Vitor Osmar Becker & Clemira Ordoñez Souza, Brazil
Photo courtesy Vitor Osmar Becker
Photograph by Becky Hale
Vitor O. Becker was born to a family of small farmers in the town of Brusque in southern Brazil. He had an early love of nature and insects, and studied agronomy and forestry, receiving his Ph.D. in entomology. Becker focused on the study of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), becoming an expert on the subject. He spent his career in this field, authoring more than a hundred publications and amassing one of the largest collections of neotropical moths in the world. Clemira Souza, a schoolteacher, met Becker in 1968, when he was working at the Instituto Biológico in São Paulo. They married the following year.
While carrying out extensive field work throughout Latin America, Becker witnessed firsthand the rapid and drastic destruction of natural habitats. He concluded that there was no point in preserving pinned specimens in museum collections if nothing was being done to preserve the species in nature. For Becker—and Souza—this meant preserving habitats for conservation, biological research, and environmental education. Since Becker’s retirement as a research scientist from the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture in 1997, he and Souza have dedicated their lives to conservation.
The Atlantic Forest of Brazil is one of the most diverse biomes in the world and the most destroyed in Brazil—only 8 percent of its original forests remain. Becker and Souza decided to establish a reserve in this region and settled on the Serra Bonita Mountain. Serra Bonita not only had very high diversity, but also had species not previously known to the Atlantic Forest. Additionally, most of the mountain was still covered with forest (nearly 50 percent pristine), and there was no sample of cloud forest preserved in the region. Using their retirement benefits and their savings, Becker and Souza started to purchase land in 1998, one piece at a time. By mid-2001, nearly 50 properties had been purchased, amounting to over 2,500 acres. As the project expanded, they created the Uiraçu Institute, an NGO, and eventually established the larger Serra Bonita Reserve Complex. Today this protected area covers nearly 5,000 acres.
At the end of 2002, Becker and Souza began building infrastructure on the Serra Bonita Reserve. Today there is a research center composed of six laboratories, two collection rooms, an auditorium, a library and a preparation room. Also on the reserve is a lodge to accommodate scientists, students and ecotourists, and over 10 kilometers of trails. Currently 15 research projects are underway, most of them carried out by graduate students.
Becker and Souza continue to work to realize their conservation dream and they hope to expand the protected area across the entire Serra Bonita Mountain.
Learn more to recognize and celebrate unsung heroes working in the field. Awardees have demonstrated outstanding leadership in managing and protecting the natural resources in his or her country and region. They are each inspirational conservation advocates, who serve as role models and mentors.
Video: Exploration Without Limits
Newsletter: Explorer Updates
Stay in the know with updates about National Geographic with our newsletter.
Our Explorers in Action
Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.