“I know a lot of kids that just hoard their money, and I decided I didn’t want to be one of those kids."
-Dylan, Age 13
Most people will never see a spirit bear. Thirteen-year-old Dylan Bimka-Wintrob first saw one on a National Geographic magazine cover.
“I opened the magazine up and read about it and thought, ‘I want to know more about this,’” Dylan said.
The rare and elusive spirit bear is actually a black bear with a recessive gene that gives 1 in 10 white fur.
Also known as a Kermode bear, their existence has been a heavily guarded secret by Canada’s First Nation people who knew the bears would be hunted as trophies if others only knew they existed. But as Dylan looked further into the unusual animal, he discovered there are currently only around 400 spirit bears left in their native Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, Canada.
From his home in Upstate New York, Dylan decided conservation of the spirit bear's habitat was the perfect project for his upcoming bar mitzvah -- this was an issue he was really passionate about.
A bar mitzvah is a Jewish coming-of-age ritual in which it’s common to engage in tikkun olam or a social action project to show the teen the importance of community as they transition from child to young adult.
It’s also common to host a party and receive gifts, but after researching The Nature Conservancy’s conservation work in the Great Bear Rainforest, Dylan asked his family and friends to make a donation to help protect the spirit bear instead.
“The reason I choose to donate my money to The Nature Conservancy is because I know a lot of kids that just hoard their money, and I decided I didn’t want to be one of those kids,” Dylan said. “I decided I wanted to give my money to an organization that will help wildlife."
What does he tells his friends when they ask why he cares about nature and conservation? Having spent much of his free time over the years learning to build fires and shelters in wilderness survival programs, Dylan said, “I tell them I’ve always liked nature. It’s like my home.”
At his May 20 bar mitzvah, Dylan stood in front of 85 people and talked about the endangered spirit bear, whose rainforest habitat and salmon diet are being threatened by plans to build an oil pipeline.
“When I started studying the spirit bear, I soon realized that in order to understand why the spirit bear is endangered, I would need to understand the bear’s relationship with the trees and salmon, and how the pipeline could affect it all. We are all connected. And because we are all connected it is necessary that we work together to save the spirit bear.”
In 2011, The Nature Conservancy contributed to historic land-use agreements to protect more than five million acres of the Great Bear Rainforest, including new and existing parks, from commercial logging or other extractive uses.
In addition, 19 million acres have been placed under strict land-use management guidelines called ecosystem-based management. Over the next few years, First Nations, NGOs, government and industry will collaborate to apply this approach toward sustainable economic development in the area.
Jenny Brown, the Conservancy’s Director of Conservation for the Canada Program, was pleasantly surprised by the email she received from the 13-year-old's parents asking if Dylan could visit the Conservancy to present a check for the $867 he raised at his bar mitzvah in support of the spirit bear.
Recognizing this great opportunity to commend and encourage Dylan to continue being an advocate for nature, Brown and Canada Program Deputy Director Eve Witten organized a trip for Dylan and his family to visit the Worldwide Office, meet our staff and learn more about the Canada program's work. Dylan set up his PowerPoint presentation and gave the speech he delivered at his bar mitzvah on the endangered spirit bear to a packed conference room of around 20 Conservancy staff.
"I really wanted to meet this young man and his parents as he had worked so hard on this presentation and shared so much about the Great Bear Rainforest with his peers," Brown said. "The Canada Program supports First Nation efforts to engage youth through the SEAS Community Initiative, so we really feel that the future of sustainable decision making lies with an engaged group of young people -- Dylan is definitely one of these people!"
"After you get through all your schooling, come back and see if any jobs are available," said Dan Quinn, senior philanthropy officer, after enjoying Dylan's presentation. "We need people like you who are passionate about these issues."
After the office tour was taken, the conference room doughnuts eaten and the bar mitzvah presentation delivered, the question was raised: has Dylan actually ever seen the spirit bear?
“Not yet,” he said. “But maybe one day.”
With dedicated young people like Dylan on their side, being around for the unforeseen future of "one day" is still a real possibility for endangered species like the spirit bear.