Conservation Atlas – a project moved by nature

Earlier this year, I had a chance to travel for some time across South America. At the end of January, together with my husband we spent a few days in Punta Arenas, in the South of Chile. The city made rather a depressing impression at that time of the year. It was not exactly vibrant, to say the least. However, we are eventually very happy to have spent some time there, as our stay resulted in one of the most fascinating and inspiring encounters we have had so far. This is in Punta Arenas that we met Andreea and Justin Lotak – authors of the blog Conservation Atlas.

In the beginning of this year, Andreea and Justin packed all the necessary equipment and started a travel project that is meant to last for the two following years. So far, they have spent 7 months in South America and  currently they are in the United States.  By the end of 2018 they are planning to visit New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Kazachstan, Mongolia and Romania.

I know what you might think. What is the difference between this couple and many other travellers and bloggers who abandon their jobs and wander around the world?  This is true: the more and more people these days travel to remote locations. For months or even years. However, what makes Andreea and Justin different is that they are not visiting typical tourist destinations. Instead, they focus on wild nature. They visit less known national parks and reserves or the ones that are currently being created. And they document conservation projects initiated by local communities, governments or individuals. They also promote protection of unique species of plants and animals, newly created nature reserves and responsible tourism.

The places they travel to are often not easily accessible and have hardly any infrastructure or accomodation base.  That’s why they often have to rely on their own equipment and the kindness of the local people.

Andreea hiking in the Tantauco Park, a private conservation, beautiful park at the south end of the Chiloé Island, northern Chilean Patagonia. Photo by Justin Lotak.

I recommend visiting their blog, as it offers lots of interesting stories and an original approach to travel. And, above all, many absolutely gorgeous pictures of the breathtaking landscapes from the most remote corners of the world. I have had a chance to interview this amazing couple and ask them about their mission, further plans and all the practical aspects of their travel. Below you can find their answers to my questions. Enjoy the reading!

Make It A Better Place: What is your project about?

Conservation Atlas: We are a non-profit organization that promotes the protection of wildlands for the benefit of their biodiversity and of the communities around them. We are a very young organization based in the USA, which started in December, 2016. In the first phase we will be traveling for two years, between 2017 and 2018, to conservation destinations across 14 countries. The purpose is to document lesser known national parks and reserves, marine protected areas, private conservation initiatives, and adventure travel and wildlife watching opportunities. At the core of this is understanding how travel can help conservation by creating a sustainable local economy that revolves around protected lands. We consider these two years as a learning process and also as field work to document the stories of the conservation destinations that we visit.

The blog and our social media accounts are the current outlets where we share  the stories we cover and the photographs we take. Upon finishing this two-year journey we’re hoping to publish a book about the experience and about the projects and places that we visited, with the underlying idea of how travel can advance the cause of conservation. We also want to work on putting together guidebook apps for countries or regions, focused specifically on their natural areas and how they can be visited. The purpose is to grow Conservation Atlas into a valuable resource to inspire travelers to invest their time and money in nature and community-based, sustainable tourism.

I imagine there is no such thing as “a daily routine” or “ a typical day” in your life now. But could you tell us what are some of the tasks your work involves?

Yes, days tend to differ depending on where we are. If we’re somewhere in nature, hiking, the days usually start with cold mornings. Getting up and leaving the tent when it’s freezing outside is never fun. But in-between trekking we usually take time off to be able to connect at the internet and do some work. We spend most of the time in front of our laptops, which can be a bit of a shock to the system after being completely disconnected. Good internet is key because we’re typically trying to post on the blog or upload photos on social media.

Then there is photo editing, translations of interviews that we made at the various projects we visited, writing blog posts, tweaking something on the website or sending emails. Now that we’re back in Texas briefly, we’re working on putting together the itinerary for our next trip to visit national monuments in the west, catching up on the stories in South America that we have to finish writing and trying to organize our following three months.

What did you do professionally before starting the project?

Justin studied mechanical engineering and worked for ten years in renewable energy, managing construction of wind and solar farms. Andreea studied International Relations & Political Studies and then worked in tourism for over four years. This mixed in with experience in Communications, followed by a change of course toward Business Management and Accounting.

