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Taking the high road: a journey towards becoming a conservation leader

By Pramod Yadav

Biodiversity conservation is a challenging task, especially when we consider the increasing dependence of rural communities on wildlife—both for consumption and for the commercial trade that so often supports their livelihoods. Ending the wildlife trade is likely to curb future zoonotic outbreaks and protect our precious ecosystems, but, as with any conservation issue, we must also consider the implications related to the traditions of local people.

Addressing these issues undoubtedly needs effective conservation leadership. However, becoming a conservation leader is no easy task and requires a great deal of support. As a young conservationist, CLP provided the mentorship I needed to kick-start my journey to becoming a conservation leader. As I describe below, CLP gave me the foundations upon which to build my conservation career and pursue my dreams of embarking on a PhD, which seeks to reconcile conflict between humans and tigers in the Indian Himalaya.

Tigress with cub in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, India. Photo credit: Aditya Dicky Singh

A sure-footed start on steady ground

In 2015, I was honoured to receive a CLP Future Conservationist Award to work on conserving the caterpillar fungus, Ophiocordyceps synensis, in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR), India. The caterpillar fungus, known locally as “Kira Jari”, has medicinal properties and holds great commercial value. However, while it has boosted the local upper Himalayan economy, it has also added pressure on ecosystems and created social conflict.

After receiving the award, I went from being a relatively inexperienced conservationist to managing my own team, establishing my project vision, and co-ordinating multiple facets of the project such as governance, advocacy, negotiation and strategic planning. It was a steep learning curve but, with perseverance, my team and I were able to reveal that the trade in caterpillar fungus was providing the highest source of income for locals (compared to other sources) and that unsustainable harvesting practices had likely contributed to its decline in the area over the last five years.

The initial support I received from CLP helped get my project off the ground and so was instrumental in securing further research funding from a Rufford Small Grant and Idea Wild Grant. We were thus able to go on to identify other key threats to the caterpillar fungus, such as grazing by livestock and the build-up of garbage near harvesters’ camps, giving us the impetus to campaign for locals to protect the habitat and commit to sustainable harvesting practices.

The CLP project team in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve field site. Photo credit: Anonymous

Gaining support along the way

As a CLP awardee, I obtained invaluable mentorship from conservation leaders, such as my project advisor, Dr Uttam Babu Shrestha, and members of the CLP Management Team. CLP has continued to offer me vital support and encouragement while I’ve written scholarship applications and project proposals.

However, while some of these were successful, many weren’t. For example, I was unable to gain a place for the MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge, despite applying five times. These were difficult experiences but they have taught me lessons to be calm, patient, improve myself and keep trying.

I also received CLP grants to attend various conferences and workshops, where I could develop networks and build up my interdisciplinary skills. One of these was a five-day workshop on the full process of planning, preparing and writing a manuscript for submission to a scientific journal in conservation or ecology, delivered by Dr Martin Fisher, Editor of Oryx–The International Journal of Conservation. The skills I learned enabled me to publish an article in Oryx about my work on the caterpillar fungus!

CLP alumni attending a statistics workshop at ATREE, Bangalore. Photo credit: Anonymous

Striding towards my dreams

During my CLP-funded project, I learned a lot about the vital role of indigenous communities in conservation. The more I travelled in the Himalayan landscapes, the more I realised that mountain dwellers are the backbone of biodiversity conservation and the epitome of climatic warriors. It also dawned on me that the role of humans in the conservation and sustainability of natural resources in the Himalaya are poorly understood and documented.

My dream thereafter was to fill this knowledge gap and to develop tools that enable conservation without hindering the socio-economic needs of local communities.

To pursue this dream, in January 2020 I started my PhD at Clemson University in the United States, under the umbrella of the Tigers United University Consortium. My aim is to develop an understanding of the human dimensions underlying tiger conservation issues in the Himalayas and build market-based tools using these insights. I believe that this will play a key role in building resilience among rural dwellers for tiger conservation and other threatened wildlife in the region.

