Why supporting today’s rising leaders can help protect tomorrow’s world

By Bradley Knight

In a series of interviews with past CLP interns, I’ve been struck by the way these emerging conservationists have carved out more positive futures for both biodiversity and people through locally-led, innovative approaches.

An Altiplano lagoon at 13,700ft, Sajama National Park, Bolivia © Arne J. Lesterhuis (a previous CLP intern)

Speaking with past CLP interns, it’s been fascinating to uncover how emerging conservation leaders have used their internships as critical career stepping stones and achieved some remarkable conservation impacts. It’s also made me realize that these kinds of internships have much deeper, wider reaching consequences both for society and for the future of our planet.

Adopting creativity in conservation practice

In the ever-evolving field of biodiversity conservation, with new technologies, methodologies, and challenges, I really believe that artistic creativity can play a key role in capturing the attention of both local communities and the wider world. This belief was reinforced after my recent interview with previous CLP intern, Mariia Cherniavskaia.

Previous CLP intern, Mariia Cherniavskaia, undertook a placement with FFI in Kyrgyzstan in 2019-2020, during which she helped develop products like ec0-bags to raise awareness about conservation © Akylai Kabaeva/FFI

During Mariia’s internship with FFI in 2019-2020, she had worked closely with communities living in the fruit and nut forests of Arstanbap and other regions in Kyrgyzstan, as well as with local and international NGOs and government bodies, to help save the country’s falcons, tulips, and wild forests.

One issue facing Mariia was the reliance of the local communities on forest resources. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic and social difficulties had started forcing communities in Kyrgyzstan to exploit forest resources so they could earn a living, which had negatively impacted biodiversity in the area.

Gumkhana village in the Arstanbap forest, Kyrgyzstan © Mariia Cherniavskaia

During our interview, Mariia explained that she thought creative problem-solving was the key to finding a solution to such issues. “You can’t just go somewhere and tell the community there that they have to change their practices; you need to show them why and provide them with alternative income sources so that they can change over time,” she said.

As a CLP intern, Mariia was able to nurture her natural creative talents with the help of her colleagues, so she could develop new ways for FFI to gain support from local communities and develop alternative sources of income. One approach she used was to create a board game for children to foster a passion for conservation in the next generation.

Mariia (left) and one of her internship supervisors, Akylai Kabaeva (right– who is a previous CLP intern herself) developing a board game for children to help raise awareness about conservation issues © David Gill/FFI

She also used her design skills (in which she has no formal training) to develop a series of non-timber forest products that could be given to local people and stakeholders to raise awareness about the importance of conserving rare and endangered species. The products created by the team included eco-bags featuring images of local species of threatened plant species, like the Niedzwiecki apple tree and the Korzynski pear. The success of this initiative helped to encourage the local community to commit to other alternative sources of income, such as beekeeping.

A field trip to Shamshy Kyrgyzstan, in December 2019 © Mariia Cherniavskaia /FFI

Mariia’s success during her internship was ultimately recognized by the offer of a permanent position as a Programme Assistant with FFI in Kyrgyzstan. Within just one year of her internship, she was promoted to Programme Coordinator.

To this day, Mariia continues to use her creativity to drive project development and community engagement for FFI. She has recently developed a new game on the conservation of the Menzbier’s marmot, a Vulnerable species endemic to the Western Tien-Shan (a UNESCO World Heritage Site found across Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan).

Developing the future generation of leaders 

I also interviewed Arne J. Lesterhuis, who had previously been placed as a CLP intern with BirdLife International in Paraguay in 2009. As an intern, Arne received direct mentorship from Dr Rob Clay (Senior Conservation Manager for BirdLife’s Americas secretariat at the time). Arne told me that the expert mentorship he received made him realise that the future of positive, impactful conservation practice rests in the next generation’s hands.

Previous CLP intern, Arne J. Lesterhuis, birdwatching in Paraguay © Arne J. Lesterhuis/Fauna Paraguay

As part of his internship, Arne had supported BirdLife’s leading flyway conservation work, which ultimately seeks to protect birds along global migratory routes. Among his many responsibilities as an intern, Arne had worked to strengthen international links among bird conservation initiatives by supporting the development of Important Bird Areas (IBAs) across the Americas.

He then went on to work with BirdLife International as a Species Technical Officer after his internship until 2015.

When I met with Arne, he talked passionately about the need to increase opportunities, build conservation capacity, and attract fresh talent, remarking: “The international conservation capacity here in South America is less developed. In Suriname specifically, capacity is lacking, and more needs to be done to address that.” 

What stood out to me about Arne was the sincerity behind his words. Without a doubt, he felt personally motivated to play a leading role in building the conservation capacity in Suriname. It was also clear that his internship had given him the skills he needed to lead as well as the confidence to do so.

That’s why in 2019, ten years after his CLP internship, Arne leapt at an opportunity to impact the future generation of conservationists in Suriname.

Arne conducting a survey of Baird’s sandpipers at Lago Poopó, Bolivia, in 2020 © G. Donaldson.

While working with his current employer, Manomet, Arne coordinated a pilot two-week Environmental Sciences Pre-Master’s programme in shorebird conservation in collaboration with Marie Djosetro, a teacher at Suriname’s only university, Anton de Kom University.

The hybrid (in-person and virtual) programme aimed to increase local capacity in shorebird conservation, which included teaching the 25 participants skills in shorebird identification, monitoring techniques, habitat management, community engagement and good governance.

Commenting on the programme’s success, Arne told me, “The programme was very well received. So, we thought let’s do more and try to get these conservation enthusiasts out there in the field, so Suriname isn’t dependent on outside help.”

Following the success of the pilot, Arne is currently working with Anton de Kom University to develop a degree-level programme in conservation leadership, focused on developing the next generation of conservation leaders for the region. He currently works for Manomet as a Shorebird Monitoring and Conservation Specialist across the Western hemisphere.

Investing in the future of conservation

Having spoken with several past CLP interns, I’ve uncovered a general consensus that these types of internship schemes can provide an invaluable career stepping stone for emerging conservationists. But the impact goes much deeper than that. Internships also offer a unique opportunity for nurturing and combining fresh ideas, passion, and local knowledge that can foster wide-reaching, long-term benefits for both society and biodiversity.

As CLP continues to direct funding and training to early-career grassroots conservationists around the world, the programme remains committed to providing internship opportunities for the world’s talented and driven future leaders like Mariia and Arne.

CLP is grateful to Fondation Segré, and Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin – for supporting our current interns.

About the author

Bradley Knight worked as an intern for Fauna & Flora International from October 2021 – January 2022, during which he interviewed various CLP interns and brought their stories to life. Bradley has studied digital media and journalism, has a BSc in Marine Biology and has volunteered in communications-related roles including as a social media officer and blogger for Conservation Careers. He is passionate about art as well as conservation, and has started his own conservation communications initiative that uses a blended science-art approach to inspire and engage audiences about marine conservation.