In and around the town of Junin, Peru, West Virginia University student Shannon Behmke is known as the “frog girl.”
Stationed in the South American country as an Environmental Peace Corps Volunteer, Behmke has devoted much of her time to creating a conservation plan for the endangered giant Lake Junín frog an effort that helped her earn Peace Corps Peru Volunteer Excellence Award.
Nominated by peers and selected by Peace Corps staff, recipients of the Volunteer Excellence Award are recognized for their dedication and passion to their jobs and embodying the very best of the Peace Corps.
Busy with her research, Behmke hadn’t been able to check her e-mail for several days and learned she won the award through another Peace Corps volunteer.
When asked how she felt in that moment, Behmke said, “I was incredibly happy and most likely scared the people in the taxi due to my rapid talking and excitement that would have been contained in my room if I had learned about the award via e-mail.”
Behmke is a member of the WVU Peace Corps Masters International program which allows graduate students to combine the pursuit of a master’s degree with a full tour of service with the Peace Corps organization.
Housed within the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, the program offers students programs in the areas of forest resources management; plant and soil sciences; recreation, parks and tourism resources; and wildlife and fisheries resources.
“We are very proud of Shannon for her accomplishments and proud of all WVU graduate students who make the extraordinary commitment to serve as Peace Corps volunteers,” said Todd Petty, professor of wildlife and fisheries resources and PCMI program coordinator. “The success that Shannon has enjoyed speaks the success of the PCMI program and how it is attracting exceptional students to Morgantown and to the Davis College. It is our goal to bring these bright young people to WVU, teach them what we know, and then send them out into the world to do great things.”
Prior to deploying for her Peace Corps assignment, the Bethlehem, Pa., native completed initial coursework in pursuit of a master’s degree in wildlife and fisheries resources.
While on campus she conducted field research under the direction of Todd Katzner, research assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries resources, on vultures to monitor levels of environmental contaminants with a special focus on lead.
Once Behmke completes her volunteer service she will return to Morgantown to fulfill the remaining requirements for her degree.
Arriving in Peru in September 2012, she spent 10 weeks developing language and technical skills, learning about the culture, and learning ways to ensure her safety and security while the organization determined her site placement for the next two years.
In November 2012, Behmke arrived in Junin, located at the southern section of the Junin National Reserve, to begin her Peace Corps service as a Protected Areas Facilitator.
Located in the Andes Mountains at over 4,100 meters, the town and its people are rich in history and culture.
“The people of Junin are strong and friendly people who love their culture and will answer any and all questions you may have about it,” Behmke said. “Being that Junin was a key battleground in the fight for Peru’s independence, the area is also rich in history, and traditional dress is worn by the older women of the town.”
Where its climate and ecosystem are concerned, Junín’s year is divided between a rainy season and a dry season with cold temperatures year-round. The town and National Reserve are located on a plateau featuring flat, treeless, low-shrubbery terrain.
“With this unique ecosystem and the extreme altitude come the most beautiful and seemingly close clouds you have ever seen,” Behmke said. “It’s truly a place you need to visit to understand its beauty entirely.”
Shortly after arriving at the site, she discovered that the giant Lake Junín frog (Telmatobius marcostomus) was on the verge of extinction. She approached the local park service in charge of protecting the biodiversity of the reserve with the idea of starting a conservation program for the frog.
Officials with Servico Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado (SERNANP) told her “it was impossible.”
“Years prior an organization of the Peruvian government created several captive breeding facilities around the Junín National Reserve and removed a portion of the endangered frog population from its natural environment to place them in these bare-bone facilities,” Behmke said. “They did this without first understanding the frog in its natural environment and without even a rough estimate of population size.”
As a result, the program failed and the captive breeding facilities were abandoned.
But Behmke was determined to persevere.
“I continued to do internet research because of this previous interest Junín had in conserving their frog as well as the urgent need to conserve this high-Andean endemic, endangered, and data-lacking species,” she said.
As Behmke puts it, “the stars aligned with a broken link and a simple e-mail.”
From there, an international collaboration between SERNANP and the Denver Zoo took off.
In October 2013, Behmke and researchers from both organizations, along with the help of a facilitator from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), hosted a three-day workshop dedicated to developing a conservation strategy for the Giant Lake Junin Frog.
“It was a success with a consistent attendance of 25 to 30 people daily who created the community-involved strategy to conserve the frog that the IUCN is currently in the process of organizing and posting to its website,” she said.
Piggybacking on the success of the workshop and expressed interest from her partners in furthering the conservation program, Behmke drafted a grant proposal to begin consistent, protocol-driven monitoring of the frog to create baseline data of the population size and distribution of the species.
While she was writing the proposal, Behmke was thrilled when a local mother and daughter brought a dead frog to the SERNANP office.
“Although the frog was dead, this was an excellent indicator of the progression of the program,” she said. “It shows us that word of the frog program is getting around town and demonstrates a continued interest on the part of the community in the conservation of their frog, as well as a desire to understand its current predicament. Also, it gives us a sample to test for heavy metals and chytrid. It’s amazing how so many positive things can come from a single action.”
Although the grant proposal is still being reviewed, Behmke says the initial feedback was positive.
While it may seem her time abroad has been smooth sailing, Behmke notes she has faced many challenges along the way from language barriers to adapting to the altitude.
One of the most troublesome hurdles has been unwanted attention from locals.
“I look different,” she says. “I’m blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned and am the only person that looks like this in my site, so naturally I stick out like a sore thumb. However, speaking Spanish with strangers and explaining what I’m doing here helps little by little to reduce the amount of unwanted attention I receive.”
Despite the challenges, Behmke would never change her experience.
“It is difficult for me to think of my life without Junín and the wonderful people I have met and work with here,” she said. “Even though I will have lived here for only two years of my life, I am constantly amazed at how much this place has become a part of me and my future plans. In fact, I don’t foresee a future where I am completely removed from Junín or the conservation work we have worked so hard to create.”
If earning the respect of her on-site colleagues and being awarded the Volunteer Excellence Award are any indication, those feelings are likely reciprocated.
CONTACT: Lindsay Willey, Public Relations Specialist
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