Earlier this year, American conservationist Kristine (Kris) McDivitt Tompkins helped reintroduce the jaguar to Argentina’s Iberá wetlands— 70 years after hunting and habitat loss drove the species to extinction—through Rewilding Argentina, the partner organization to Tompkins Conversation, which Tompkins co-founded with her late husband, Doug.
Mariua, an adult jaguar who was rescued as an orphan in Brazil, and her two cubs were released into Gran Iberá Park in January 2021, the first of nine jaguars slated to repopulate the species in the protected area, created in part with lands donated by Tompkins Conservation. Dubbed “rewilding,” the process fights the extinction crisis by reintroducing native species that are endangered or locally extinct.
At any given time, Tompkins and her team are working on the rewilding of a dozen species, from giant anteaters and Red-and-green macaws to Darwin’s rhea, as part of their worldwide conservation efforts.
“It has taken ten very complicated, costly, and nerve-wracking years to make this happen,” says Tompkins of the jaguar rewilding in Argentina. “All reintroductions are tough, but the benefit, then, is that you really feel each of the victories.”
No stranger to trials and tribulations, Tompkins is the former CEO of Patagonia, Inc., a world-renowned “anti-corporation” known for its commitment to fighting the climate crisis. In 1993, however, Tompkins retired and married her match in Doug, founder of The North Face and co-founder of Esprit. The nature-loving duo decided to leave corporate America and instead devote their funds, time, and passion to biodiversity conservation, specifically with national parks.
In the years both preceding and following Doug’s death in 2015, Tompkins Conservation has protected approximately 14.5 million acres of parklands in Chile and Argentina, adding more than ten million acres of parkland to Chile, which has been billed as the largest donation of land from a private entity to a country in history.
Tompkins sees the creation of parks, however, as a starting point. Just as important is to restore their ecosystems to be whole and functional. This includes bringing back missing species, which have key ecological functions.
“If I’m proud of one thing, I’m very proud of my husband and what he did with his life,” says Tompkins. “We are known for being a relatively small team, and we push the throttle non-stop. I’m turning 70 this year, but I live with a giant clock on my shoulder. The clock is ticking on the natural world and with species going extinct.”
On May 6, Tompkins will keynote the Field Museum’s annual Women in Science event, hosted virtually by the Museum’s Women’s Board and co-chaired by Beth Glass and Jeannie Tisbo, which funds ten high-school and undergraduate summer internships, a graduate fellowship, and a postdoctoral position. Since the program’s inception, proceeds from the event have directly supported more than 80 women at various points in their scientific careers.
Tompkins will be in conversation with Chicago-area native Wendy Paulson, who has dedicated her career to education and conservation action. A longtime participant in native grassland restoration, Paulson chairs the Bobolink Foundation, which focuses on advancing the conservation and stewardship of biodiversity through the protection of natural areas, education, and building local constituencies for nature. She recently stepped down as founding chairman of the Cook County Forest Preserve’s Conservation and Policy Council.
“Wendy is a good friend of mine, and I want us to talk about the next generation of conservation,” says Tompkins. “I hope we can make the case for working fast and for acting, rather than sitting on the sidelines. Conservationists today have to work extremely quickly. I’ll definitely
be sharing more about my experience and what I’ve learned so far.”
Adds Paulson, who co-chairs the Field Museum’s Keller Science Action Center Advisory Committee, “I am a huge admirer of what Kris has done and find her vision—and ability to follow through—enormously impressive. Our conversations inevitably focus on conservation— the challenges and opportunities—and are always a lot of fun.”
The Field Museum Women in Science program actively advocates for the participation of women in science. So, female students from the Women’s Board’s partners in Chicago Public Schools—Orr Academy High School, STEM – Solorio Academy High School, and ITW David Speer Academy—will have the rare opportunity to participate in a private virtual conversation with Tompkins and Paulson.
And based on the success of past Women in Science Luncheons, like the 2018 event featuring Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, the Women’s Board has been able to allocate special gifts to name a Women’s Board Associate Curator for Invertebrate Zoology (Dr. Janet Voight) and provide startup funds to two female curators: Dr. Jingmai O’Connor, Associate Curator for Fossil Reptiles, and Dr. Sara Ruane, Assistant Curator of Herpetology.
“We have found that from a young age, women have not historically been encouraged to pursue careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics),” says Beth Glass, a 15-year Women’s Board member, and event co-chair. “We are trying to foster a love for STEM and have come a long way, but we can always do more. The silver lining of hosting the event virtually is that we can open it up to more people, which Jeannie and I are thrilled about.”
Adds Tisbo, who joined the Women’s Board in 2007, “I can’t speak highly enough of this dynamic and diverse group of women who are all working in support of the Museum. I’m so proud of what we have accomplished.” Paulson adds, “And the Museum sets itself apart by not just being an institution on Lake Shore Drive. There’s a living dimension to it that is making a global difference.”
Streamed live, attendees can even submit their own questions for Tompkins and Paulson to answer during the event. Sponsors and ticketholders can opt-in to select in-person events throughout May, including a guided bird and nature walk, an exclusive preview of the upcoming Becoming Jane: The Evolution of Dr. Jane Goodall exhibit, and more.
“We all know that we are working toward something,” says Tompkins. “My goal is always to remind everyone that this work truly matters. There’s never a break. And we’re not finished yet.”
The 2021 Virtual Women in Science program is on May 6 at 12:30 p.m. For sponsorship information and to register for this event, visit fieldmuseum.org/wislunch. For questions or more information, contact Women’s Board Manager Maggie Schneiderman at [email protected] or 312-665-7130.