At 13, Gerardo Ceballos stood face-to-face with a mother jaguar and her two cubs.
This was around the time Ceballos, now a senior researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, was realizing he wanted to be a conservationist. His childhood in Mexico strongly imbued him with a desire to save animals.
He remembers his earliest memory of a wild animal, feeling excited to be holding a small water snake. A few years later, he found an opossum in an orchard and stared at it, fascinated. And he remembers visiting a lake filled with hopping frogs. He felt like he could have stayed there forever.
Ceballos walked away from that jaguar unscathed, thankfully, but with an experience he described as “magic.”
“There are several magic moments that you love and you care for. You see them in the wild, roaming freely,” Ceballos said. “It was a great part of my life, a very happy part of my life.”
Indianapolis Prize finalist Gerardo Ceballos helped establish Mexico’s Act for Endangered Species and protected habitats for the country’s wildlife. (Photo: Leopoldo Islas Flores, Provided by Gerardo Ceballos)
Now a finalist for the Indianapolis Zoo’s Indianapolis Prize, Ceballos has spent 30 years preserving species across North America. His status as finalist for the $250,000 prize recognizes his work to pass Mexico’s Act for Endangered Species, which protects about 4,000 plants and animals.
Around 800 species also live in habitats across Mexico protected in part by Ceballos’ hand. His research has exposed population losses in many land vertebrates and informed the 3,000 articles and 28 books he has published.
This is the third time Ceballos has been a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize.
Indianapolis Prize finalist Gerardo Ceballos helped establish Mexico’s Act for Endangered Species and protected habitats for the country’s wildlife. (Photo: Provided by Gerardo Ceballos)
Ceballos knew he wanted to help save animals from a very young age, he said, but at first he didn’t exactly know what that would look like.
“When I said I wanted to study animals, I didn’t know it was called biology,” Ceballos said. “It’s been a privilege to be able to work on conservation and what I do.”
uch of Ceballos’ drive centers on his reverence for Mexico and its ecosystems, from volcanoes and pine forests to both cold and warm coastlines. The country is habitat to thousands of species.
“I’m incredibly passionate about Mexico, because it’s one of the most diverse countries on Earth,” Ceballos said. “If we lose (plant and animal species) in Mexico, they’re gone forever … it’s a great responsibility.”
Indianapolis Prize finalist Gerardo Ceballos helped establish Mexico’s Act for Endangered Species and protected habitats for the country’s wildlife. (Photo: Provided by Gerardo Ceballos).
Sometimes Ceballos is surprised by the animals he encounters in Mexico. He recalls finding a population of wild bison in Mexico’s grasslands, much further south than one would expect to see them. As it turns out, he and his team had stumbled upon one of the southernmost populations of bison in the continent.
It’s moments like these, he said, that remind him of how special the country is.
“I would like to say to people that there are many reasons to try to save all the animals,” Ceballos said.
Unlike political, social or religious issues, environmental problems affect people globally. And many species are becoming extinct due to human actions, he said — this means it’s also humanity’s responsibility to save them.