Conserving Species by Empowering the Heroes and Sheroes of the Planet

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by Wally Van Sickle

Beyond the city limits of Panama City lies one of my favorite Latin American zoos – the Summit Nature Park of Panama.  I consider this zoo one of my favorites for several important reasons:

First of all, the zoo is surrounded by Soberania National Park.  With a good pair of binoculars you can see any number of wild birds flying in and around the zoo, including toucans, motmots, puff birds, and trogons.  Over 400 species of the 950 species of birds found in Panama have been seen in this national park.

Secondly, the zoo only exhibits native species.  You will not find tigers, pandas, giraffes, and all the other charismatic mega-fauna typically found at North American zoos. You will only see native Panamanian animals such as harpy eagles, jaguars, ocelots, spider monkeys, coatis, and Baird’s tapirs.  This type of zoo helps create a pride and awareness of local fauna and instills a strong conservation ethic among nationals.

Thirdly, the zoo emphasizes conservation education activities and invites bus load after bus load of young Panamanians to learn about the natural history of their amazing country and how to conserve it.  Over 50,000 bright eyed children visit the zoo every year.

Another reason I really appreciate this zoo is their commitment to amphibian conservation.  The worldwide decline in amphibians is especially acute in Central America.  In an attempt to stay ahead of this wave of extinction, this zoo has created the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC).  This center includes a lab, exhibition center, and most importantly, a captive breeding center for many of the endangered amphibians in Panama.

I highly recommend a visit to this zoo.  It is open 365 days a year and serves as an amazing introduction into the diversity of the tropics.


The ultimate success of a business or organization is often dependent on the pillars of competence and character traits of its leader.  Character traits must first be identified, then emphasized, and then required, recognized and rewarded.  Numerous positive character traits come to mind when I think of Adrian Benedetti.

On the Summit Nature Park web site Adrian describes passion and why passion is so important to the success of the zoo.  Adrian is filled with the very passion he describes.  He is also sincere, energetic, eager to learn and a quick study. He is young, charismatic and filled with humor.  In 2005, he became the director of the zoo and currently oversees daily operations and manages 45 personnel.  The zoo is being transformed from a city park zoo into a world class urban nature park largely due to his character and leadership skills.

Adrian received his B.A. in Humanities with a focus in sociology from the University of Colorado in May of 2002.  He began working for the Peregrine Fund Panama in 2004 and developed and implemented environmental education programs.  He gave hundreds of talks to both children and adults and specifically developed events that promoted the conservation of the harpy eagle.

If all that wasn’t enough for one person, Adrian also oversees the operations of the EVACC. This cutting edge facility is like an ark for endangered amphibians.  The facility already holds hundreds of native amphibians and will eventually house more than 40 species.  Seventeen of the forty are considered high priority in the world of conservation and will be captivity bred.  Future goals include implementation of reintroduction programs with the offspring.


One of the first things Adrian wanted to do was to recreate the environmental education department at the zoo.  Prior to his involvement, education was largely conducted by tour guides and not educators.  He initiated a multi-phase plan to offer dynamic and interesting education programs for the thousands of children who visit the zoo every year.

The first order of business was to rehabilitate the environmental education space.  This finished space allowed them to meet and conduct workshops, give lectures, and show movies to their many interested zoo goers – especially the tiny future heirs of the planet.

Phase two involved the training of his educational staff.  With help from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Adrian worked to create active environmental educators instead of passive tour guides.  They used the “Jaguars Forever” education manual as the basis for the training and translated two “International Bug Club” modules into Spanish.  This allowed for the formation of the first ever Bug Club of Panama!

These educational pilot programs will then be taken into neighboring schools and adaptations will be made to fit the realities of Panama.  Later derivations of these programs will be worked into continuous education programs and taught throughout the school year.  They will also create a mobile unit that will visit remote rural schools.

A key to the success of this environmental effort was an LCD projector, a laptop computer, and a screen to make all these ideas come to life in front of the children.  Adrian turned to IDEA WILD for those pieces of equipment and, of course, we were thrilled to participate in such a country-changing endeavor.

Project Cost:  $1150