Pramod Yadav conducting field work in the Nanda Devi Biosphere. Photo credit:  Manendra Kaneria

From mentee to mentor

After receiving doctoral training in tiger conservation and enhancing my leadership skills, I plan to lead a team to integrate effective conservation, governance and livelihood to protect wild tigers in the Himalaya. Looking to the long-term future, I hope to come full circle from mentee to mentor and help young people establish enduring conservation action plans in India. My ultimate dream is to play an influential leadership role in increasing investment for education, improving food security and alleviating poverty among rural mountain dwellers in the fight against biodiversity loss and environmental vulnerability.

About the author

In addition to being a member of the CLP Alumni Network, Pramod Yadav is a PhD candidate in the Park Solutions Lab at Clemson University, USA, under the umbrella of the Tigers United University Consortium. He previously completed a Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation at the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi.

COVID-19: A catastrophe or opportunity for pangolin conservation?

By Charles Emogor

This blog was originally published on the PBS Nature website here.

Charles Emogor and his PhD study species, the Endangered white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis). Photo credit: Charles Emogor.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, pangolins have been making headlines. These shy, quirky but cute mammals are one of the most heavily trafficked yet least understood animals in the world.

The sad plight that pangolins are facing and the love I’ve had for them since childhood are the main reasons I decided to study them for my PhD. During my first field trip (before the pandemic started), I was lucky enough to see my first live pangolin after almost two decades of dreaming of that moment!

With my fieldwork suspended for now, I’ve been reflecting on how this crisis could impact the future conservation of pangolins and other threatened wildlife.

I haven’t always studied pangolins. In my early conservation days, I was granted an internship by the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) to work with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Nigeria on a project focused on saving the Critically Endangered Cross River gorilla.

This subspecies is so rare that in two years of fieldwork, I never saw a single gorilla – although I found a lot of nests and dung. Although my research has recently shifted from gorillas to pangolins, this hasn’t stopped me from keeping a close eye on how COVID-19 is affecting vulnerable African great apes.

When I found out about my CLP internship, I felt overjoyed. Since then, one of the few experiences equalling that feeling of excitement was seeing my first live pangolin. He was an extremely shy white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis – EN) that I named Abacus.

As part of my PhD project, we have fitted Abacus and three other pangolins with VHF (Very High Frequency) transmitters so we can monitor them closely and gather data on their home range size and occupancy in Nigeria’s Cross River National Park. Just as we begin this vital fact-finding mission, we couldn’t have been happier to hear that CLP has granted us a $15,000 Team Award to help us implement the project!

Abacus: a male white-bellied pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis), weighing approximately 1.95 kg, tagged with VHF transmitters as part of Charles Emogor’s PhD research.

When I first heard the news that pangolins could be linked to the coronavirus outbreak, I initially panicked and felt overwhelmed. I thought about the fate of Abacus and the other tagged pangolins—would they be killed in retaliation by hostile humans or those people with a misplaced urge to curb the spread of the disease?

Then I started to notice a paucity of evidence indicating that pangolins are responsible for the outbreak. Nonetheless, there is evidence suggesting that they are natural carriers of coronaviruses, which are similar to SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus causing COVID-19, first identified in a so-called ‘wet’ market in Wuhan, China).

Research also suggests that pangolins might have acted as an intermediary in the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, we might never get a clearer picture of the situation as the markets at the epicentre of the outbreak were shut down by the Chinese government for health reasons.

Whether or not scientists manage to identify the origin and dynamics of COVID-19, we can build on the abundance of available evidence showing that wildlife markets are continually posing danger to human health and well-being. This alone should be a compelling enough reason for us to act now to prevent future outbreaks.

Indeed, many conservationists and organisations have already started calling for a ban on the trade of wildlife for consumption. Although banning the commercial wildlife trade might prove critical in curbing future zoonotic pandemics, it is essential that any ban consider cultural and socioeconomic implications related to the traditions and food security needs of local people.

With projected challenges in enforcing ban regulations, the consumption and trade of wildlife is a globally widespread and complex issue, which almost certainly requires a careful response at the national level at a minimum and more complex global policy protocols to the extent possible.

A meeting with a group of local hunters in one of the communities surrounding the Cross River National Park in Nigeria. Photo credit: Charles Emogor.

