When Héctor Caymaris became the only Park Ranger in Laguna de Rocha in Uruguay in 2001, it wasn’t the wild animals that were a threat, it was the wild people.
At the time, the area was exploited by hunters and poachers and overrun by four-wheel drivers. The lagoon was virtually empty of the native rodent capybaras and waterbirds. With great risk to his and his family’s safety, Héctor set out to change people’s attitudes to the area.
“Starting a cultural change is not easy,” he says. “It involves a lot of time and persistence to discourage the inappropriate use of natural resources. In this process, my wife and I received threats and insults, and were often the targets of shootings and moving vehicles.”
But Héctor did persist. With help from his wife Veronica, and with the support of like-minded locals, he turned around the hostility of cattlemen, fishermen and tourism operators.
“By maintaining high conservation goals, we managed not only to change the way the land was being used, but also created an awareness of the protected areas as a natural resource for the society,” he says.
It is hard to imagine what the 26-year-old Héctor thought when he became the only Park Ranger of an area of over 24,000 hectares that was abused by the local urban people. Having previously led a youth group that attended to visitors of Barra del Chuy, a seaside resort in northern Uruguay, taking responsibility for Laguna de Rocha must have been a daunting challenge.
But Héctor knew how to take charge of the situation. With little government support, and often without a reliable salary, Héctor did what he felt must be done. He was firm with unruly four-wheel drive operators, poachers and tourists; he worked with national and municipal authorities; and he established alliances with private property owners, educators and fisherman.
As poaching and exploitation of the lagoon decreased, the waterbirds returned to nest and the capybaras grew in numbers. The local community then began to appreciate the natural value of the site, with some even developing tourist activities.
Through his dedication and leadership, Laguna de Rocha was accepted as part of Uruguay’s National System of Protected Areas and became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, while Héctor was also pivotal in the creation of the Foundation of Friends of the Coastal Lagoons in Rocha, of which he is the Executive Director.
As one of his supporters states: “There really is a before and after in this area since he came here.”
Nearly ten years since taking on the challenge, Laguna de Rocha is now the Protected Area of Laguna de Rocha, Héctor is the Chief Ranger with three ranger staff, and the lagoon is the best place in Uruguay to spot capybaras.
In March 2011 Héctor’s work was recognized by IUCN WCPA and the International Ranger Federation when he was presented with the 2011 Young Conservationist Award.