SA Zoo has global reach: Project underway to protect Amazon

Project Selva to preserve Amazon rainforest, led by Dr. Dante Fenolio


SAN ANTONIO – The San Antonio Zoo is a busy place this time of year and that is how most see the local attraction: a place to get up close to wildlife.

But there is more to the zoo than meets the eye, including when it comes to its global reach.

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That is especially the case when it comes to the zoo’s vice president of conservation and research, Dr. Dante Fenolio.

"I’m in a really special place today: this is the Amazon Basin," exclaimed Fenolio on a video describing one of his most recent trips. 

Fenolio traverses the globe working on conservation efforts. His last stop was in the Amazon Basin. He has spent many years working to preserve what is left of the vital rainforest there.

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"This is the last great tract of rain forest that can be found on the planet, and it's critically important that we do everything we can to save it," Fenolio said.

As a result, Fenolio created Project Selva, in what has become a labor of love for the biologist. 

"There are more species of plants and animals in the upper Amazon Basin than anywhere else on earth," said Fenolio. 

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The best way to preserve this habitat, he believes, is by empowering those who live here and want to take care of it: the indigenous population.

Setting up camp in northern Peru in the town of Iquitos, he has long worked with those who call the Amazon home.  Through those interactions, he has found what he believes to be the biggest snag in the conservation of the rainforest.

"There are points in time where (the indigenous people) are inclined to sell logging rights and mineral rights," Fenolio said.

Selling those rights can often lead to the destruction of the land. As for why they would agree to sell, Fenolio’s research revealed one main reason. 

"They are in dire need of medical equipment or medical supplies,” said Fenolio. "Cash is in short supply in the Amazon."

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This is where Project Selva and the San Antonio Zoo come in.

"We buy arts and crafts from the indigenous communities and in doing so, we provide them with the predictable stable revenue stream," said Fenolio.

The art is sold in zoo gift stores. That steady revenue stream is used to buy western medicine, keeping the indigenous population from selling the land.

But it does not end there. Money is also needed to fund the project in general.

"To facilitate this whole thing, comes the second part of this project, we had to open an office in the Amazonian city of Iquitos," said Fenolio.

To fund that, Fenolio came up with yet another idea: teaching Peruvian artists to create a unique type of art called Gyotaku.

An ancient Japanese art form, artists use actual fish to create art. The idea was to celebrate the abundance of fish species in the Amazon.

"Our Peruvian artists are producing these fish prints, or Gyotaku prints, that we're able to bring back up to the United States and then export to Europe and Asia and sell," Fenolio said.

It is the culmination of years of research and relationships.

Meantime, Fenolio does not stop there. His conservations efforts span the globe, including preserving Chinese cavefish and North American salamanders.

The projects operate through the monies raised and donations, as the San Antonio Zoo is a nonprofit organization.  

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