Lately, I have become more optimistic that the crisis might be beneficial to pangolin conservation. I’m hoping that more funding will become available for pangolin conservation and research, which will throw more light on the dynamics of their illegal trade and ultimately curb the decline of pangolins.

Furthermore, there is the possibility that the demand for pangolin meat will decrease – as already observed in Gabon – and lead to less killing by local hunters. Nevertheless, we should continue to push for a complete ban on the hunting and trade of pangolins and the active enforcement of bans already in place in numerous countries, including Nigeria.

In the meantime, there have been encouraging examples of authorities taking action against pangolin trafficking. The Chinese government, for example, has recently removed pangolin scales from the list of approved ingredients for traditional medicines, after the protected status of pangolins was raised to the highest level in China.

From wanton trafficking to being the suspected cause of thousands of deaths worldwide, pangolins have always found themselves in situations they did not bargain for. But while we watch the current plot twist play out, we can take solace in knowing that this crisis has resulted in increased awareness about the conservation status of pangolins and has already started prompting actions at national levels.

I am indeed privileged to be contributing towards saving these vulnerable animals from extinction. As I count my blessings from my internship days, I am grateful to those individuals and institutions that have played critical roles along my journey up to this point.

About the author

Charles Emogor is a first-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, supervised by Professor Andrew Balmford in the Department of Zoology. His research focuses on understanding the ecology of the white-bellied pangolin and carrying out conservation education and outreach among local communities in the Cross River National Park, Nigeria. Charles attained a BSc in Forestry and Wildlife Management from the Cross River University of Technology, Nigeria, and an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford. He also holds a post-graduate diploma in Endangered Species Management from the University of Kent and is interested in tropical ecology and conservation.

Empowering women in conservation

By Trang Nguyen, founder and Executive Director of WildAct

As a woman working in wildlife conservation in Vietnam, it may (or may not) be surprising to hear that I have experienced gender inequality in the workplace. I had brushed it aside in the past as there was always “something more important to do.” Until last year, when another woman working in conservation told me something so shocking that I decided to take action through WildAct, an NGO I founded in 2015.

WildAct has started a new programme this year called Empowering Women in Conservation. As I describe below, the programme aims to protect female conservationists in Vietnam from Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), which can be defined as any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will based on gender norms and unequal power relationships. 

Trang Nguyen, founder and Executive Director of WildAct, in Cambodia during her CLP internship in 2014. Photo credit: Trang Nguyen.

 

First, let me describe my journey up to this point. Growing up in Vietnam, I witnessed the terrible harm done to animals for the illegal wildlife trade and I swore I would do everything I could to protect them. One of my earliest steps towards this goal was my CLP internship with FFI’s Cambodia Programme: Marine, Flagship Species and the University Capacity Building Project in 2014.

During my internship, I became passionate about changing people’s attitudes and behaviours towards wildlife, so I founded WildAct, an NGO based in Hanoi, Vietnam.

One of WildAct’s first major activities was to deliver two short-courses, Combating the Illegal Wildlife Trade and Captive Animal Welfare, in collaboration with the University of Vinh. These courses are offered to Vietnamese Masters students and early-career conservationists, as well as to graduates in other fields who are thinking about pursuing a career in wildlife conservation.

The six-week courses involve two weeks of lectures, as well as a four-week placement at an NGO or a research institute focusing on a conservation issue in Vietnam. Many of our trainees have secured full-time jobs within Vietnam’s conservation sector.

Although the success of our trainees was fantastic news for conservation, it was later distressing to learn that some of them have been suffering from different degrees of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in the workplace—mostly while doing fieldwork, but even in the office. As soon as I heard about this, I decided that WildAct must do something to help.

Gender-based violence in conservation

It all started when one of our graduates told me she had experienced sexual harassment while working in the field for the first time. She mentioned it to her colleagues, but they shrugged it off as normal behaviour that was to be expected. Finding no support from her peers, she was considering quitting her dream career in conservation just as it was starting.

