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Uncovering the Secret Lives of Lesser-known Carnivores in Bangladesh

By Muntasir Akash

This article is adapted from a version originally published on The Revelator website, which can be found here.

The crab-eating mongoose is one of many elusive carnivores found in the protected national parks of north-eastern Bangladesh © Muntasir Akash

Years ago I decided to focus my research and conservation efforts on the smaller carnivores of Bangladesh. It was not an easy decision, as there appears to be a bias against studying these smaller species. Researchers in my country seem to be focused on saving larger, iconic species like tigers, leopards, bears and striped hyenas.

Although the smaller carnivores that roam the forests of Bangladesh do seem to appear frequently in stories told among my colleagues, they remain more elusive in the wild and are seldom the subject of published research — difficult to understand and rarely surveyed.

But there’s a lot to study. One of the smallest countries in Asia, Bangladesh provides habitat to 127 different existing mammal species. Of these, 21 were newly recognized during the latest Red List assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Bangladesh boasts nearly half of the entire carnivore diversity of the Indian subcontinent. The 28 extant carnivore mammals represent six different terrestrial families: Viverridae (six species), Felidae (eight species), Herpestidae (three species), Canidae (three species), Ursidae (two species) and Mustelidae (six species). That’s impressive for a country that has less than 7% natural forest coverage and a population density of more than 1,000 people per square kilometer.

Muntasir Akash and his team have recorded a variety of mammals in the national parks of north-eastern Bangladesh using camera-traps. Pictured (clockwise, from top left): golden jackal, northern pig-tailed macaque, yellow-throated marten and leopard cat © Muntasir Akash

How the smaller carnivores are faring in a land so challenging and crammed has been an enigma. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to find more answers.

In 2018 I led a small camera-trap survey in a 2.5 square-kilometer national park in north-east Bangladesh. What we found amazed me. Nearly 600 days of camera trapping yielded 17 different mammals, including ten carnivores. The study showed that the Asiatic wild dog — a globally Endangered apex predator with a wild population of only 2,215 known mature individuals — visits the park frequently, making it an important habitat for this rarely studied and little-understood carnivore.

In 2018, Muntasir Akash’s camera-trapping survey in a national park in north-eastern Bangladesh provided the first evidence that the Asiatic wild dog, or dhole, is a frequent visitor © Muntasir Akash

Not long afterward, in 2019, my team and I rediscovered the Indian gray wolf in Bangladesh after it had been considered extinct in the country for 70 years.

I was thrilled that these often-overlooked carnivores seemed to be clinging to life in their ecologically uncharted habitats — and eager to find out more.

After gaining my first international grant from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) last year, I’ve been able to continue my research on small carnivores in three of the six north-eastern forest reserves. These semi-evergreen, undulating hilly swaths comprise 191 square kilometers of natural forests at the border between India and Bangladesh.

The wildlife here faces numerous threats, including conflict with people and loss of suitable habitat. Uncovering the secret lives of our country’s lesser-known and less-valued carnivores can therefore help protect them from these threats and engage others in vital conservation efforts.

However, pursuing unorthodox queries often comes with difficult hurdles. In addition to my ongoing studies in the parks, I recently co-wrote a manuscript reviewing the previous research on the mammalian carnivores of Bangladesh. This past August I received feedback from one peer reviewer who landed an unexpected blow, observing, “Small carnivores are rarely a subject of research, usually studied within the large-scale landscape-level projects.”

The idea that my research seemed to this reviewer as of little consequence hit me hard, and I sensed impostor syndrome creeping in.

I finally summoned enough confidence to defend the manuscript, mainly through support from peers I met while participating in CLP’s Conservation Management & Leadership workshop— many of whom are also working on species poorly known to the outside world that are rare and often very secretive. The manuscript is now published, and I’m continuing to try to shine a spotlight on the lesser-known carnivores in Bangladesh. I hope to push back against the apparent bias against them and encourage others to care about them through unique approaches. These include ongoing, systematic camera-trap surveys in my northeastern study areas, using scientific illustrations as a conservation tool, and sharing knowledge about camera-trapping with other aspiring researchers.

I feel even more compelled to act given the seemingly widespread belief that conservation of the smaller carnivores is somehow not viable or worthwhile.

