After battling visa bureaucracy, environmentalists Verné Dove and Troy Saville are closing a chapter on their life in Colombia. As the founders of the nation’s chapter of ‘Sea Shepherd’ they return to Australia to continue their work with endangered animals. They leave behind an invaluable lesson as to why all Colombians must continue to work towards conservation issues and the survival of species.

When you meet an Australian, you inevitably end up talking about the Barrier Reef that extends up the Gold Coast, the dunes of the outback and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose fleet of vessels attack Japanese whalers.

The fight between Sea Shepherd and Japan’s whaling fleet is high profile and personal. In the press, their tactics have often been questioned for endangering crews by throwing flares onto vessels or tangling ropes in propellers. But there are many who increasingly support these “extreme” tactics, as whale populations in our lifetime have been driven to the edge of extinction; and in the age of media immediacy, television programs such as Animal Planet’s ‘Whale Wars’ turn marine massacres into primetime entertainment.

The relentless attacks by Sea Shepherd has forced Japan to cut short its hunt, escorting industrial whalers fleets back to port and hence, giving migrating whales a second chance for survival. With a generous Pacific shoreline, perfect vistas for whale spotting and entire communities dependent on tourism money from the seasonal spectacle – when from July to October hundreds of giant humpbacks come to breed in the warm currents of the Chocó – Colombia should be a direct beneficiary of Sea Shepherd’s “hit and ram” tactics. This year, record numbers of whales are expected in the warm currents of the Colombian Pacific.

Like many volunteers who join Sea Shepherd, Dr. Verné Dové and her husband Troy Saville knew that their skills as veterinarians and animal rights activists could be put to good use in Colombia.

Even though environmental groups are always in need of wealthy benefactors, there are those who contribute in other ways: by sharing knowledge and time with the organization, or trekking off to foreign countries. For Verné and Troy, their mission in Colombia was to work closely with pink river dolphins, and an endangered mammal under threat by Colombia’s high levels of contaminants (Mercury, PCBs), pollution and reckless river transport.

Growing up in Melbourne, Verné “came to dolphins” via a dolphin park and grants from Murdoch University to finish a series of mini Masters in Veterinary Science. Hardly did she imagine that her work at home would take her and Troy Saville, then manager of the ‘Oceanarium,’ into the tributaries of the Mekong to study why the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins were dying out at an alarming rate. “He thought I was a ditzy blond chick that would never actually do anything with dolphins,” remembers Verné of her encounter with the man who would move with her to the highlands of Colombia and be her husband. “I proved him wrong.”

From research on wild dolphins and the negative effects of eco-tourism on breeding and populations, Verné and Troy decided in 2006 to take a job in Cambodia to study the Mekong river dolphin, and they both volunteered with the World Wildlife Fund in Southeast Asia on conservation issues and funded by the Australian Government. The year Verné and Troy arrived in Cambodia; the government put the dolphins on the National Heritage List alongside the Angkor Wat Temples. Despite a newly set up Dolphin Commission, the river populations were dying off and calves were increasingly becoming sick from pesticides in the Mekong. Instead of trying to incentive eco-tourism, the endangered river dolphins were a “political hot potato” and during the year of the listing in 2006, Verné logged between 70 and 80 freshwater Irrawaddy in the Mekong delta of which 69 percent of all mortalities, were neo-natal calves. “It’s been ten years since they have had a baby that has survived” claims Dr. Dove.

Verné’s research into premature dolphin death pointed to a worrying trend that these mammals were suffering like humans from immunosuppressant disorders, caused not by one, but many factors. The “life project” on dolphin disease extended Verné’s and Troy’s stay in Cambodia from one to four years as no-body had set out to document the plight of the Mekong dolphin as had this couple.

The effects of gold mining along the Mekong and malaria pesticides, compounded with computer waste and other PCBs, create a toxic soup for mammals. Conclusions: river dolphins can be afflicted with a type of HIV and die when they can no longer fight certain bacteria.

On the frontline to save the dolphins in Cambodia, Dr. Dove kept up her involvement in Sea Shepherd and through the advice of close friends within the organization were motivated to start new re- search in areas such as the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, where pink river dolphins are not only an important tourist attraction, but for many fishermen, a nettlesome competitor for catch and hence killed.

With Sea Shepherd founder Captain Paul Watson and Australian Director Jeff Hanson kept “in the loop” as to Verné’s and Troy’s plans to join a Sea Shepherd ship, an opportunity arose for them to settle in Colombia thanks to Fernando Trujillo, the scientific director of the Omacha Foundation and an NGO set up in 1993 to promote conservation issues in his native Colombia. Tracking Verné’s work with mysterious diseases, Trujillo, winner of the 2007 Whitley Gold Award for Conservation, invited Verné to join his team in the Amazon and in a very short time, became good friends. In March 2011, they seized the opportunity to come to Colombia.

Verné took her field research to Los Andes University where she worked closely with biologists studying Colombia’s marine life.  Samples from 50 dead Irrawaddy dolphins arrived at the prestigious university and together with Susana Caballero, an award-winning dolphin geneticist, the scientists started examining theories on dolphin sickness and how immune systems and the effect of in breeding affect disease.

When not in Bogotá, Verné and Troy headed to the Amazon, working in the dolphin’s natural habitat and with the research facilities of the scientific station and jungle lodge Palmari nestled on the Brazil – Peru border.

Verné’s research led her to the Orinoco River where dolphins migrated there some 50 million years ago, and to land-locked Bolivia, where the grey marine dolphin is under threat from overfishing and pollution. “Our objective was to take a picture of what is happening now with the health assessment of dolphins in the region, so that in ten years time, we can turn around and see what we have done right,” claims Troy.

But beyond the scientific papers and busy university schedule, Verné and Troy were proud to have set up the first chapter of Sea Shepherd in Colombia. During the start of the whale season and which has already brought humpbacks to the Chocó, the recruitment of future Sea Shepherd members is indicative of a growing awareness among Colombians of the importance of preserving this country’s vulnerable marine life. “Dolphins are hardly the cuddly creatures they are made out to be,” claims Verné. “But they are very much like us. When they get sick, we get sick. They are a critical indicator of the health of our planet.” And these two environmental crusaders depart Colombia with their young son Jaidal to their new horizons, we should be reminded constantly that anyone can become a kind ‘shepherd’ to our vulnerable whales and dolphins.