To hear this was really concerning. Was WildAct encouraging young women to work in a sector where they would be unsafe? I felt we had to support them and provide a safer and better working environment. So, this year, we kick-started the new Empowering Women in Conservation programme to support female conservationists and benefit both Vietnamese and foreign colleagues.

However, this is a very new topic in Vietnam. As yet, no organisation has performed any research into the working environment for female conservationists in our country. Added to this, all of us at WildAct are biologists with no experience in dealing with gender-related issues in the workplace.

After a few months of writing to different organisations and bodies both within and outside Vietnam, including several embassies, we finally had a breakthrough. We were introduced to CARE Vietnam, whose aims include ending SGBV against women in ethnic minority groups and those who work in agriculture.

A female volunteer for WildAct holding the organisation’s badge. Photo credit: Trang Nguyen.

 

Supporting female conservationists in Vietnam

In collaboration with CARE, and supported by the Alongside Wildlife Foundation and the J. van Walraven Fund, our new Empowering Women in Conservation programme includes the following activities:

  • Conducting surveys with both males and females working in the field in Vietnam to understand more about the situations and contexts in which SGBV occurs.
  • Designing a series of workshops for both men and women working in conservation to raise awareness about SGBV, and provide advice on preventive measures and how to support colleagues who are experiencing SGBV.
  • Inviting NGOs and government bodies to review their own policies regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. This means defining the term and the type of behaviour involved, as well as defining ‘workplace’ in a way that includes fieldwork.
  • Collaborating with other NGOs and government bodies to produce guidelines focused on SGBV prevention that considers the complex social and cultural context in Vietnam, while ensuring these policies are not ignored.

We also aim to create a Women in Wildlife Conservation Network in Vietnam, where women can share experiences and give each other support and advice. Along with this, we will establish a telephone hotline that women can use to report SGBV and receive help from professionals.

Building a better future for women in conservation

I used to believe that the long-term protection of threatened species was almost entirely dependent on increasing conservation capacity. Now I realize that this is only laying the foundations, and that a myriad of other factors make up the bricks and mortar. Without adequately protecting the conservationists we train, all of the work by WildAct and that of other capacity-building initiatives will be in vain. We hope our actions to support women in Vietnam will encourage more NGOs in other countries to do the same, so we can continue to empower the conservation leaders that will ultimately help save our planet’s precious wildlife.

About the author

Trang is a truly inspiring early-career conservation leader in Vietnam. In addition to being a member of the CLP Alumni Network, Trang has an MPhil in Conservation Leadership & Management and a PhD in Biodiversity Management. She is the founder and Executive Director of WildAct and was recently listed in the Forbes Asia 30Under30 – Social Entrepreneurs 2020.

In Borneo, building a nest box — and a future for conservation

By Christina Imrich

 

This blog has been adapted from a version originally published on the Mongabay website, which can be found here.

 

The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Borneo is a regenerating forest, home to eight species of hornbills including populations of the Critically Endangered helmeted hornbills and Near Threatened rhinoceros hornbills. The loss of suitable natural cavities for these hole-nesting, large-bodied birds is one of the key reasons for their decline. Luckily, a team of CLP alumni has intervened to provide a safe home for these extraordinary birds using artificial nest boxes. In a recent trip to the area, I had the privilege of seeing the team at work—and what an eye-opening experience it would turn out to be!

Rhinoceros hornbill chick fledged from nest box in 2019. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/jitspics.com.

 

Every day, tourists to lodges along the Kinabatangan River catch glimpses of Borneo’s “Big Five”: orangutan, proboscis monkey, pygmy elephant, rhinoceros hornbill, and estuarine crocodile.

I wish I could tell you this reflected their thriving populations. In fact, the narrow strips of land that abut the river are the last remaining forest patches in the area, loosely protected from expanding palm oil plantations. There is nowhere else for the animals to go.

It was with mixed emotions that I visited the river in July 2019, hoping to see the Big Five for myself. While I didn’t see them all, I did get to witness something even more inspiring: a team of rising conservation leaders that has worked tirelessly and with abundant creativity to create more space for these amazing animals.