The small-clawed otter, a globally vulnerable small carnivore, can still be found in certain protected areas of north-eastern Bangladesh. This is the first camera-trap image of the species from the region © Muntasir Akash/Northeast Bangladesh Carnivore Conservation Initiative

In fact I’ve realized that working to save less-understood species has a nobility of its own and has helped me to become a better scientist. In the coming years I dream of a generation of nature enthusiasts emerging from Bangladesh, represented by ecologists and citizen scientists acting as advocates for our lesser-known and less-valued species.

If those species are not “charismatic” according to the standards of conservation, they are nonetheless extraordinary to those of us who study them and critical to healthy ecosystem function. Every form of wildlife has its place in nature and must be appreciated without fear and treated with equal importance. There may be no group better poised to start that process than the lesser-known smaller carnivores.

About the author

Muntasir Akash is a lecturer at the Department of Zoology, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is focusing his career on the conservation of lesser-known carnivorous mammals. He was awarded a 2020 CLP Future Conservationist Award to support his camera-trapping work in north-eastern Bangladesh. He was one of the participants in CLP’s first-ever online Conservation Management & Leadership course in 2020.

Saving cancer-treating yew trees in Nepal

By Kumar Paudel, CLP alumnus and co-founder & Director of Greenhood Nepal

Maire’s yew is a globally threatened tree with cancer-treating properties. In Nepal, the species is critically endangered nationally, with only a few hundred mature trees left in the wild. My team and I at Greenhood Nepal are currently on a mission to safeguard the future of this very special tree.

Maire’s yew (Taxus mairei) is critically endangered in Nepal, with only a few hundred mature trees left in the wild © Kumar Paudel/Greenhood Nepal

Maire’s yew (Taxus mairei) is critically endangered in Nepal, with only a few hundred mature trees left in the wild © Kumar Paudel/Greenhood Nepal

The bark, leaves and trunk of Maire’s yew contain a compound called Taxol that has proven cancer-treating properties, but this discovery has been both a blessing and a curse for the species. Locals have learned of its commercial value and are overexploiting it with very little consideration of its conservation status.

The problems facing Maire’s yew are of particular interest to Greenhood Nepal, an NGO I founded in 2012 with six other friends. From the beginning, our goal was to empower people across Nepal to respond to emerging conservation challenges to better protect and manage our natural resources.

In 2018, with CLP support, Greenhood Nepal began the first-ever population survey of Maire’s yew tree in Central Nepal, revealing very sparse numbers across its mid-hill forest range. We also spoke to local communities to try to understand harvesting practices—a difficult challenge considering most people here know very little about the yew.

There’s no doubt that Maire’s yew tree is facing a bleak future in Nepal. As a dioecious species (meaning the male and female reproductive structures are on separate trees), its natural regeneration relies on ‘males’ and ‘females’ being in close proximity so that pollinators can do their work. However, cross-pollination is now becoming increasingly unlikely given the sparse remaining population and uncontrolled overharvesting across the species’ range.

This very special tree is being driven to extinction in our country, by our hands.

Not to say that the destruction of our forests has been ignored. Quite the contrary in fact. Over the last 40 years or so, collaborative community forestry initiatives have helped protect our diminishing forests and even increased forest cover in some areas.

A typical forest area in Nepal. Community forest initiatives have helped protect Nepal’s diminishing forests since the late 1970s © Kumar Paudel/Greenhood Nepal

“Giving back to whom it belongs” was the central principle of these community forest initiatives, which sought to empower local communities to manage and use forest resources for their own benefit. Decision-making was handed over to local users, giving them an incentive to ensure sustainable forest use and be responsible for its management (under the supervision of government authorities).

What still concerns me is that these community forests – in Nepal, at least – focus more on forest management than on biodiversity conservation, and their contribution to the livelihoods of local people is still questionable in many areas.

Central to the issue is that our community forest users prepare management plans only every 5-10 years. These are often just a formality and are usually developed without consulting biodiversity experts, so they rarely address biodiversity conservation or conform to sustainable use policies.

In the case of Maire’s yew, our 2018 CLP project found that local people were illegally harvesting the trees from community forests and were not taking account of the health of the trees. Outside community forests, private cultivators were being encouraged by local authorities to grow seedlings obtained from stem cutting a single tree – a practice that could reduce the genetic diversity of the subsequent yew population.