Neither of us had direct experience in conservation, which is why we’ re considering this two-year trip as a sort of education. We both had experience with travel, however. We met in 2013 in Chilean Patagonia and have been moving around ever since.

The Jeinimeni Reserve in Chilean Patagonia. The Reserve will become part of the Patagonia National Park in the near future, together with the Tamango Reserve and the Tompkins Conservation land in the Chacabuco Valley. This was an initiative driven by Tompkins Conservation and their massive land donations to the Chilean government for the creation and expansion of national parks. Photo by Andreea Lotak

Does anyone help you in your work or there are just the two of you on the project?

So far it’s mainly us stretching to cover all the bases. Recently we got our first volunteer, Jeff, who is a self-proclaimed “armchair explorer”, helping us with putting together maps of areas that we visit. 🙂 It’s hectic, but we’re also learning a lot as we go.

What inspired you to start your travels and blog?

This idea of harnessing the economic power of sustainable tourism for the benefit of both nature and communities appealed to us. Around the world conservation organizations and governments have helped people change the paths of their lives by switching to tourism-based economies. Former wildlife poachers or hunters now work as park rangers or guides, illegal fishermen take people on tours to see sharks, loggers take visitors in nature walks through forests and so on. It’s more complex than this, of course, but in a lot of cases the quality of life in a community improves when an area is conserved and organizations work with locals to find ways to improve their lives in a more sustainable manner.

Using responsible tourism as a tool for conservation is a concept that empowers many to get involved in this cause. We all like to travel, so focusing this passion on nature-based experiences can have a positive impact economically, which can drive more conservation. On the other hand, aware of negative effects of tourism in nature, we want to build this resource where we can first explain to people the importance of an area and create an attachment to it. In the future we want to put together handbooks on how to be a responsible traveler in nature and mitigate those negative effects through awareness.

A view over the glaciers in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park in souther Chilean Patagonia. It was taken when they were hiking on a portion of the route of the Ultra Fiord, an extreme ultra marathon through some of the most wild lands of that region. Photo by Andreea Lotak.

What is the most difficult part of the life you are currently leading? What do you miss the most?

Probably the most difficult part is being both travelers and running an organization, trying to build an online presence and an identity. We’re learning and seeing a lot, we’re meeting a lot of people, building up a lot of material. Being in remote areas to gather all this material, though, makes it harder for the other side: being active online, catching up on the blog, growing on social media. Then there is the occasional concern for our finances. And we miss family and friends, and sometimes having a home.

How is the conservation work beneficial for the local communities?

Conservation can have a significant impact on benefiting the local economy. Whether people come to conservation areas for the beautiful views, or to see whales or bears or birds, or to hike through old growth forests, they spend money. Local restaurants, hotels, guiding services, and equipment providers all benefit from this increased visitation. If you take Grand Canyon National Park for example, nearly 6 million people visited the park in 2016, spending approximately $650,000,000 in the surrounding communities during their visits. This provides thousands of sustainable jobs that will be there for the long term; the Grand Canyon isn’t going away anytime soon. This is unlike extractive industries such as coal mining or oil drilling, which may have a regional employment boom for a time being, but those jobs tend to leave after time.

What were the reactions of your friends and families when you first told them about your idea?

Honestly I don’t think we received a lot of surprise from our friends and family. Of course traveling for two years sounds a little crazy, but both of us have traveled quite a bit – we met in Punta Arenas, Chile while traveling. As far as the organization goes, most of our friends and family have received it very positively, giving us words of encouragement. Some have even offered to leave their jobs to come with us.

How do you manage financially to travel for such a long time without having a permanent job?

When some people travel, they spend hundreds of dollars per night in a fancy hotel room, eat at famous restaurants and bring back lots of souvenirs. Meanwhile we are usually in a tent or a $30 Airbnb, and we go to the local supermarket and pick up some food that we can make back at home.  We travel on a budget, which really is not too hard to do. But for two years, it is still a lot of money. So for that, we lived simply while working, and saved for three years for our trip. And we didn’t buy unnecessary things. If you buy a $4,000 used Toyota instead of a $35,000 new SUV, one person can take that money and travel for two years.

In your travels so far, what has been the most interesting place/conservation project that you have seen? (although I suppose it will be a very difficult choice!)

