Indianapolis Prize finalist Gerardo Ceballos


Gerardo Ceballos is a man of vision -- sometimes from the back of a horse, and sometimes through a camera lens.

When he looks at his native Mexico, he sees native beauty that should be preserved for future generations.

"Mexico is one of the most bio-diverse countries on earth", he said. "It has 12 percent of all the plant life on earth and only one percent of the land mass."

To protect some of it, Ceballos believes you have to protect all of it. His approach is taking root in Mexico and breaking new ground for conservationists around the world.

He came to this realization after focusing on mammals in the early days of his career but for 20 years now, he has been working to preserve the places where they live.

"I started to see that what I was learning with one species could be applied to saving landscapes -- because in a landscape, you save hundreds of thousands of species."

So, in 1991, he began working to protect the vast Mexican landscape. Instead of focusing his efforts in the wild lands of his country, he went to the capitol of Mexico City and lobbied lawmakers to enact laws that favored conservation. His persuasive powers helped shape the landmark "Endangered Species Act" in Mexico, which now protects more than 4,000 different kinds of animals that otherwise would be in danger.

From there, he worked to build the national system of protected areas. Rurik List of Mexico's Institute of Ecology said his friend's work has been priceless.

"He has helped to create several reserves, or expand other reserves and that's a work that will last probably a hundred years and benefit thousands of people."

One of the species that Ceballos' work has benefited most may be the Mexican Jaguar. The animals have roamed the brush in Mexico's most remote places for generations, but no one knew with any scientific certainty how many remained. He started a research program to track their population and determined that at least 30,000 of them still roam remote parts of his country.

But as important as his work has been, Gerardo Ceballos has his attention firmly on the future. He understands that conservation must be more than a good idea - it has to make economic sense, as well, for everyone involved.

He said, "We're working with the rich and poor, pulling them together. We show them the state of the land and we also show them what is going to happen if there is not a change in the next 20 years."

It is ambitious, but wild spaces in Mexico are under pressure from ranchers who want to expand their herds and commercial farming operations who want to expand. Keeping it untouched, as conservationists might prefer, is not an option. The key is to work together to protect everyone's interest and still preserve the wild heritage of the country.

Gerardo Ceballos is a son of Toluca, Mexico, but his has grown into a world view with a masters degree from the University of Wales and a doctorate from the University of Arizona. He has a Guggenheim Fellowship, a number of ecological merit awards from the Mexican government and is a member of the United Nations' Science and Technology Advisory Board. But, with all that education and all his accomplishments, Ceballos has maintained a common touch and a remarkably simple philosophy: "to try to think that my work is helping plants and animals to survive, is helping the local people and is also giving a better chance to my children to be able to see this when they grow up."

As a finalist for the 2014 Indianapolis Prize, he could win an unrestricted $250,000 award to help in the work of preserving his vision and pass it on to future generations.