CHESTERTOWN — Washington College graduate and Mid-Shore resident Norman Greenhawk has won the 2021 National Geographic Explorer Award for Project Palaka, a conservation project for native Philippine amphibians.

Greenhawk was raised in Cordova. He graduated from Easton High School, then attended Washington College where he studied environmental science. He graduated in 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

“I’ve always liked both reptiles and amphibians,” Greenhawk said in a Zoom interview from the Philippines Monday, Nov. 22. “Ever since I was a kid.”

Greenhawk recalled his grandmother telling him to go outside when he was growing up, which he said he never wanted to do.

“As soon as I was outside, a switch had been flipped and all I wanted to do was catch toads, chase the little skinks, turtles, anything like that. That’s what I enjoyed doing as a child,” Greenhawk said.

As a teenager, Greenhawk kept reptiles and amphibians as pets. He even bred some on a small scale.

“It’s just something that I’ve always focused on,” Greenhawk said.

In 2008, Greenhawk was living in Puerto Rico doing tropical ecology, working with reptiles and amphibians. It was because of this work that Greenhawk decided to do a conservation project in the Philippines as part of his Fulbright scholarship.

“There’s nobody doing captive breeding,” Greenhawk said of his trying to figure out what he had to offer to the conservation work in the Philippines. “There’s a lot of species of amphibians that are in native conservation. ... Nobody had tried the captive breeding approach.”

In 2015, Greenhawk was awarded a Fulbright, and moved to the Philippines to partner with the University of the Philippines, Los Baños.

“That first project was basically to demonstrate the feasibility of such a project,” Greenhawk said of their attempts at developing captive care protocols for ex-situ — or off-site — conservation using species with stable populations.

That research became known as Project Palaka.

After his Fulbright research ended, Greenhawk shut the project down and moved back to Puerto Rico.

“I had always kept in the back of my mind restarting the project,” Greenhawk said.

During that time, Greenhawk completed his master’s degree in environmental science from the University of Puerto Rico in 2019.

Greenhawk eventually partnered with Amphibian Ark, an organization involved in amphibian conservation.

He researched a critical endangered species — one that is so threatened that if immediate action is not taken it will go extinct — of frogs in the Philippines called platymantis insulatus, or the island forest frog.

“I thought, ‘Well, we demonstrated that this project can be done, so if I were to move back to the Philippines, it’s time to start working with some species that actually needs conservation efforts,’” Greenhawk said.

He partnered again with the University of the Philippines and moved back to the Philippines in 2019.

Greenhawk’s Fulbright research would become Phase I of Project Palaka. Phase II is the conservation efforts of the island forest frog.

Also a part of Phase II is an expansion of facilities, goals and the list of reptiles and amphibians to conserve. There will also be additional outreach and education efforts, working with students at every level.

Despite being back in the Philippines, Greenhawk’s project could not begin again right away for lack of funding.

Greenhawk next partnered with Asian Species Action Partnership, which was looking for someone to do work with the island forest frog species.

From there, financial partnerships with Mandai Nature, Synchronicity Earth and Stiftung Artenshutz were formed.

It was during this time that Greenhawk submitted an application to National Geographic for funding for Project Palaka. He secured that funding by winning the 2021 National Geographic Explorer Award.

Greenhawk recalled growing up and watching nature shows with his grandparents, including National Geographic documentaries.

“We finally made it to the field to actually collect these frogs this last July,” Greenhawk said.

Tuesday, Nov. 23 marked the milestone of 100 days in captivity for the frogs. Breeding for the frogs has not begun yet, but they are maintaining and gaining weight. Breeding will likely begin in March.

Aside from work in the Philippines, Greenhawk also is interested in working with the communities he has come to be a part of throughout his career.

As of September, Greenhawk has a Maryland nonprofit incorporation — Harris Conservation Initiative for Reptiles and Amphibians — named after his grandparents.

Through the initiative, he hopes to give back and provide opportunities for low-income students to do collaborative environmental research.

“Just looking at the opportunities I’ve had, I would love for other students to have it as well,” Greenhawk said.

He said the program would likely work where students from one country were able to do research in another based on the partnerships he has formed in the countries he has worked in.

That project is still in the development stage, but Greenhawk hopes it will take off in the next year or two.

More information on Project Palaka can be found at projectpalaka.org or facebook.com/projectpalaka.

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