Leo, Aliya, MLK, and the Parrots: A Lesson in Mentorship


Dr. Leo R. Douglas, a Jamaican ornithologist, conservationist, and all-round extraordinary scientist and person, was a recipient of The New York University Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Faculty Award, which was presented to him on February 2, 2021.

Leo (can I call him Leo, please?) is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Liberal Studies at NYU. I first met him in the early 2000s, when he applied for a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship to Columbia University. He obtained his Ph.D., a Masters of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, and an Advanced Environmental Policy Certificate at Columbia. He also holds a Masters of Philosophy degree in Zoology from the University of the West Indies (UWI), Jamaica.  According to his NYU page, his teaching and research interests include Natural Resource-based Conflict; Sustainable Land Management; Behavior-Change; the Wildlife Trade; and Conservation Biology. Oh, and he is also the recipient of a Bronze Musgrave Medal in 2018, for Distinguished Eminence in the Field of Science. His BirdLife family all came along to cheer him on!

BirdLife Jamaica members thrilled by Leo Douglas’ Bronze Musgrave Medal at the Institute of Jamaica in 2018.

Also, Leo is concerned with the representation of black and other minorities in the field of conservation, through his involvement with BirdsCaribbean and BirdLife Jamaica (he is a past President of both) and in his own personal advocacy efforts. With last year’s drama over Christian Cooper, the Central Park birder who became embroiled with a hysterical white woman (and her half-strangled dog), awareness of the representation issue in science has come to the fore. Black Birders Week last summer (also prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement) was a very successful offshoot. But basically, it’s all about the complex interactions between nature, birds – and humans. There are the conflicts and there are the social exclusion and identity issues, with nature in the middle of it all. It is all wrapped up in what Leo calls “Nature and Society Geography.”

Trinidadian conservation biologist Aliya Hosein.

I digress, just a little. I was thrilled and proud to hear that Leo had won the award. But, like Ms. Aliya Hosein, I was “not surprised.” Who is Ms. Hosein, you may ask? Well, Aliya is a young Trinidadian Conservation Biologist, specialising in Ornithology and the Wildlife Trade. And she knows, as well as I do, what an inspiring person Leo is – as a teacher, mentor, and guide. Here is what she has to say about Leo:

When Leo told me he had been awarded the prestigious Dr Martin Luther King Jr award I was not surprised. In fact, my reaction must have been confusingly unenthusiastic. Leo, if you are reading this please accept my apology!

Leo Douglas was introduced to me by another Trinidadian conservationist in 2016. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to meet another Caribbean parrot researcher. But I quickly learned that Leo is much more than a parrot researcher. We formally worked together during the Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean (CLiC) Fellowship program, on an illegal wildlife trade project in Trinidad. He has helped me improve my research skills.

But I will forever be grateful to him for deepening my understanding of systemic barriers that prevent representation and documentation of people of color in conservation. He worries that he is not doing enough to help other Caribbean nationals to overcome these barriers. For me, he continues to. He has helped me out-manoeuvre so many institutional barriers by introducing me to so many wonderful Caribbean conservationists, educators, and artists. It feels less (geographically) isolating to work in the Caribbean. And he has taught me how to use both my academic training and culture to advocate for parrot conservation without, intentionally or unintentionally, undermining the communities that often have complicated relationships with these birds.

Ah yes – the parrots. Leo and Aliya both have a passion for parrots. Aliya chose to write about the charismatic Scarlet Macaw for her undergraduate Animal Behaviour project and has followed parrots and macaws ever since.  I wrote about her Blue and Gold Project in 2017 here. Just today, Aliya presented a fascinating webinar on Caribbean parrots and the illegal wildlife trade. Indeed, wildlife trafficking is not just about pangolins and the body parts of large mammals; nor is it only taking place in Asia or Africa. In fact it is much closer to home, and Caribbean birds are in particular peril. Aliya has been studying parrots for about eight years, and has focused on the gorgeous macaws that live in Trinidad – which, of course, is a stone’s throw from the South American mainland and therefore shares many bird species. The problem is that, while laws protecting these animals and birds often exist, wildlife crime per se is not as high priority as other crimes – murders, armed robberies etc. – which law enforcement in our region has to contend with. A great deal of capacity building and serious motivation is required in law enforcement.

Aliya Hosein with eminent conservationist and ornithologist Dr. Herbert Raffaele, who generously supported her “Blue and Gold Project” for the conservation of the Blue and Gold Macaw in Trinidad.

Talking about the mainland, Aliya pointed out – quite shockingly – that the illegal wildlife-macaw trade from Venezuela into Trinidad is tied to the human trafficking of Venezuelan women and girls, and more recently the trafficking of entire families into Trinidad. “High up” officials can sometimes be involved, in the region, in wildlife trafficking. Those who defend wildlife, as we know across the Americas, can also be putting their own lives in danger. In January this year, Colombian conservationist Gonzalo Cardona, who dedicated his life to protecting the endangered Yellow-eared Parrot, an endemic species native to the cloud forests of the Central Andes, was shot dead. There is money to be made. For more analysis on wildlife trafficking and environmental crimes in the Americas, you can take a look at the Insight Crime website, which notes that economic hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the trade in countries like Brazil.

Back to the “Big Apple.” At the MLK Awards, Leo talked about service (which is what he does, all the time) in his remarks:

I think of my father. He built three churches in the most rural and poorest of areas on Jamaica. My sister would remark that he gave his crops away before they were fit for harvest to those in need. As a Minister, he believed in serving where there was the most pressing need, and he felt strongly that the time for service was now.

I flip this experience to make a comparison of what it has been like to be in academia. When I graduated in 2012 from Columbia University with my Ph.D., I recall telling a few colleagues that I was going to return, in large part, to a life of activities built around service. I was advised against this…

The advice was well meaning: “Do it when you get old and retire (like academics ever really retire!)” “Don’t get caught up in the role of nanny and babysitter. That is not the way to get tenure!” “If you cannot publish it, don’t do it.” “Mentoring does not build wealth.” “The more service you do, the less you will be respected in your field.”

It is not everyone who is seeking to make it in the competitive world of academia and the life sciences who will take six-plus years to fundraise, design programs to teach, work unpaid and living in college dorms for the sole purpose of identifying, mentoring and training, and paying what might be the next generation of conservation scientists countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, when, for example, I hear that the young man I took on as my Ph.D. field assistant who was working as a landscaping gardener was recently accepted in to Kent University’s conservation biology program, after moving on from my fieldwork to start a career in Dominica’s Forestry Department. In fact, every time I now write a letter for the mentees, speak with them about their latest research, etc., I always think about service and what serving means.

Dr. King said in 1968: “If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second law of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”

Thank you for this award that I accept in honor of my now deceased father who introduced me to forests, the love of animals and nature – and to service.

On a personal note, I must say that Leo’s enthusiasm, his love of birds and the Caribbean, and his warmth and open-heartedness, inspired and encouraged me to actively take up birding (again, after many years, although the interest had always been there since my childhood days). He just dragged me back into it, although I had to go into a serious learning curve on Jamaican/Caribbean birds. Now I am honored and happy to be serving as a Member of the Board of BirdsCaribbean. How did I get there? All thanks to Leo. He mentors both the young (Aliya) and much older people (me!)

Thank you, Leo. And thank you to Leo’s father, too. We are all grateful for you.

Dr. Leo Douglas.

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