The core team for the group I visited in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo are a trio of CLP alumni working to conserve hornbills. The team was originally granted a Future Conservationist Award in 2017 to help improve breeding opportunities for hornbills. Along with support from the Sabah Wildlife Department and Sabah Forestry Department in Malaysia, the team used the CLP grant to design nest boxes that mimic the natural nest cavities that these birds need for breeding.

Team leader Ravinder Kaur brings the scientific expertise. I’ve gotten to know her through my role managing parts of the program for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Ravin’s partners include her husband, Sanjitpaal Singh, and Helson Hassan. Amidi Majinun also recently joined the team. Sanjit provides the photos and videos that capture public attention.

 

In front: Sanjitpaal Singh (left) and Ravinder Kaur (right). At the back: Amidi Majinun (left) and Helson Hassan (right). Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/jitspics.com.

 

Building the foundations for hornbill conservation

The team shares responsibility for monitoring hornbill nests eight hours a day, six days a week. They track what and when the hornbills eat, how long the male spends at the nest cavity (where the female and chick are almost completely encased), when the chick hatches and fledges, and more.

This data is collected in silence in cramped, hot, and humid conditions. Mosquitoes are everywhere. The team knows the work is hard but the larger purpose of this data drives all four of them. As the team builds the scientific foundation for hornbill conservation, they also learn what hornbills need to survive. This is critical considering that six of the eight species of hornbill found in Kinabatangan are considered vulnerable to extinction.

When they are not making short-term trips to Borneo, Ravin and Sanjit work from Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. They are ingenious fundraisers and take advantage of any opportunity, no matter the size. They’ve developed a local bar drink for which a percentage of sales goes to their research and conservation efforts. It seems, no matter the situation, the team’s approach is “Sure, just try.”

When Ravin learned I would be visiting their field site, she immediately asked Helson, who lives in the area, to meet me and my colleagues. The team was eager to share their work on the construction and installation of artificial nest boxes for hornbills.

 

Eddie Ahmad and Sudirman from HUTAN/KOCP placing a nest box in the tree. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/jitspics.com.

 

Building a safe home for hornbills

The artificial nest boxes are the brainchild of this hornbill team working together with HUTAN-KOCP (Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project), the Chester Zoo, ZooParc de Beauval, and the Phoenix Zoo. In 2013, HUTAN-KOCP piloted a set of artificial nest boxes, which, after four years, attracted their first pair of rhinoceros hornbills; in July 2017 a pair successfully fledged a chick! This was the first ever wild pair of rhinoceros hornbills to nest in an artificial nest box.

With the 2017 CLP funding, the team were able to design nest boxes that would attract diverse nesting pairs faster. The trick is to mimic the temperature and humidity conditions of a real tree cavity. Lacking formal training, Helson drew inspiration for the box design from his father, a fisherman whom he had helped build boats. In the end, the team’s box weighed 180 pounds (about 82 kilograms). It was lifted 20 meters (about 66 feet) and secured to a tree.

I am pleased to report that five of these boxes were installed and are being visited by four hornbill species! Hornbills aren’t the only ones to visit the boxes — three of them were taken over by other species, including the red giant gliding squirrel, civet, and stingless bees.

 

Rhinoceros hornbill and nest box. Photo by Sanjitpaal Singh/jitspics.com.

 

Future re-wilding of forest fragments

Looking to the future, the team intends to re-wild forest fragments. Helson showed us the modest nursery the team set up in his backyard, where they are growing trees that hornbills favor. While this team recognizes the challenge, their ‘just-try’ attitude prevails. Since my visit this summer, the team has grown 270 seedlings that have already been transferred to the forest through HUTAN’s reforestation team. These trees will eventually provide important food for hornbills.

A new five-year commitment to the Conservation Leadership Programme from Arcadia — a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin — will help hundreds more conservationists across the globe work to conserve the natural world. The work of Ravin, Sanjit, Helson, Amidi, and the rest of their team demonstrates powerfully what this initiative can accomplish and the obstacles it has inspired young leaders to overcome.

 

About the author

Christina is a Program Manager based at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York. She joined the CLP team in April 2011 and is committed to developing connections between people and the environment. She has a Master’s in Environmental Studies and a BA in Biology.