Experiencing the Wonder of Nature

Posted at 10:35 am October 22, 2010 by Oliver Ryder

Vermillion Cliffs site

October is Kids Free Days at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Our Institute for Conservation Research staff are sharing their interactions and connections with nature at a young age and how these connections put them on their career paths. Read a previous post, A New Nature.

As a young person, it was a sense of wonder—a mixture of curiosity, interest, and desire for discovery—that kindled my interest in becoming a scientist. Years later, working as a conservation scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research stimulates this sense of wonder. Now, however, the larger and more important context is the preservation of the astounding diversity of forms of life—the numerous species and their populations. This is the driving force for efforts my colleagues and I undertake. At a time when species are being lost at an unprecedented rate, this can be a challenging outlook. Yet, a single moment or moments of experience can make it all worthwhile, justifying tedium, overcoming frustration, and ablating despair.

In the skies of Northern Arizona, during a visit late in September, my friends and I saw five California condors soaring over a landscape of incredible beauty. In the Vermillion Cliffs, north of the Grand Canyon, we stopped at a simple shade structure with an interpretive sign that directed our attention to the red cliffs and the white stains that indicated the location of condor roosting sites and nesting caves. Staff members from The Peregrine Fund were present and had spotting scopes and directional antennas trained on the cliffs to identify the location of two juvenile condors that were just being released. Looking through a spotting scope, we were able to see one of these juveniles sitting on a rock ledge after taking a first flight in the wild. Above the newly released condor soared the five adults, their white underwing feathers glistening in the sunlight as these huge birds soared in the distance.

In 2010, the San Diego Zoo listed the progress in the recovery of the California condor as one of our Ten Reasons for Hope. From a population low of 22 individuals—all in captivity—to a total population of 384 birds as of the end of July 2010, there is indeed reason to have hope.

It is a rare occurrence when the intellectual discipline of scientific endeavor can merge with the emotional exhilaration and deep connection that can derive from experiencing a wonder of nature. These moments, far between though they may be, are sustaining and reinforcing.

As I introduced myself to the recovery biologists of The Peregrine Fund, adding that my colleagues in the Genetics Laboratory at the Institute identify the sex of every California condor chick and are compiling a DNA profile of an entire species, the disparate skills but shared interests of a laboratory scientist, field biologists, wildlife agency specialists, zoo keepers, and conservation supporters found a vindication of their efforts in the occupancy of the skies above the Vermillion Cliffs of Arizona by a recovering population of North America’s largest bird. Long may the condors fly!

Oliver Ryder is director of the Genetics Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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