Naturalists Working With Greater Good Programs Awarded For Their Inspiring Work In The Madrean Sky Islands

Tom Van Devender and Ana Lilia and were honored with the Frank Blair Eminent Naturalist Award from the Southwestern Association of Naturalists.

“A group of our closest, longtime friends and colleagues nominated us for the award and wrote letters of support,” Van Devender says. “It’s really humbling to see our names on a list of so many great naturalists. But it’s really just who we are and what we do.”

Tom Van Devender has been working as a naturalist in the Madrean Sky Islands region for more than 25 years.
Source: YouTube/GreaterGood
Tom Van Devender has been working as a naturalist in the Madrean Sky Islands region for more than 25 years.

According to the SWAN website, “the W. Frank Blair Eminent Naturalist Award recognizes excellence in a lifetime of commitment to outstanding study or conservation of the flora or fauna of the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central America.”

Van Devender says he has been a member of SWAN for many years, until recently, but his entire life has been spent amongst wildlife.

“I’ve always considered myself a natural historian first and a scientist second (and a storyteller teacher),” he says. “It all started with my brother Wayne and I as teenage terrors scouring drainage canals and bayous in Texas and South Carolina, fishing, catching snakes. frogs, lizards, and anything else we could, including a very mean baby alligator named Gruesome that we kept as a pet.”

Van Devender and his colleague Ana Lilia have led a number of Madrean Discovery Expeditions.
Source: YouTube/Luis Jorge Gutierez
Van Devender and his colleague Ana Lilia have led a number of Madrean Discovery Expeditions.

Ana Lilia meanwhile grew up learning about medicinal plants from her mother and next neighbor Doña Carmelita, the town’s curandera (healer). She later taught in the telesecundaria (satellite middle school) in Yecora in the Sierra Madre Occidental in eastern Sonora.

“There she explored remote canyons with Mountain Pima Indian kids and learned more about medicinal plants from their mothers,” Van Devender says. “After we got together in 1995, we tackled the super rich Madrean flora of Yecora, just the beginning of 25 years of natural history and cultural experiences.”

Van Devender holds a salamander.
Source: YouTube/Luis Jorge Gutierez
Van Devender holds a salamander.

Over the last quarter of a century, Van Devender and Lilia have created lasting change for the better throughout the region, from monitoring the growth and movement of flourishing wildlife, to preserving rare flora.

In 2015 GreaterGood.org began Project WILDCAT to protect predators in the lower Río Bavispe south of Granados, Sonora. One part of the project is working with landowners to switch to a synchronous breeding program where the bulls are with the cows only a short time each year. The other part of the project is documenting and monitoring the wildlife, especially jaguars and ocelots, using wildlife cameras. The cameras are providing a wealth of new records of mammals for the Madrean Discovery Expeditions database.

With the help of Van Devender and Lilia, many species in the Madrean Sky Islands region are thriving.
Source: YouTube/Luis Jorge Gutierez
With the help of Van Devender and Lilia, many species in the Madrean Sky Islands region are thriving.

Working with the Madrean Discovery Expeditions program funded by Greater Good Charities, VanDevender and Lilia have used data taken from years of trail camera footage to examine the ecology of the northern-most known breeding population of ocelots in the area, helping conserve the species for the future.

In mid-2020, while a majority of the rest of the world was locked down in their homes, Van Devender and Lilia discovered what could turn out to be a new species in the dry mountains of the Sky Islands.

Rest assured, more discoveries and stories of conservation are to come from this team.

“This award is not just for us, but reflects an amazing time for natural history,” Van Devender says.

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