Renzo Zeppilli is, admittedly, a lot like the birds he has studied for dozens of years: He travels extensively and wakes up every morning singing.
Observing the naturalist and birding expert for a week on an Amazon River voyage, it’s obvious the 43-year-old Peru native shares other characteristics of the feathered beings of the natural world, including a keen intelligence and a photographic memory. He has been a guide for more than 20 years, trains other birding guides and considers himself a birder for life.
“My goal is to make more people understand that birding is cool,” he said. “I’m the self-appointed bird ambassador of Peru.”
His life list is impressive: He’s personally seen at least 1,517 of Peru’s more than 1,800 bird species, plus hundreds of others throughout South America.
Why did his tourism and scientific interest gravitate to birds? He blames envy. “Birds can fly and be wherever they want to be quickly,” he explained. “They’re so fragile yet they travel the world.”
Like most people, clues of Renzo’s future career were evident during his childhood. He raised Australian parakeets from a young age and despised neighborhood youngsters who tried hunting birds. ”I ‘hunted’ kids who hunted birds. I loaded little seeds into slingshots and aimed at the other kids’ legs,” he said, smiling at the memory. “I even recruited a gang of other kids to help me.”
Birding, in fact, fulfills a deep-rooted human need to hunt. “But it’s sustainable hunting,” he said.
Following high school in Lima, Renzo moved to Venezuela to study nature tourism business management at the University of Nueva Sparta in Caracas. He spent several years working as an operations manager at nature lodges in Venezuela, getting involved in wildlife conservation projects.
He then returned to Peru to work with a company that took what was at the time a modern approach to tourism—authentic cultural interactions, a leave-no-trace philosophy and in-depth interpretation while exploring wholly natural environments. That inspired Renzo to obtain a master’s degree in environmental education in Malaga, Spain, and launched his guiding career. Having led tours in five South American countries, he now stays mainly in Peru, leading Amazon River Cruise tours and training the next generation of birding guides. He works on research projects, too, putting his photography memory of bird calls to scientific use.
He also participates in Peru’s annual Birding Rally Challenge, in which teams from five nations are paired with a Peruvian birding guide and have six days to zoom across the country and see as many birds as possible. During the 2013 challenge, the team he led saw three birds in areas not previously recorded.
“I always want to be in a place where I am constantly learning,” he said.