Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Joe McDo
Photograph by Kevin Krug
Jenny Daltry slashes her way through Cambodia's thick rain forest, treading carefully. Venomous snakes slither underfoot. A virulent strain of malaria that resists most treatments and kills in 24 hours is prevalent. Entire areas are laced with land mines left by the Khmer Rouge. "Fieldwork," Daltry says with a smile, "is my favorite part."
Saving endangered species has taken her to 20 countries, primarily unexplored corners of South and Southeast Asia and the Caribbean.
"I've been really lucky to go to some of the most unspoiled places on the planet," she says. "When you're the first scientist to see a particular river or mountain, or to identify a new species, it's a real adventure."
Daltry's conservation efforts focus on species she calls "unpopular." "Endangered snakes, frogs, and crocodiles are not everyone's favorites," she explains. "They have a special need for attention."
A prime example of such an effort to save an unpopular species is the Siamese Crocodile Project, which Daltry oversees for the worldwide conservation organization Fauna & Flora International.
"In 2000 I was asked to do a biological survey of Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains, an area that had been a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. It was like a lost world, closed to outsiders until that year, an area of nearly untouched rain forests and wildlife with no roads or access. Our team walked hundreds of miles conducting the first-ever biodiversity study to help decide if it should be protected or if it could all be logged. We identified hundreds of new species and found a small population of Siamese crocodiles."
Thought to be effectively extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and hunting, the 150 Siamese crocodiles discovered by Daltry's team are the single largest known population left in the wild.
Findings from the survey helped prove the area's biological value, led to the protection of more than 1.5 million hectares, and helped forged agreements with local communities.
"The health of both humans and wildlife depends upon looking after these watersheds, rivers, and forests," Daltry notes, "and the Siamese crocodile is crucial to the whole ecosystem. They dig out the marshes, keeping water there even during the dry season, giving other animals a water source. Today, in areas where the crocodiles have disappeared, sediment has built up and the marshes are dry and dead. A few years ago, nobody in Cambodia thought these crocodiles were anything special. Now they're seen as a priority."
On the other side of the world, the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project, co-founded by Daltry, shares similar success. Called the rarest snake in the world, the harmless Antiguan racer was isolated on a tiny island in the West Indies, its critically endangered status virtually unknown.
"A lot of people told me to give up," Daltry recalls. "There were only 50 snakes left, probably all inbred, and no one in Antigua liked them. Yet over the last few years, we've really been able to promote them. I spent about 400 nights camping on the island with the snakes, understanding them, finding out what they needed and what their threats were. Today, people care so much about them they're on the phone cards and stamps here, every school kid learns about them, and their habitat has been protected as a national park. We've reintroduced them to other islands, and they now number more than 200."
In every project, Daltry emphasizes the need to be flexible and adapt to the local economy, culture, and history.
"It's their country and wildlife," she notes. "So you must make sure communities are involved and benefit. For example, while we work to protect the Siamese crocodiles, we also help local farmers find alternatives to destroying the marsh."
Daltry's passion bloomed early. As a child in a rural English village, she accumulated a menagerie of lizards, frogs, and snakes. "I enjoyed showing them to people and watching their reactions. They're not everyone's cup of tea."
At age 18 she traveled to India to work on a crocodile farm that bred snakes. "One day they asked if I wanted to learn how to handle venomous snakes, and I said sure. So they gave me a little stick and put me in a pit filled with deadly snakes I had to catch. Handling snakes is not something you learn by reading books; you just have to get in there and do it."
Her more traditional education includes a B.S. in zoology with botany and geography from Bristol University, England, and a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.
Why does a handful of endangered species drive Daltry to endure peril and hardship?
"To me, it's symbolic. If you don't care about this particular snake, why should you care about anything else? Each one is part of a great web, and if you start picking and choosing which bits you think are important, you may find it all falling apart. I think all kids are born with an interest in wildlife. I've just never grown out of it."
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The critically endangered Siamese crocodile is one of the world's rarest animals, with fewer than 250 adults remaining in the wild.
What are Jenny Daltry and the rest of the National Geographic Explorers up to? Meet the E-Team and learn about their projects in this interactive mural.
In Their Words
Endangered snakes, frogs, and crocodiles are not everyone's favorites. They have a special need for attention.
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Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.