International Park Ranger Course in Colorado: A leap from a natural paradise to mega development

September 21, 2016

By Freddy Villalva, manager of the Santa Cruz Tortoise Center.

Haga clic aquí para ver una versión en Español.

Fourteen years ago I emigrated to Galapagos from mainland Ecuador and almost immediately began my career as a Park Ranger with the Galapagos National Park. It is a privilege to be part of the team of rangers that works every day to ensure the long term conservation of Galapagos. When Don Fausto Llerena retired nearly two years ago, I became the manager of the Santa Cruz Tortoise Center, which gives me great pride but also great responsibility, for which I continually look for opportunities to expand my experience and knowledge.

Since becoming a park ranger, I have dreamed of not only continuing to receive training locally but also to have the opportunity to participate one day in an overseas course. I tried several times but for various reasons it never happened. In October 2015, I applied to the International Park Ranger Course at Colorado State University, to take place in May 2016. The possibility excited me, but first I had to find funding.

Park Rangers Wilson, Freddy, and Johannes

Eventually I received funding from various NGOs, including Galapagos Conservancy. I began my journey to the United States on May 19th, 2016, along with two fellow Galapagos park rangers, Wilson Cabrera and Johannes Ramírez Kastdalen. It was my first time leaving Ecuador. The trip was long, taking two days to reach Denver, our final destination. When we landed, I had my first and strong impression of this different world. The airport was huge and confusing (at least to me). We even had to take a train to reach the luggage claim area. Once making our way out of the airport, we were driven to Estes Park, a place surrounded by pine forests and snow-covered mountains. On our drive there, we saw deer and elk — incredible for me, having never seen such animals in person before.

World Ranger Course

For five days, we participated in the World Ranger Congress where we had the opportunity to share personal and work experiences with 365 fellow park rangers from 63 different countries. What an experience; we gained knowledge and shared successes and challenges of working in our many protected areas. I learned about different customs, languages, and cultures, and yet all of us with the same goal — conservation. At times our many languages created a communication barrier, but with the help of translators and using sign language we managed to understand one another.

Freddy Villalva in YellostoneWhen the Ranger Congress ended, we continued on to Colorado State University in Fort Collins for the International Park Ranger Course (this time in Spanish). Thirty rangers from Latin America participated. On our second day, we embarked on a nearly 1,900 mile tour to visit and learn about management of a variety of protected areas, including Colorado State Forest, Dinosaur National Monument, and Grand Teton National Park. After seven days of travel, we arrived at the place most park rangers dream of visiting — Yellowstone National Park.

I learned many things during the trip; I was particularly interested in talks on wildfires and visitor management. Throughout the journey I experienced indescribable emotions — seeing in person the incredible landscapes and species that I had only known through documentaries. The beautiful mountains and the deer, elk, herds of bison, wolves, and the awesome grizzly bear made me forget the great cold that we had to endure, especially those of us coming from warmer climates.

This journey was unforgettable, due in part to the knowledge gained and the spectacular sights, but also to experiencing another culture and living for a short while in what we call a developed country, where everything was new to me, from the expensive meals to the infinity of resources the rangers have at their disposal. Along the way, we also learned examples of things that should not be done for the management of a protected area.

World Ranger Course

My experience in Colorado and other western states has changed my perception of many things. I now know and better understand that there is an infinite world beyond my beloved Islands, which despite being different is totally awesome. This trip, for me, was like a second birth. I am more convinced than ever that my work is important not only for Galapagos, but for the world.

Freddy VillalvaFreddy Villalva Sánchez arrived in Galapagos 14 years ago from the city of Ambato, 75 miles from Quito. He is 37 years old. Over the past 13 years, he has worked as a park ranger for the Galapagos National Park. He currently manages the Santa Cruz Tortoise Center, where he ensures quality care of more than 1,200 giant tortoises.

Freddy has been a long-term collaborator of GC’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI). He participated in the 2012 workshop, Giant Tortoise Restoration through Integrated Research and Management, which provided the foundation for the GTRI, and in the 2014 review of the Galapagos National Park’s giant tortoise breeding and rearing centers. GC recently provided support for his participation in the Spanish-language park ranger course on management of protected areas at Colorado State University. Craig MacFarland, GC’s first chairman of the board, co-founded the course with Dr. George Wallace in 1990.  


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  1. Wonderful story! It is good to learn of people who are passionate about their work, and the environment. I feel the same passion for the Galapagos! Restoring and conserving nature (and particularly tortoises) is a superb contribution.

  2. We just returned from Galapagos and I just saw your article on the program at Colorado State University. Many years we have hosted a student from that program. It would have been great to meet Freddy etc.

  3. I salute you, Ranger Villalva, and hope and pray that many young people from Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands will dream of following in your footsteps. Your message gives a breath of fresh air. There are so many negative factors making your conservation work a challenge! I think this is the only way to save our world, intact, for our descendants. I support you in spirit and, as much as possible, through funding.
    Stay strong and enthusiastic, Freddy!

  4. Wow. Quite a story. Good is being done in the world, especially by groups like GC. Just like Freddy’s trip to Colorado and the Western US Parks, our trip to the Galapagos was spectacular and eye opening. So glad they did your trip so well and Freddy got to experience so much in addition to the Colorado State conference. The mistake we made was doing the 4 day, 3 night trip to the Galapagos instead of the 7 night version. Hoping to travel again in 2017. Enjoyed seeing the giant tortoise park where Lonesome George was living. Keep us the excellent work.

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