I worked my way up and now I am the Executive Director.

What are some of the daily tasks that you do?
I don’t really have a typical day and my days are never quite similar, however, I do have a normal routine. At the moment, I am reorganising some of the roles of my staff and I am more involved in the technical work. The public collection was opened on December 1989. The Quito Vivarium, is a public collection focused on education, and we offer viewing to the public to learn more about the native reptiles in Ecuador. We are considering the addition of exotics to the collection to educate the people about exotic pets and the impact they have through the illegal trade. Our public collection includes almost 300 animals and 40-50 different species, and we get between 30 000-50 000 visitors per year. Based in Quito, we are located at a very high altitude (2850m/9350 feet) and it is generally a bit cold, so we have to artificially heat up our enclosures for the reptiles and ensure that environmental factors such as temperature and humidity are in control.

I typically start my day at 7:30 am responding to emails and doing office work. I start off with the collection including some husbandry in the public collection, part of the vivarium. Other responsibilities around the animal collection include developing an education program to reduce the fear of snakes. We also have a collections in the laboratory areas. These areas are not for public display because the animals we keep there are usually under quarantine, confiscated animals and those experiencing some kind of stress. In other situations, animals are kept for research purposes such as behaviour and ecology. We also have a lab that focuses on the research of venomous snakes where we currently do venom analysis for medical purposes. Approximately 40% of the snakes in Ecuador are responsible for snakebites and we keep samples of these animals to understand the toxicity of their venom, biology and ecology. In this type of work, we usually involve university students and other researchers, locally and internationally.

In 2016, our organization published the first compilation book about the systematics, ecology and biology of venomous snakes in Ecuador, which was the result of 30 years of work of myself and two other colleagues. We are extremely proud of this publication, because it’s the first of its kind in Ecuador. This really allowed many people to learn more about snakes, become interested in snakes and we realised the value that print material really has in education.

I also do a lot of administration tasks, planning and marketing. This includes creating education material for environmental days in a year, planning quarterly project updates for our current yearly projects. We currently have a project to monitor marsupial frogs that we released into the wild and I coordinate the project while the field assistants carry out the fieldwork. I am also writing funding proposals to do some research on the ecology and biology of one of the viper species from Ecuador. Looking for funding and collaboration demands extra time, as it needs to be done after work hours. Most of the research projects need to be done in collaboration with other researchers specifically in areas where the viper occurs, and we hope to start a new project in August/September this year hopefully.

What other areas of conservation do you focus on?
Another area of conservation that we are also involved in is building human capacity in rural areas to avoid snakebite, creating preventative measures to avoid snakebite and how to treat it properly. We are contacted by people and communities from all over the country and I travel to the coast and other isolated regions of the amazon as well. We go to communities to help them better understand snakes and snakebite and develop new strategies to offer help to professionals working in agriculture (coffee, chocolate, palm tree plantations), but also local communities where health assistance is scarce. Most often, you find that men are working in the field and women stay at home, but we realised that they both need to understand the impact of snakes and snakebite.

We have been doing this community work for 25 years, but it has only recently grown into something more strategic where we run workshops and focus on education and research. We also find that religion has played a big role in communities and many people believe snakes are evil and attach other negative connotations to them. Our job becomes challenging because we try to show the positive aspects about snakes and it’s a good place to start. We want to create the capacity to respond to snakebite accidents, offer solutions and ways to mitigate this, but also to inspire younger generations to be less afraid and more aware about snakes. As a highly biodiverse country, Ecuador is in a good place to receive attention to challenges such as snakebite. While the government in Ecuador is starting to be responsive to this health issue, we definitely need to conduct more multidisciplinary efforts in this field of research, working with doctors, hospitals and local communities. Unfortunately, this situation opens the door for trade in illegal antivenom. We work with other institutions, doctors and naturalist guides to create a link between isolated areas and the organisation, to supply antivenom and create protocols for such situations. We are very committed to working with the communities. In some situations we need to leave suddenly including office tasks and offers assistance if people need it.

