April 24, 2018
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College of the Atlantic student is first youth delegate for international conference on wildlife trade

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

Marissa Altmann, a student at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, will become the first youth delegate to attend an international conference of CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora — in March.

Altmann will travel to Bangkok, Thailand, to participate in the CITES 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties held March 3-14.  She will be a delegate from the Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research complex, where she recently worked as an intern and research assistant.

“I cannot wait to meet these people and talk to them and see what they’re worried about and excited about,” said Altmann, 21. “It’s definitely a huge adventure. I’m going by myself and meeting the other delegates when I get to Bangkok.”

CITES is an international treaty drawn up in 1973 to protect wildlife against over-exploitation and to prevent international trade from threatening species with extinction.

At the convention, delegates will determine the regulations on the import and export of various plants and animals internationally.

“People have different proposals to add different species to different appendices [regulation categories],” Altmann said. “But then, when you get into things like rhinos and sharks and turtles, there are certain working groups for things that are really key issues. There’s tons of elephant meetings.”

Originally from Brookfield, Conn., Altmann recently spent nearly a year interning in the Mammalogy Division of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It was her work at the museum that led her to the CITES delegation. As the Smithsonian’s delegate, Altmann will be taking careful notes for the Smithsonian’s senior policy advisor.

“It will be interesting to see how much I actually contribute,” Altmann said. “I think it’s a good thing and important for students to be represented. I know it’s going to be a really good opportunity to meet people and see how decisions are made and to explore what my options are for a career.”

Conference observers include representatives of the Crocodile Cooperatives of Thailand, Indonesia Reptile & Amphibian Trade Association, African Wildlife Foundation, Elephant Advocacy League, International Rhino Foundation, National Geographic Society, Tiffany & Co. and Yale University. Decisions will be made by delegations — or parties — representing 177 governments.

As a private sector advisor, Altmann can advise the head of the U.S. delegation, Daniel Ashe, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“In the U.S. delegation, a lot of the people are from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration),” Altmann said. “I’m going to get to know them really well. We’re going to have meetings every day.”

At the conference, Altmann plans to engage in discussions relating to scientific collections, such as electronic permitting for loaning specimens to CITES-approved institutions such as the Smithsonian. But she also plans to attend meetings she personally finds interesting, such as the U.S. proposal for polar bears to be moved to Appendix 1, which “includes species threatened with extinction and provides the greatest level of protection, including restrictions on commercial trade,” according to a document from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Altmann’s love for animals and scientific collections began at a young age, as she wandered through American’s Museum of Natural History in New York City, where her mother works.

“I’ve been there probably an unhealthy amount of times,” Altmann said.

In high school, she took courses in anatomy, zoology and biology before heading to COA, where she argued her way into a mammalogy class designed for seniors during her freshman year.

Through extensive networking, Altmann met Darrin Lunde, collection manager at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who helped her secure two internships at the museum in 2011 and 2012.

In the Smithsonian’s mammalogy collection of about 600,000 specimens, Altmann stored, archived and labeled a variety of specimens, including 200 African rats. By her second internship, she was assisting researchers and working on her own senior project for COA on Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 African expedition, which she presented at the American Anthropological Association conference in San Francisco last fall.

Over the past four years, Altmann has become increasingly interested in people’s interactions with wildlife in different cultures. She has also developed an awareness of the emotional reasons for the disproportionate amount of research and protections given to certain species, especially those referred to as “charismatic megafauna.”

“They’re usually larger animals that are charismatic — either we think they’re cute or magnificent in some way,” said Altmann. “That includes your bears and carnivores in general, whales — the animals that get public attention for whatever reason. There are cultural reasons for that, I believe. You don’t tend to see commercials on TV about donating to bat conservation efforts.”

Altmann is always surprised when she meets someone who lives in Maine who doesn’t know about white-nose syndrome, which is killing off the state’s bats.

“I think people should be communicating about the big picture of conservation — how many resources do we have and maybe where should we be putting them,” she said. “I think everyone has a say, and everyone should be informed. Maybe we do want to preserve the things that are culturally important to us. If we do, that should be a conscious decision.”

During her time at COA, Altman received a Maine Space Grant to study parasite interaction between periwinkles and microscopic worms known as trematodes. She also collaborated with Acadia National Park to collect acoustic, or sound-based, data on bat foraging behavior, and recently received an additional Maine Space Grant to survey bats at historic roosting sites, which she will began after returning from her adventure in Thailand.

To learn about CITES, visit www.cites.org.

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