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Researchers have long understood the risks of field work in Sonora, but they carry on

Last month, 31-year-old UC, Berkeley Ph.D. student Gabriel Trujillo was killed in rural Sonora while carrying out field research on a common flowering shrub called buttonbush. His murder is a reminder of the dangers researchers sometimes take to understand and conserve plants and animals in this region and around the world.

Ecologists and conservation biologists know there can be risks associated with their work, said Michael Bogan, a freshwater ecologist and associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona who has done research in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands and beyond for more than two decades.

Researchers take precautions when doing field work in areas where there could be cartel activity, he said, including working in groups and with local biologists and consulting with landowners and community members who know the area well.

“Most of the time you can stay out of trouble by following all of those things, but sometimes even taking every safety precaution you’re going to run into situations that are dangerous,” he said. “Almost any field biologist you talk to in the region will know somebody, or had it happen to themselves, that they ran into trouble. They were either scared or injured or detained. Or in the worst case scenario, killed.”

In 2004, Bogan was part of a field team that did everything right to lessen their risk but still ended up being held at gunpoint in a remote canyon for several hours before eventually talking themselves out of the situation. It took him years, he said, to feel safe going back to that site, even after reliable sources assured him any risk in the area had passed.

“One of the most frustrating things for me to see was how easy it was for people outside to just write it off as, 'Oh, well, [Trujillo] must have been doing something wrong,'” he said. “For a biologist, that’s really a slap in the face.”

Trujillo and others do this kind of field work because they care about preserving the biocultural heritage of this region, Bogan said. "They go out there to try to do something good in the world. To try to help.”

And he hopes people won’t use this tragedy to write off the entire region as dangerous or someplace to avoid, he said.

“Because it’s really not fair to anyone. It’s not fair to the people living there. It’s not fair to their livelihoods. And it’s not fair to the species that live there that also need studying and need conservation,” he said.

Conservation biologists have to find the right balance between their security and their work, he said.

“We’re trying to lift up these landscapes, lift up these cultures and lift up the species that are in them, but being aware that, yes, there is some risk in doing that work,” he said. “But it is important work, so we’re going to keep doing it.”

Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.