That’s a hard question to answer! It depends on what you find interesting. The work that Tompkins* Conservation is doing in Iberá is probably the most interesting from a biodiversity perspective. They are bringing back six iconic species that went extinct in the region, and rewilding an entire ecosystem. In our eyes, this is revolutionary, and a huge step towards a better future for where humanity might find a way to live in harmony with its natural environment.

For landscapes, Chilean Patagonia is just spectacular almost everywhere you look. Our week in Yendegaia National Park, at the very south of Chile, was a magical one. We didn’t get to cross the park as we had planned, but rather we stayed put in one place for a week, exploring it bit by bit with day hikes, taking in the landscape and all its light and colors. So often we’re hiking from one place to the next, and it’s nice to stay put and take it all in now and then.

Justin taking macro photography of beautiful lichens in the Yendegaia National Park in Tierra del Fuego. Photo by Andreea Lotak.

Are you familiar with any similar interesting conservation projects in Europe?

One project we hope to visit while in Europe is called Carpathia, and it’s in Romania. They are working to create Europe’s first wilderness for the protection of large carnivores, the large carnivores in this case being brown bear, wolves, and lynx. We have not yet seen the project with our own eyes, but we’ve read about them and we look forward to learning more about the conservation work they’ve been doing.

Destinations that you visit might seem very exotic and remote for many of the readers. But most of them would have travelled to other places, perhaps more touristic and better-known to a wider public. Is there any recommendation/advice you could share with those who would still like to travel in a responsible way, without doing any harm to the nature and local communities?

One suggestion we would make would be to check a national park in the country you plan to visit. Many times we plan a trip to some big city, or some historic site, or maybe some country that is famous for its food. Nearly 100 countries in the world have national parks, and you might be surprised that one isn’t too far from where you already plan on going. And we’ve noticed that many guidebooks do not do a good job covering national parks. Part of our plans with Conservation Atlas is to eventually become a resource regarding conservation areas around the world, but until then, if you do a little research on the internet, you will likely find what you need to know about nearby national parks. And once you start seeing some photos of the landscapes, and learn about the ecosystems and species that call those places home, you might change your travel plans to spend more time at a national park you never heard of.

Andreea is from Romania and Justin from the United States. Is there any special place you would recommend visiting in your respective countries and why?

Justin:

In the US I think that more awareness of and visitation to national monuments would be really important for their conservation. Twenty seven of them are under a review ordered by the presidential administration which could reduce their size or rescind their protection. National monuments that conserve incredible landscapes and biodiversity are just as outstanding as national parks, but are not yet as famous. Traditionally it is the president who uses the authority given by the Antiquities Act to declare a national monument. National parks are voted by Congress. An iconic national monument that was then turned into a national park by Congress is the Grand Canyon. California is home to many outstanding national monuments, like Sand to Snow or the Mojave Desert Trails, while the most controversial (and some of the most beautiful too) are in Utah: Grand Staircase – Escalante and Bears Ears.

Andreea:

Romania is a beautiful place, with lots of nature and adventure travel opportunities. The Carpathian mountains are home to large populations of brown bears, wolves and lynxes, with good hiking trails offering solitary experiences and with a decent infrastructure of huts and refuges to spend the night. On the other hand I would say that the Danube Delta is more than worth a trip. Kayaking or taking a boat out into the channels and lagoons guarantees seeing lots of birds and the iconic pelicans. The Danube Delta is one of Europe’s most biodiverse. The whole vibe of the place is very chill, and the local culture and architecture is so beautiful. It’s definitely a special place for me. If you do come, take your time and maybe take a boat ride to Sulina which is a good basecamp for exploring the region of the Delta where the river reaches the Black Sea.

Interesting links:

Conservation Atlas on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/conservationatlas/

* Douglas Tompkins was a founder of such brands as North Face and Esprit and an ecologists. His life and works are a great inspiration for Andreea and Justin. To find out more about Tompkins, follow this link: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35048806

For those of you who would like to have a volunteering experience in South America, I recommend an e-book, written by Justin, in which you would find a list of charities and descriptions of possible activities in which you can get involved: https://www.amazon.com/Volunteering-Latin-America-volunteering-Central-ebook/dp/B00LR1AYCU/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1502352223&sr=8-1&keywords=Volunteering+in+Latin+America

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