Jamal Galves, a conservation biologist and 2017 Nat Geo Photo Ark EDGE Fellow, often asks himself one question about the endangered Antillean manatees of his native Belize:
“Why don't people care enough to protect them?”
Galves grew up in a small village famous for its manatee population. He was just 11 when he happened upon a research expedition in a nearby lagoon and fell in love with the idea of exploration.
“Before you knew it, my cousins and I were playing ‘manatee rescue’ on our lawn,” he recalls.
Though just a child, Galves boldly approached the research team and asked to join them. The leader hesitated at first, but the boy’s curiosity and passion won him over. Galves hopped aboard.
“I was just fascinated,” he said. “And I learned so much. Then I realized that these guys are in trouble, and I decided that I'm going to commit myself to do everything that I can to conserve and protect manatees.”
More than two decades later, Galves is now the program coordinator for the Belize Manatee Conservation program at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute, assisting with manatee captures and health assessments. Just as important, the program educates local communities about their role in saving the gentle creatures.
What fires his passion? “Waking up knowing that you're saving a species that cannot save itself,” Galves beams. “Waking up knowing that you're speaking for something that can't speak for itself. Just because they can't speak doesn't mean that they don't have something to say.”
Now an endangered species, Antillean manatees face numerous threats: habitat loss, hunting, collisions with boats, entangling fishing gear, pollution, and natural disasters. But the commitment to changing the narrative through dedicated conservation efforts from people like Galves is making a difference.
The tireless efforts of Galves and conservationists alike have led to a shift in local attitudes and behavior. Progress like this has only fed his optimism about saving these manatees and getting people to do their part.
“Not everybody cares,” he says, “but that doesn't make me lose hope. I'm still optimistic that people want to be a part of something, to feel that they are contributing to change.”
“It’s one world, one people,” Galves says. “That's the approach we need to have if we're going to save this planet.”