How did you become inspired to work with wildlife? Is your education background also in wildlife?
My parents are both Ecuadorians and since I was a child, they always exposed me to nature and wildlife. I am lucky because my mom comes from the coast of Ecuador and my dad from the mountain region. My mom, having grown up around snakes along the coast, would talk with my brother, sister, and me about nature and she would take us out into the forest. She would explain to us that we shouldn’t be scared of snakes, that they were a part of our natural world. My dad was a fishery technician and he taught us about love and respect for wild places around us. So, the influence of both my parents was half the reason why I became a biologist. When I was young, I used to watch a TV program about Africa, I had always dreamed of going to Africa and I knew I wanted to study something related to animals. I didn’t start off working with snakes.
When I was doing my master’s degree in Australia, I was required to write an essay part of my course. The topic was ‘my ecological identity’ and it was focused on what my inspiration was to pursue a career in wildlife. I wrote what I felt inspired by but my teacher was not satisfied with my answer. I ended up calling my mother to get some answers and she assumed I already knew the answer to this question.

When I was 3, my mother used to take my brother and I to the cinema and one day we went to watch a movie. That’s when I started to remember parts of it. I was immediately amazed at the “Spitting cobra” in that movie.

During my early years at the University I began with putting snakes in alcohol volunteering at the Vertebrate Museum. The volunteering at a local vivarium was a great chance for me to realize that this field of work was for me. I started with a few hours  of volunteering which then turned into three and then the whole day. After some time, I officially started working there. The founder of the organisation encouraged me to get better academic qualifications and that’s when I went to the UK to pursue a diploma in endangered species management at Jersey Zoo, in collaboration with DICE. Many years later I went to Australia to get my Master’s degree in Environment and Education. Bushmasters are my first love and Spitting Cobras are my second favourite, so, after my masters I ended up coming back to Ecuador.

Can you tell me a about any negative experiences that you’ve had?
My low moments are often when I have to deal with the local authorities. Me and the organization I represent are committed to helping communities and I have the responsibility to help them in my personal, professional and institutional capacity. I´ll make all efforts to make it happen, but of course I am conscious that I can´t do this alone. The interest in this field is starting to grow, and I know I can identify and find collaborators. I find very little support from the government, I can´t get funding from them either so I prefer to focus on potential and good allies to pursue some of the objectives around my work. It can be very difficult, but not impossible.

And do you have positive experiences?
Yes! A year ago I went to a congress in Ecuador and after my talk, a 22 year old girl came up to me and said ‘Hi Maria, I don’t know if you remember me but I volunteered with you when I was 10 and that encouraged me to work with wildlife’. I was absolutely amazed when she told me she used to be scared of snakes, and I let her handle a snake when she was so young. Those moments really make me happy.

Are there many women working in herpetology in Ecuador?
No, there are only a few women compared to Ecuadorian mle herpetologists. Most Ecuadorian female herpetologists work on amphibians, lizards, caimans, and turtles, but women that focus specifically on snakes are rare. Herpetology in Ecuador is also a very male dominated world, but I am strong, and I don’t let this situation overwhelm me. In addition to this, I tend to be very focused. I always say what I need to say, but always with respect. I have to stand up and be a role model as well.

How would you inspire more women to work in the field of herpetology?
Being a woman can be against you so being strong and focused helps. Speaking up, and not waiting to receive respect is necessary. Go after what you want, and you will be respected for the work you do. Some of my volunteers say that I can be harsh on the men but I have to be a strong leader to show that as a woman you have to fight hard and if you keep working hard, you will find your place.

Do you think in South America there are female role models in herpetology?
In my opinion, I had a great teacher at university and although she did not work consider herself as a herpetologist, she is the one that always inspired me. She worked in embryology on a marsupial frog from Ecuador, and she became well known for that area of work and the contributions she made. I enjoyed her university courses and that helped me in terms of inspiration. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many female role models in herpetology in general but hopefully that will change.

Are there any specific happy memories that you have which include snakes?
I have always found snakes to be magical ever since I watched the movie about the spitting cobras. Any memory of mine that includes snakes has been amazing. I have also worked with bushmasters which is my favourite snake so that too was an incredible experience.

Is there any other message that you would to tell our readers?
Ecuador is a tiny country and rich in terms of reptiles and amphibians and it doesn’t get positive wildlife attention compared to other Latin American countries. As the 7th most diverse country in the world, we have a lot to offer and we believe in long term sustainable conservation projects. We are always happy to collaborate with anyone interested in our work, and happy to get big challenges in the field of venomous snake conservation.

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