In 1961, NGOs and wetland specialists gathered at one of France’s largest wetlands, the Camargues region to call for an international agreement to protect wetlands: setting the scene for the Ramsar Convention.

60 years later, environmental researcher Hugo Ferreira studies Eurasian Spoonbill birds of Camargue across its 150,000 hectares of wetlands. A PhD student at the University of Aveiro, Hugo studies the birds’ migration route and behaviour, working in collaboration with Tour du Valat Research Institute.

Hugo’s interest in the natural world started early on, when he watched nature documentaries with his father. Following his passion and curiosity, Hugo completed his undergraduate and masters degrees in biology and ecology. Despite his educational background, he struggled finding the opportunities to apply his passion and knowledge especially in his home country of Portugal: “If we want young people to be interested/ involved in wetlands, we have to ensure that the opportunities are available to them. Finances and grants are extremely difficult to obtain for young people that are starting out, because grants target experts.”

But then Hugo discovered the European Volunteer Service which took him for the first time to the Tour du Valat. “At first, it was an intimidating experience”, he explains. After a long trip he arrived at what appeared to be a “wasteland”… and with people he could not understand. But it did not even take him 24 hours to see that wetlands are not wastelands: “I quickly fell in love with this magical place, full of life and energy. And I understood its people. I had the feeling that Camargue is my home and we need to protect it. I understood the need to protect places like this and how Camarque inspired the creation the Convention on Wetlands.”

Through his current PhD work which involves long field days and long computer hours, Hugo has appreciated the importance of patience in conservation: “Field days keep me going. Last winter, I did at least 10 nights in the field and only in one of those field days I was successful to spot the ringed Spoonbills. But to be in wetlands and to wait for and witness the sunrise surrounded by all this natural life is always majestic”.

For Hugo there is an urgent need to communicate about wetlands to the general public. He mentions the example of Lisbon, where a bridge connects metropolitan Lisbon to Tagus Estuary. “Even if there is a physical bridge connecting Lisbon to these wetlands, there is still a bridge missing in terms of interest, connection and appreciation of wetlands by the general population. Our next steps in wetlands conservation should be to construct these bridges globally through education, awareness and meaningful opportunities for young people”.

To the Convention on Wetlands and its stakeholders Hugo says “It is important to know that young people are here and are motivated to do more, but they need help! Support them, help them, it’s good to have fresh ideas, new experiences”.

Hugo is also a Power of Wetlands ambassador.

Story collected by Bidhya Sharma and Elise Allély-Fermé