Karina Atkinson Me splash [Photo: Stephanie Heitmuller @ Photographers Without Borders]

Me by Karina Atkinson

Karina Atkinson (BSc 2007) established the conservation organisation Para La Tierra (PLT) in Paraguay in 2010. Working with the ethos “the outdoors is our classroom”, it is dedicated to protecting fragile habitats through scientific research and environmental education. PLT runs multiple biodiversity projects, has hosted over 1,000 interns, discovered 50 new species and got more than 6,000 local children involved in its environmental initiatives.

You recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of PLT. What part do you see the organisation playing over the next ten years?
I’d like to create a sustainable business model that allows people to come into contact with nature, appreciate nature, and then want to do the same thing elsewhere. That, for me, would be the best way that PLT could contribute to helping prevent further deforestation and habitat loss, and to protecting biodiversity.

What drew you to Paraguay in the beginning?
Because when I was 21, I realised I’d never heard of it before. I thought I knew the names of all of the countries in South America and when I found myself looking this one up on a map, I felt so silly that I knew I had to go and see what it was like. I liked the idea that it was off the beaten tourist track.

What is a typical day at work for you?
I love the fact that I don’t really have a typical day in my job. I communicate a lot with international universities to organise trips to Paraguay. Then we have a museum – one of the assets that I’m most proud of is the reference collection that we’ve built over the past ten years. I’m training a new museum curator and that involves maintaining the specimens and caring for different types of taxa. We’re also working in four different field sites which I go and visit, and we’re currently doing biodiversity surveys so that we can try and declare a protected area. I’ve got a team of six people out in the field right now, led by a Paraguayan scientist. They’re collecting data on everything – birds, frogs, mammals, all sorts of stuff.

What are some of the most interesting projects that PLT have undertaken?
One of my favourites was carried out by a pair of Dutch students, who placed pet running wheels in the forest to see if they would be used by wild rodents and set camera traps that filmed them running! One of our current projects is on the rodent Pilar tuco-tuco, which is endemic to the state where our headquarters is based. Nothing at all is known about the ecology of these animals except that they live underground. We’re collecting the first-ever data on their life history in the hope of being able to prevent their extinction.

Paraguay is quite an obscure country to many people. What would you like Avenue readers to know about it?
The experience you get when you come to Paraguay is not manufactured or sold in a package. Paraguay boasts beautiful scenery with a phenomenal bright green, red and blue colour scheme, forest walks with pristine waterfalls, vast deserts filled with caiman, pumas, tapirs and armadillos, and small friendly towns and villages where the people are delighted to share what they have in exchange for a few stories about where you’re from.

"The biggest issue here is deforestation and habitat loss. That basically removes all of the carbon sinks that lock away carbon from the atmosphere. It destroys all of what the Earth has stored up over millions of years.

What ambitions do you have for PLT in the long term?
It’s a long-term dream to own land in Paraguay and declare a protected area as a model reserve to be used as an example for other places. One of my biggest regrets is not being able to raise enough money to purchase and protect Laguna Blanca, an ex-nature reserve of great conservation importance and my favourite place on Earth. So we’re trying to raise the money for a model reserve by hosting groups and running tours; offering universities the chance to bring students to our field sites and giving them the opportunity to see Paraguay – a place that no-one ever really thinks to come.

Has the last year made you reassess your priorities and work or plan differently?
We’re lucky enough to have in PLT a team that has been able to innovate new strategies to come through the pandemic stronger. We created a lot of remote opportunities – for example, one of my colleagues, a primatologist from Edinburgh, developed an online primatology course which was subscribed to in the first month by around 60 people across the world. We’ve also been offering remote internships to students who can’t travel. One of the main strengths of PLT is our amazing team of extraordinarily passionate people, willing to put their all into an organisation they care about.

"I don’t think it’s possible for us to be too ambitious when it comes to dealing with climate change. I’m delighted that UofG has made the promise to be carbon neutral by 2030.

What would you like to see as the outcomes of the COP26 climate conference that is taking place in Glasgow this year?
I’d like to see carbon neutrality across the board – across all industry. We need to deal with the fossil-fuel giants, which I know is very difficult, and refocus on renewables. Try to raise awareness as well, because you don’t often get to see those stories of real people who are impacted by climate change on a daily basis.

Memories of Glasgow

I loved being part of something massive and ancient, and the culture of knowing that there were so many cool things happening around you. In every building, there were really smart people working on ground-breaking, world-changing stuff. You got to be at least some part of that.

If I could go back to the day I started at UofG, I’d tell myself to take every single opportunity. Just say yes to everything. It’s a time of your life where you have the chance to do that, before responsibilities.

I’m not sure if I’d call it a hangout spot, but I loved spending the time between lectures perusing the Anatomy Museum, inside the main gate, and the Zoology Museum in the Graham Kerr Building. Apart from that, the QMU for lunch, beers, Cheesy Pop and gigs.

My time at Glasgow gave me the self-confidence to do the things I wanted to do; it inspired me to follow my dreams.

Karina and PLT are working towards the conservation of the Atlantic Forest, piloted around San Rafael, the largest fragment of forest left in Paraguay. They also have a project in development based on the ecological requirements of capuchin monkeys.

Karina is also aiming to open up ecotourism in her part of Paraguay. “We’ve got big plans, that are reliant on a lot of people saying yes to giving us a lot of money, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” she says.


This article was first published June 2021.

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