Field Museum gives Parker/Gentry Award to missionary turned biologist, José 'Pepe' Alvarez

September 21, 2006

CHICAGO--Due to his vital work studying the birds of Peru and helping to conserve their habitat, José "Pepe" Alvarez has won The Field Museum's 11th annual Parker/Gentry Award.

In 1983, Alvarez went to Peru at the age of 25, determined to devote his life to the work of the Catholic Church as a missionary in the Order of Saint Augustine. While spending a lot of time outdoors traveling through the forests and jungles of Peru, the young missionary grew to love nature.

Alvarez fortuitously was conducting his missionary work in a part of Peru that was poorly known biologically. This region also supported plant and animal communities unlike any others then known in Peru or elsewhere in the western Amazon basin.

Eventually, Alvarez left the order and dedicated himself to biology and conservation--applying his same evangelical zeal to studying and preserving the flora and fauna of the Neotropics. The budding biologist soon realized that he was encountering one bird species after another that had never been seen before by ornithologists.

Alvarez named the first bird he and a colleague discovered, Herpsilochmus gentryi, after Alwyn H. Gentry, one of the namesakes of the Parker/Gentry Award. The ancient antwren is four inches long, yellowish with black spots, and restricted to an area between Peru and Ecuador.

The former missionary went on to develop into a skilled scientist. Together with a colleague, he has discovered four new species of Peruvian birds, with more under study. This makes him one of the world's top discoverers of Neotropical birds. At the same time, he has become an equally successful advocate for conservation. He and the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute are responsible for the creation in 1999 of the 143,000-acre (58,000-hectare) Allpahuayo-Mishana Reserve outside Iquitos, Peru, a city with more than 400,000 residents. This reserve is very significant because it protects for the first time in Peru white-sand forests, the type of forest where the four new species of birds were discovered.

Alvarez was also very instrumental in the creation of the Pucacuro Reserve, another reserve in the department of Loreto. The Peruvian Government created the 1,576,000-acre (637,918-hectare) protected area on April 18, 2005, in part in response to petitions and proposals that Alvarez and colleagues prepared during the previous ten years, or more.

"It is safe to say that there would not be an Allpahuayo-Mishana Reserve, nor would there be a Pucacuro Reserve-two extremely important protected areas in Loreto-without Pepe Alvarez," said Debby Moskovits, senior vice president of The Field Museum for Environment, Culture, and Conservation.

Conservation work

The Parker/Gentry Award was established in 1996 by an anonymous donor. It honors an outstanding individual, team or organization in the field of conservation biology whose efforts have had a significant impact on preserving the world's rich natural heritage-and whose actions and approach can serve as a model to others.

The Award bears the names of the late Gentry and Theodore A. Parker III, both ardent conservationists and leading naturalists. Parker, an ornithologist, and Gentry, a botanist, died on August 3, 1991, while surveying hill forests in western Ecuador. The pair worked closely with Field Museum scientists on several joint efforts, including rapid inventories for conservation.

"I was a great admirer of Ted Parker and Al Gentry, so it's a real honor for me to receive this award," Alvarez said. "During the past 15 years, I have had extensive trouble with, even threats from, illegal loggers, miners and other forces devastating the Amazon. This award is important because it will help attract attention to the Amazon's conservation problems and priorities. I hope it will help the Amazon and its people."

The award will be granted during a private ceremony at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 28, 2006, at The Field Museum. Journalists are welcome to attend, but must register in advance.

Much of Alvarez's work has focused on the white-sand forests of Peru, a nutrient-poor type of ecosystem that some scientists consider the most fragile forest type in the Amazon. The Allpahuayo-Mishana Reserve includes fragments of white-sand forests, and it is in those fragments where Alvarez first heard, then found, all of the new species of birds he discovered and described with his colleague, Bret Whitney, an ornithologist and research associate at Louisiana State University. The two of them have worked together on all the discoveries of new species mentioned here, as well as on other projects. While Alvarez does most of the field work, Whitney does most of the lab work.

Alvarez has an uncanny ability to identify birds by the sounds they make. Although he will continue to try to identify new birds in the course of his work, Alvarez has shifted his focus a bit from science to projects that manage biodiversity with the involvement of local communities.

"Pepe's work is remarkable for many reasons," said Thomas Schulenberg, an ornithologist and conservation ecologist at The Field Museum. "First, no one would have expected to find so many new species of birds so close to a city as large as Iquitos. He's also shown that two very different types of rain forest can grow side-by-side in Peru. Finally, Pepe has been a tireless advocate for conservation, even in the face of direct threats to his personal safety."

The threats to biodiversity in the Amazon are growing every day, as is the poverty of the people that live in and from the Amazon forest, according to Alvarez.

"The Amazon holds one-fifth of the world's fresh water (not frozen), as well as millions of species, many of which remain undiscovered by science," he said. "All of this could disappear in the next few decades if we don't help to preserve the Amazon.

"The Amazon is the responsibility of the entire World."
-end-
Digital images available:

Award winner
José "Pepe" Alvarez, pictured here at work in the forests of Peru, is the recipient of The Field Museum's 2006 Parker/Gentry Award. Established in 1996, the award honors an outstanding individual, team or organization in the field of conservation biology whose efforts have had a significant impact on preserving the world's rich natural heritage-and whose actions and approach can serve as a model to others. Photo courtesy of José "Pepe" Alvarez

New species of Neotropical bird
Herpsilochmus gentryi is the first bird discovered by José "Pepe" Alvarez and his colleague Bret Whitney, an ornithologist and research associate at Louisiana State University. They named it after Alwyn H. Gentry, one of the namesakes of the Parker/Gentry Award, of which Alvarez is the recipient for 2006. This ancient antwren is four inches long, yellowish with black spots, and restricted to an area between Peru and Ecuador. Photo courtesy of José "Pepe" Alvarez

Specialist of the fragile white-sand forests of Peru
Xipholena punicea lives in the white-sand forests of Peru, a nutrient-poor type of ecosystem that some scientists consider the most fragile forest type in the Amazon. It was identified as a new record for Peru by the work of José "Pepe" Alvarez, winner of The Field Museum's 11th annual Parker/Gentry Award.

Photo courtesy of José "Pepe" Alvarez

Field Museum

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