Having also been accepted to two other colleges in South Carolina, Lander University wasn’t Elisa Howansky’s first choice. Deciding to major in biology, however, seemed like a no-brainer.
“Ever since I was a child, I always loved biology,” Howansky said. “I spent most of my childhood watching nature and paleontology documentaries. I have never had a doubt in my mind about the fact that the field of biology is where I belong.”
That sense of belonging Howansky first felt in the field of biology became an important factor when it came to calling Lander a home away from home for four years. For Howansky, and for many other students and alumni, too, the welcoming environment at Lander—the fellowship that runs through the Lander community—is something that can’t be replicated on other college campuses.
“The connections, both personal and professional, I’ve made here are ones I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” said Howansky. “I have learned so much more than I would have if I had attended a larger university. I feel like it was fate that I ended up here. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
And as that fate would have it, studying at Lander also afforded the senior Honors College student a summer break-away experience of a lifetime: the chance to care for the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands while stationed in the Arnaldo Tupiza Tortoise Breeding Center of Galapagos National Park.
The internship opportunity was offered through International Outreach Initiatives (IOI), an organization dedicated to both improving conservation efforts, as well as the quality of life for local residents of isolated communities like Puerto Villamil, where Howansky stayed.
To complete the break-away experience, they were asked to write a blog at the request of Dr. Lillian Craton, director of the Honors College, chronicling not only the day-to-day activities of the internship, but also discussing the effects of ecotourism on conservation efforts.
Though the giant tortoises have no natural predators, human populations have contributed to the introduction of rats, ants and dogs, all of which have led to a dangerous decline in the tortoise population.
“These predators cannot harm them once their shell hardens—at about ten years old—but when they are babies, the ants and rats eat them out of their shells,” Howansky explained. “Dogs eat their eggs and generally stress them out. This is why places like the breeding center are so important. It gives the baby tortoises a safe place to grow up until they are ready to be released.”
While some in the conservation community believe that ecotourism can be a hindrance to conservation, Howansky believes that it can have a net positive effect. It provides locals with a source of income, which discourages them from eating wild animals in secret or illegally importing animals from the mainland that may pose risks to the ecosystem. Tourism dollars are also re-invested in conservation, such as through the recruitment of volunteers who can keep protected areas clean of garbage and can help keep human activity to a minimum.
As they described in a blog post, COVID-19 provided conservationists with a lens through which to see life without the benefits of ecotourism. During the worst days of the pandemic, the islands saw very few visits from tourists. This meant less income for residents, and fewer volunteers to assist with conservation.
“The people struggled to feed themselves during that time,” Howansky wrote, noting that many turned to importing chickens, ducks and livestock to survive. This disturbed the island’s natural environment, with some of those animals making their way into protected areas.
The financial cost of international travel proved to be an obstacle in the months leading up to the trip. So, Howansky set up an account with GoFundMe, an online crowdfunding platform that allows users to raise money for big life events like Howansky’s internship.
After being shared by Craton and other members of the Lander family on social media, dozens of Bearcats stepped up to the plate—including several Honors College alumni who knew what traveling abroad meant for them during their time at Lander. With only a few hours left in the campaign, and with still a long way to go to reach Howansky’s fundraising goal, Lander alumna Frannie Weiland made one last donation, accounting for nearly half of Howansky’s travel expenses.
The two Lander alumni shared some things in common. Weiland was a member of the Honors College at Lander, and they are both the first in their respective families to attend college. And, like Howansky, Weiland also knew the financial challenges of traveling to another country.
Recalling that it was her own summer internship in Kenya that helped her confirm her calling to be a nurse, and wanting someone else to have that same experience abroad, Weiland was inspired to pay it forward.
“I wish every student could wake up in a foreign country, feel that sunshine on their face, and have that ‘this is what I was made for’ moment,” Weiland said. “To this day, I’m in awe of that experience and believe it will be one of my greatest adventures… Everyone deserves that moment.”
Howansky’s own “moment,” working as an intern with the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, provided unforgettable life lessons on independence and navigating another country,
in addition to cementing a strong passion for preserving the natural world.
“I had never previously been abroad,” said Howansky. “I had never been to the ocean before. I totally went out of my comfort zone for this trip!”
This story is featured in the Spring 2023 edition of Lander Magazine. Read more at www.lander.edu/magazine.