The Art & Science of Saving Species in Costa Rica

This program explains the science behind conservation, challenging artists, designers and others to use their skills to communicate the critical role that the average person can play in saving endangered species in Costa Rica and beyond.

Program Information

Taught by author, educator, and wildlife veterinarian Dr. Lucy Spelman, this 3 credit course includes two weeks of online study (lectures, readings, and discussion), two weeks of travel, and two weeks to complete a final assignment.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals


Costa Rica is a well-known conservation success story—and yet, many protected species, such as the leatherback sea turtle, jaguar, and Harpy eagle, remain on the brink of extinction.

All GVI study abroad programs have a 6 week duration, but students will only be in country conducting field work on community or conservation projects for 2 weeks.
During the travel portion of the course, you will choose a species of interest and gather as much information about it as possible using all available resources. These include direct observation of the animal in its natural habitat, interviews with scientists and other experts, interviews with local people who may or may not interact with it, as well as surveying documentation detailing the threats to its survival. In the process, you will discover that conservation is more than a science; it is a decision-making process influenced by many factors, including our motivation to take action.

Some of the questions we will address during this course include:
What concepts, theories, and methods inform our research and debates about endangered species, the sixth mass extinction, conservation, and human impacts on the natural world?
How and by whom are conservation biology and ecology research studies conducted? How are the results applied to conservation?
How do we decide what species and/or ecosystems merit conservation?
What does the term “conservation” mean in the Costa Rican context? In what ways might this definition in other countries?
What species have been successfully protected in Costa Rica and why did the effort succeed? What are the measures of conservation success; of failure?
What are some ways you can use art to help more people understand how interdependent we are on other animals and that our continued success depends on a diverse and healthy animal kingdom?
How can we use art to motivate others to find new ways to ease conflict and restore damaged habitats? To encourage people to share resources with other species? For example, we can pay farmers for their losses or build fences, hire more rangers to stop poachers, invest in parks and reserves, and educate those who live in closest proximity how to live in balance with wildlife.
How can art informed by science engage more people in conservation? What are some examples?

The final assignment is a written paper accompanied by original artwork, designed to make the need to save species more real, meaningful, accessible, and achievable. You will gain skills in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting scientific data, and in visualizing and communicating science.

Program Details

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Project Life

During the program, you will be expected to take part in bird surveys, turtle research, and other conservation-related activities. You will also be taking part in guest lectures from local scientists, and perhaps even local artists in the community.

During the week’s hands on elements there will also be time to learn more about Costa Rican culture, successful sustainable development projects, and your individual reflections surrounding this academic experience.

The course is open to any participant with an interest in science and art, keeping in mind that the the final evaluation centers around the creation of a piece of art, or the formulation of an innovative way to communicate information about conservation to a non-scientific audience.

Single-sex accommodation is provided for the duration of the program.

Project Details

All of GVI’s programs have short, mid and long-term objectives that fit with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. This enables us to report on our collaborative impact across the world in a comprehensive manner, measuring upon which UN SDGs we are making a substantial contribution. The experiential component of your course is designed to advance GVI’s existing project work and will help our local partners achieve the goals they have set for their communities and enable GVI to continue making a positive and measuring our contribution to the UN SDGs.

Our goal is to educate you about local and global issues, so that you continue to act as an active global citizen after your course is completed, helping to fulfill our mission of building a global network of people united by their passion to make a difference.

What's Included

  • 24-hour emergency phone
  • 24-hour in-country support
  • Access to Alumni Services and Discounts
  • Airport pick-up (unless otherwise stated)
  • All necessary project equipment and materials
  • All necessary project training by experienced staff
  • Instruction and grade report
  • Location orientation
  • Long term experienced staff
  • Meals while on project (except on work placements for long term internships)
  • Safe and basic accommodations (usually shared)
  • Welcome meeting

What's Not Included

  • Additional drinks and gratuities
  • Extra local excursions
  • Flights
  • International and domestic airport taxes
  • Medical and travel insurance
  • Personal kit
  • Police or background check (where necessary)
  • School of Record transcript
  • Visa costs


Participating in a course with GVI not only allows you to participate in programs assisting disadvantaged communities or endangered ecosystems, but it also offers an insider’s glimpse into life the local area. Your time in Jalova could include beach cleanups, mangrove restoration, reforestation (depending on the time of the year and local needs), mural painting and more.

Our long-term field staff are a great source of advice, should you want to extend your time in Costa Rica. If you want to extend your time working on a GVI project or travel to other areas of the country, we are here to help you make the most of your time abroad. Remember to ask about discounts on local activities and side trips through your association with GVI.

The Team

Thjis Claes

Bird Poject Leader
Meet Thijs, our resident bird expert and project leader. Thijs was first attracted to GVI by the perfect mix of education, wildlife, science and communal living that we offer. He holds a Master in Biology (with a focus on freshwater biodiversity and ecosystem stability) and this knowledge comes in handy while in the field.

