Colombian conservationist Ana María Morales was on her way to a pro-golf career, but found her true passion: birds of prey –also known as raptors– which she now helps to conserve on Colombia’s pacific coast.

Morales, who now works with the Fundación Aguilas de los Andes (FADA or Eagles of the Andes Foundation) which runs the only rehabilitation center for birds of prey in Colombia, was born and raised in Bogotá, Colombia and started playing golf as a little girl.

Then, in her third semester of studying undergraduate veterinary science, she got a scholarship to a college in the US to play golf and study wildlife biology.

“I was a student-athlete, I was focused on golf more than my major, which I kinda regret because I could’ve done so much more if I had better advice when it came to wildlife science,” Morales said.

Morales says after graduating in 2011, she spent two year playing golf competitively, including 4 tournaments in Florida in 2013, but ran out of money and ended up doing a masters while joining the golf coaching team of her college.

“That last year of my Masters in, 2014 to 2015, I got involved in wildlife rehab and that’s when everything clicked, and I finally found what really made me happy: raptors.”

At this time, she interned with the Raptor Education Group Inc in Wisconsin, learning about rehabilitation, education, and raptor training.

After working with them for a year, she came back to Colombia to work with FADA.

“We help raptors that have been trafficked, kept as pets, and/or that have been shot at,” she said, “We do mostly rehabilitation of birds of prey, but we also work in education and research, all of this to help mitigate the human-raptor conflict and help in the conservation of birds of prey of Colombia.”

She says her current main project is with four people, from three different institutions, working towards the conservation of raptors in a reserve called Jardín Botánico del Pacífico, in the Chocó region of Colombia.

“We want to monitor an occupied Ornate hawk-eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) nest as well as to look for other raptor nests and this monitoring is going to allow us to study the diet as well as reproductive behaviors and development of the chick,” she said.

Morales says she also wants to make this conservation project sustainable by involving the community as guides for bird watching or even scientific tourism at the reserve. 

She says the organisation’s flagship species is the Black-and-chestnut eagle (Spizaetus isidori) but they aim to mitigate human conflict with all raptor species.

“As the agriculture frontier advances so does the deforestation which brings the raptors closer to human settlements increasing the chances of them preying on domestic animals which fuels the conflict,” she said, “This is especially true with the Black-and-chestnut eagle but it is also true for other raptor species like the Harpy eagle.”

Morales says that since the Black-and-chestnut eagle is considered endangered (EN) by the IUCN, and no population studies have been done, the team needs to keep on working hard to save each individual they can.

Morales says that her story shows there is no one correct path in STEM

“As you can see my career in STEM has not been planned at all even though I’m a planner, but in this aspect I have just gone with the flow and it has allowed me to to network in a way that I have been able to develop certain projects I want to work on,” she said, adding that pursuing her passion means supporting herself a day job while working on different projects.

Another Colombian woman who is studying the country’s unique biodiversity is entomologist Diana Obregon.

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Obregon, a PhD student at Cornell University, has been trying to find out the role pesticides play in the decline of the bees that pollinate Lulo Solanum quitoense fruits (known as lulo), which is iconic in Colombia.