Belize Bound - Sans Iguana

`I WAS the child every parent dreads,'' Jeff Corwin says, as he strokes a large iguana plopped across his knees. ``I was always bringing home orphan birds, snakes, squirrels, and other animals. They would live in my bedroom for awhile, then I'd let them go. I've always had a great appreciation for living things.''

The day after an interview in his apartment near Harvard Square, Mr. Corwin's appreciation for living things would be taking him to Belize, to serve as the naturalist for the Jason Project's fifth annual ``electronic field trip.'' Just 26, he is the youngest member of the project's team of scientists and, he says, ``the first non-PhD selected for a Jason program.''

Corwin first visited Belize when he was 16, after saving money for two years to join a scientific expedition. ``The first time I set foot in the rain forest, I knew this is where I would be hanging out for the rest of my life,'' he says. He estimates that he has spent a total of four years in rain forests since 1984. Corwin earned degrees in biology and anthropology at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass.

The day after his graduation in May 1990, he gave a talk on the environment to representatives of 60 countries at the United Nations in New York. Three years ago he founded the Emerald Canopy Rainforest Foundation, which specializes in the conservation of rain forests in Central and South America. The foundation, which he funds with speaking fees and some grants, is involved in habitat-preservation projects in Belize and Paraguay.

When he isn't traveling, Corwin gives talks on ecology, especially in elementary and high schools, and he consults with environmental groups and museums. (Occasionally, he says, he has to don an apron and wait tables to make ends meet.)

Because of Corwin's familiarity with Belize, Jason Project leader Robert Ballard invited him to guide an exploratory trip to the country last June. ``When they saw I was good with wildlife, they decided to integrate me into the program,'' Corwin says. Among Corwin's duties, Dr. Ballard says, will be to collect animals when they come out at night. ``He's absolutely fearless,'' Ballard adds. ``As soon as possible,'' Corwin says, he is eager to start work on a PhD. ``I have a treasure chest of field experience, but certain research skills can be learned only through graduate work.''

The Massachusetts native says he would like to stay in the area for his graduate studies. ``I love New England. Of course, the last few years I've only had to put up with winter for a month or so at a stretch,'' he says with a chuckle.

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