Thijs has explored deserts and swamp areas in southern Africa during a group journey, he has completed a Leadership and BST internships at GVI Jalova, and has volunteered for a scientific laboratory, governmental organisation and nature organisation. What is the best part about working for GVI? "Being in close contact with wildlife, the possibility to continuously learn and working in a close team towards valuable educational and sustainability goals."

Danny Guy

Jaguar Project Leader
Meet Danny, our nature loving jaguar project leader! Danny has some extensive volunteer and travel experience, including volunteering at Kariega Game Reserve in South Africa, and travelling to see and experience animals in the wild (South Africa, Kenya, Rawanda, Tansania and Borneo) where him ad his team usually camped in tents with basic equipment. He also completed a wildlife internship at Jalova Tortuguero with GVI and he was especially interested in gaining more hands-on experience through this experience.

He fondly recalls his favourite travel memory: "When volunteering in South Africa, after the day’s work, we were on our way back to our house when the big bull elephant stopped us just before our gate. We decided to watch him for a while as he proceeded to pull down one of the trunks of our fig tree treehouse. Once he’d pulled it down he called the rest of the herd up from the valley below. They stayed around the tree for the rest of the night and we had to drive around the back of our volunteer area and climb over the fence."

Cormac Healy

Base Manager
Meet Cormac, our lovely Base Manager in Jalova, Costa Rica. This Scotsman is a rather eccentric guy and his fantastic sense of humour is one of his most appreciated characteristics. He achieved a Master's degree in History and Politics, and quite evidently can keep his own in any conversation on any topic.

His love for travelling started in his younger years already and since then he has explored New Zealand, Canada, the states, and South Africa! What is his one travel must-have? "A towel of course (for further information please read a Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy)."

Mac first joined our office team as a GVI Country Expert for Thailand and Costa Rica and he particularly enjoys getting the chance to meet people who are really passionate about volunteering. He thinks of himself as Carl Frederickson from the movie Up. "Just a bloke who enjoys sitting in a comfy chair; I think we can all relate to that." Mac, we absolutely agree!

Shayle Havemann

Director of Programs
Meet Shayle, our innovative and driven director for all our projects around the world. She has two honours degrees, one in Industrial and Organisational Psycology, and another in Developmental and Education Psycology. Shayle also has over 10 years experience in setting up, managing and evaluating environmental and community programs across Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.

She is well-practiced in facilitating meaningful and effective intercultural engagement and this makes her the perfect person for overseeing our operations in the multicultural country of South Africa.

When not attending meetings or planning her next endeavour, Shayle can be found spending time with her family or taking part in some or other exciting outdoors activity!

Megan Brett

Incidentals Project Leader
Meet Megan, our Incidentals Project Leader in Jalova. She loves anoles, frogs, and all the other animals she can find in the jungle, which seems to be a good fit with what she is doing here with us at GVI. Megan has previous experience working on a dairy farm and with local conservation groups in New Zealand.

While working with GVI she gets plenty of chance to see and identify interesting animals. Costa Rica is quite a change from what she is used to but she loves the chance to use her training in zoology and ecology with a very different ecosystem than any she would find in New Zealand, her home country.

Laura Dix-Bowler

Business & Systems Analyst
Meet Laura. In addition to once being a promising figure skater, Laura is also a trained animal handler, and used to volunteer at a zoo in NYC. She likens herself to Blossom from the Powerpuff Girls, “She’s the brains of the operation”. We can’t argue there, HQ would fall apart without her!

She joined the Costa Rica Wildlife Expedition as a volunteer and immediately knew there was no going back to working for The Man. She became an ambassador and started planning her next trip when we sent her the Regional Coordinator vacancy. 5 weeks later she was in Cape Town!

Laura’s one travel must-have she recommends to volunteers? Coconut Desert Essence shampoo… “It smells amazing and it’s environmentally friendly. No-one should have to sacrifice their hair while travelling, even in remote environments.”

Cynthia Arochi Zendejas

Costa Rica Country Director
Meet Cynthia, our Country Director in Costa Rica. She started out with GVI as one of our National Scholarship Program participants in 2006 and later became our Programme Coordinator in Mexico. Her skills and enthusiasm just made it too hard to let her get away!

Cynthia is a certified Veterinarian, an EFR Instructor and holds a Master’s degree in International environmental Science. She is also a member of the Mesoamerican Society for Biology and Conservation, chapter Costa Rica.

The most interesting things she’s experienced during life in the field? “Watching the turtles hatching! Also finding jaguar tracks and being able to participate in community tours.” Apart from those, Cynthia also loves arranging and participating in the fun Charity Challenges with volunteers.

What does Cynthia think volunteers bring to the projects? Since our goal is to provide support to local organisations which don’t have the human or economic resources to achieve their conservation or sustainable development objectives, our volunteers play a key role by being the hands needed, or helping to fund raise for those projects.”

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  • 2019

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