We continue our series of People Who Matter in the world of conservation with insights into the thoughts and work of Carmen Portella Ernest. I had the pleasure of meeting Carmen whilst on holiday in Lanzarote a few years ago. A card on the hotel notice board advertising fully guided nature tours proved too much of a lure to resist, so we booked without delay. We ended up spending several hours with Carmen as she drove us around her beloved desert areas near Soo, in search of the endemic races of cream-coloured courser and houbara bustard. During this time she talked extensively about her work with local communities, into which she wanted to engender a sense of ownership and desire to protect these sensitive habitats. The result of this has been to set up a volunteer organisation called Desert Watch which monitors wildlife and human impacts on critical habitat. At that time Carmen was also engaging in dialogue with local government to persuade them to move environmental issues further up the agenda. Carmen runs a successful eco-tour company, Eco Insider, I’ll let her explain what she does and the successes she has enjoyed.
My name is Carmen Portella Ernest, I am 54 years old, I’ve lived for the last 18 years in Lanzarote, Canary Islands. 13 years ago I founded a company for sustainable nature tours Eco-Insider and 5 years ago I started a volunteer conservation non-profit association known as Desert Watch. The lockdown is hard but at least it has made it possible to finish the Desert Watch website.
What event triggered your interest in the natural world?
When I moved to Lanzarote. Seeing the bizarre moonscape of the Timanfaya National Park made me want to find out what happened there. I started being interested in geology and it was mind blowing. I wanted to know more, which led me to the plants and birds and all the other natural subjects. Soon I realised how it is all connected and it is fascinating to keep discovering these natural connections all around us, everywhere I go. Before that I was just a city person and an office person.
Give a sketch of a typical day in your life
Well, before the Coronavirus lockdown it was a lot of work on my company, Eco Insider. During the tours it might all seem easy and effortless but there is a lot of hard work and long hours behind it. Since Desert Watch is a volunteer project and no one gets paid, we have to do it in our free time. All that quality time in nature is paid by many hours of hard administrative and organisational work. And there is a family and a house on top, so you can imagine. But I wouldn´t have it other way…
You have spent much time as an active conservationist campaigner in the Canary Isles. What would you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of that work?
In UK you have a long tradition of conservationism and many inspiring volunteer projects. In the Canary Islands this culture is just starting. The most rewarding thing for me is to see that Desert Watch is showing people that volunteer work is not the same as unpaid work. More and more people are discovering the sense of purpose that they get when they fight for a good cause, the bliss of constant learning and discovering, and the fun to work in a team of like-minded people. This is all much more gratifying than anything you can buy with money. It makes us better human beings and this is the reason why we are here, isn´t it?
What do you consider the greatest challenges facing wildlife today?
Greed and ignorance.
What do you consider to be your greatest success?
Starting Desert Watch and seeing it grow over the years. The project has a life of its own now. If I am not here, the group will carry on anyway.
What would you consider to be your deepest regret?
When I was young, I lived for some years in Brazil. I was not interested in nature then or maybe I didn´t know much about it. I remember seeing some curious animals and plants but I didn´t think about finding out what it was. Maybe I thought at that time it was too complicated. Until now I always try to remember, but I cannot find the details in my memory. I am probably never going to get a chance to go back.
What advice would you give to a budding naturalist?
To be aware that often there is not one definite truth about the species and the environment. It seems that the knowledge is in a constant process of unravelling new facts and what is considered to be the truth today might not be any more tomorrow. And all this makes the search the more interesting.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
Study more, focus on the important things! Time goes too fast.
If you could be anywhere in the world at this moment where would it be and why?
I am happy in the desert of Soo, but because I lived in different countries I am aware that at the end one can find his or hers place just anywhere. Wherever I should turn out, I prefer it is in the countryside opposed to a big city.
What is your favourite or most admired animal and why?
It is hard to pick one but I enjoy enormously to watch the Cream-coloured Coursers. They are very beautiful, delicate and at the same time somehow comical birds. It is very interesting to watch their complex group behaviour. I could spend hours observing them.
Who or what are your heroes/heroines/greatest Inspirations?
Recall your most exciting or memorable wildlife spotting encounter.
That is easy: It is every September and October on the ocean around the uninhabited islands of Archipelago Chinijo on the north of Lanzarote. At that time you can see literally the ocean full of shearwaters and the sky full of Eleonora´s Falcons, besides that, we can sometimes also spot turtles, hammerhead sharks, dolphins or whales. It is a real “National Geographic” sort of experience.
Can you say what it is about the natural world that continues to inspire you?
The intelligence behind it all. You can only discover it if you keep learning and observing it from close. And when I think that I know a lot about some animal or plant, scientists discover some new aspect or ability, which makes me think what else is there we don´t know.
What new aspects of conservation excite you?
I like to see that many people, especially young people worldwide are getting engaged and active in conservation. They are not waiting for someone to tell them what to do. They are finding their own voice and way. I guess they realised they have no other choice… There might be a moral revolution on the way. It is much needed.
What are your hobbies/interests outside of wildlife?
Gardening, reading, travelling, good wine. The usual.
What makes you happy?
The older I get, the easier it is for me to be happy. Good times with my family and friends, observing the nature and its unfailing seasons, sometimes just a nice sunny day…Happiness is a lot about gratitude
What makes you sad?
When I see how we are losing natural spaces.
Name 3 things on your ‘bucket list’
What would you most like to accomplish and/or be remembered for?
For starting Desert Watch and for being a part of the conservation effort of the amazing, mysterious and wild habitat of the desert of Soo (El Jable).
Thank you Carmen. This is a real story of having made a substantial difference to the environment in which you live and work. If anyone reading this plans to visit Lanzarote, be sure to contact Eco-Insider for a very intimate experience of the natural side of the island. Great work Carmen, you’re a real inspiration.