By KIM LOCCISANO
Times Leader Staff Writer
Children through the ages have dreamed of making the world a much better place - a happier and healthier place for everyone - as the result of a discovery they make as a scientist, explorer or adventurer. That is exactly what St. Clairsville native Dr. Gretchen Walters is and has been doing for more than a decade while living and working in the rainforest region of Gabon, Africa.
Dr. Gretchen Walters, a native of
St. Clairsville, applies conservation science in the rainforest region of Gabon, Africa–her home for over a decade. Her work influences societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to use natural resources equitably. Walters (right) stands atop a hill overlooking Gabon with colleague Michelle Lee and Kadi, a young village girl.
Three-year old gorilla, Ovindo, connected with Walters during a recent visit she made to the Gorilla Protection Project. It is a program centered on the mission of reintroducing gorillas into the wild. The need exists for this effort because the natural habitat of these large primates is increasingly threatened by development efforts.
Walters’ husband Olly Hymas used a video camera to capture a ceremonial dance that was conducted by Babongo pygmies. He shows the results to the dancers.
ABOVE:?Weaving fabric from palm fiber is a vanishing tradition in Gabon. Sylvestre, an accomplished weaver, died earlier this year.
Local people gather a variety of foods including grasshoppers. Here women conduct controlled burns in the prairie to flush out the insects. They are then gathered and cooked.
Recently she was offered the job of a lifetime with a world renown organization unlike any other when it comes to past, present and future conservation efforts: the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The unique union is headquartered near Geneva, Switzerland.
The IUCN helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges. It supports scientific research, manages field projects all over the world and brings governments, non-government organizations, United Nations agencies, companies and local communities together to develop and implement policy, laws and best practices. The organization's vision is "a just world that values and conserves nature." Its mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure than any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.
The IUCN develops and supports cutting-edge conservation science, particularly on biodiversity and ecosystems and how they link to human wellbeing. It runs thousands of field projects around the world to better manage natural environments. IUCN helps implement laws, policy and best-practices by mobilizing organizations, providing resources and training, and monitoring results.
Walters learned to love things like wildflowers, gardening, camping and speaking French while growing up in the Ohio Valley, never dreaming they would one day meld together creating a unique foundation for her life as an adult.
But that is exactly what became of her lifelong passions, which have continued to grow in strength as she has grown as a science professional, a conservationist, and an individual with deep personal ties to the as yet largely undiscovered potential lifesaving and problem solving scientific mysteries held in the flora and fauna of remote corners of the world such as Gabon.
Her science skills are world class, as is her education. One aspect of Walter's diverse education has helped open the doors of opportunity for her just a little more than it has for others with similar credentials but who might not have studied French at Mt. de Chantal Visitation Academy as she did.
An opportunity to travel to Gabon for a brief period of field research and specimen gathering was put before her as a new affiliate of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.
French is the most widely spoken language in Gabon. By the time she was employed in St. Louis, her high school French language skills had developed into an ability to speak the language fluently, making her efforts to work in the region much more likely to be successful and more productive than for someone with no such skills, Walters explained.
"With the French, I am able to work in a wider geographic area," she recently explained, with a decided nod of thanks to what was an outstanding foreign language program.
Walters has never been one to seek individual recognition for her professional efforts, seeing the type of work she does as best pursued by an organized and dedicated team.
"My work is also possible because I work with a lot of scientific collaborators. No one can do nature conservation alone," she offered. "My collaborators come largely from European and African institutions."
Her initial efforts in Gabon were to have been only brief periods, but it developed into a singular post designed to make the most of her unique professional and personal skills as they let her fit very comfortably into the communities where her specimen gathering efforts were based.
It did not take long for her to feel close to the people of the rural areas where she was working and living.
When she initially graduated, it took a little while to find just the right place to put her foot for that next step in her life's story.
It all began to come together for her when she was offered a position with the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.
"When the Missouri Botanical Garden sent me to Gabon to collect plants with pharmaceutical possibilities, it didn't take any time at all for me to feel comfortable, to feel like we were contributing something to the lives of the people there as well as learning things about their way of life and of their insight into plants being gathered to send back to St. Louis," she reflected.
Though far from her childhood home and its familiar elements, her life in Gabon - and in Africa in general - has been a life changing and deeply enriching personal and professional experience for this quiet, and always inquisitive, scientist.
Though in her new position with the IUCN she will be based in Cameroon, a neighbor of Gabon, and the days of constant field work are now gone, Walters is certain she will be able to continue to touch the lives of her friends in Gabon. She will be working with projects in as many as 15 countries, and Gabon will certainly be one of them.
Though few in her family have had the opportunity to travel to Africa, on her visits home it is not unusual for revelations about her daily life in Gabon to sound more like National Geographic quality adventures - something which will never cease to bring a surge of pride from her family and friends, particularly her parents Kevin Walters of St. Clairsville and Christine Alexander of Lafferty.
Education has obviously played a major part in Walter's professional accomplishments, and as she begins to step onto a new but related path, she is anxious to find ways to share her unique experiences and first-hand knowledge of the region and its culture with students and teachers here in the Ohio Valley.
"I am anxious to find a way to share by blessings - my experiences - with students and teachers at home in the Ohio Valley," she shared during a recent conversation while home. Though just getting started in her new position, Walters invites interested teachers in particular to contact her initially through this newspaper at email@example.com.
Her education has included earning degrees from Ohio University, Arizona State University and University College of London, England.
The Central African tropical rainforest regions of Gabon have been her work environment and home for more than 10 years as she has studied both people and plants as a conservation biologist focusing on biodiversity and the usefulness of plants.
It is a life and a career she has shared with her husband, Olly Hymas, a native of England.
His professional focus as a conservation biologist is in the areas of logging and hunting.
The two share a professional and personal passion for science, research and discovery, education, and for respecting the value of the traditions and beliefs of those people who have called a region home for generations.
Both as a conservation biologist and as an educator, his time has been spent in the pursuit of a cure for cancer all while living and working alongside the local indigenous rural communities in this largely untouched region of Africa, who have long called the rich, dense tropical forests, savannas and pristine coastlines of Gabon their home.
Walters has made her home in Gabon's remote tropical forest region alone over the last decade, and while living and working alongside area natives trekking into the virgin rainforest in search of plants both rare and unknown, along the way lessons of science, of wildlife and resource management and of differing cultures have been shared and deep friendships forged.