Considering the urgency to save our few remaining Maire’s yew trees, Greenhood Nepal is working hard to sensitize local communities about the conservation importance of the species and the potential benefits they could gain in the future from its trade. I’m happy to say that the communities have already started to save the trees from stone mining and road construction.

CLP project lead Reshu Bashyal (left) and Kumar Paudel (second from left) talking with the local yew harvester communities in Kavrepalnchok, Nepal © Prakash Poudel/Greenhood Nepal

Apart from saving what remains right now, we are also working closely with local governments to restore the historically exploited population across its range in Central Nepal. We are in conversations with local nurseries and regeneration experts to enable its artificial propagation, to produce sex-balanced seedlings, and establish plantations.

The success of community-based conservation can be retained only if it benefits the people who are protecting it. Communities need to be aware of the species population, distribution, and sustainable harvesting techniques so they are engaged in its long-term conservation. As such, with the support of the Kate Stokes Memorial Trust, we have been developing sustainable harvesting guidelines for community forest users and testing these with experts and harvester communities.

Our dream is to ensure the long-term survival of Maire’s yews in Nepalese forests, while ensuring communities can benefit from sustainable harvesting and trade of the yew’s potentially life-saving properties. This will surely be a win-win for both yews and people.

Find out more in the video below:

About the author

Kumar Paudel is a conservation scholar-practitioner based in Nepal. He conducts research to understand species conservation problems and develop interventions on the ground. His work is mostly focused on wildlife trade, pangolins, plants, and conservation policy. He recently graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Conservation Leadership and has now returned to Nepal to continue to work for Greenhood Nepal.

Approaching conservation as a system

By Henry Rees, CLP Programme Officer

Not long ago, when I was at a very early stage in my career, I had quite straightforward beliefs about biodiversity conservation. Back then, I saw very little overlap between the human and ecological worlds. My understanding of conservation was simply that these worlds should be kept apart where possible and that this was the only way to prevent further degradation. Now, with more hindsight, I can say with certainty that this view is limited.

Below I reflect on how broadening our perspectives, and finding a more holistic understanding of conservation as a system, could help us begin to unlock a healthier, more protected planet for future generations.

Henry Rees, CLP Programme Officer © Henry Rees

What do I mean by a ‘system’?

A system can be defined as “a collection of related components that interact with one another toward a greater whole and a common goal.” Early on in my career, I began to realize the power of systems-thinking: a discipline that helps us reveal the different components of a system and understand how they interact. Often used in other sectors like technology and engineering, it is now gaining traction in the conservation world, and it appealed to me as an effective tool for diagnosing problems that don’t have obvious, easy solutions.

The ‘blue jumper’ analogy helps to visualise a systems-thinking approach. You can ask: what components of a blue jumper come together to make the whole thing?

First, there are the threads, each of which is important and interwoven in such a way to give the jumper its unique structure. Other components are also at work. The blue dye and materials are also present and interacting. The jumper wouldn’t be the same without all of these different elements.

Employing systems thinking on our blue jumper may reveal previously undiscovered components and questions. Where were the materials sourced from? Where was it made? By whom? Why did they make it? And so on.

The list of components can be extensive, and some are more important than others. But, ultimately, if any of them are affected, then this could cause a chain reaction and dynamically affect the other components in ways you may never have thought possible. The blue jumper could be compromised for good.

Systems thinking and conservation

Starting to think about conservation as a system was a big turning point for me. I realised that using this approach opens up a range of seemingly infinite components that we can look at to find solutions to our most pressing environmental problems.

This realisation gave me hope, but it also helped me begin to comprehend the problems that we face. The systems in which we must intervene to protect biodiversity are complex, consisting of both ecological and social components.

Henry (far left) with the African Bat Conservation research team in Malawi © Henry Rees

Research has shown that if we wish to effectively intervene, we must first develop a holistic understanding of these components, including the varied needs, perspectives and values of the people involved.

As has been shown in conservation countless times before, intervening without considering these interacting values may lead us to fail in our mission to protect biodiversity.

Our actions may be linked to and have unintended consequences elsewhere in the system. Pulling one stray thread in your blue jumper may cause the rest of the threads to snag and eventually the whole thing will unravel.

Building a more complete picture of conservation

It is impossible for any one person to identify all of the hidden components of a system. They will only be able to recognise certain components and interactions that have some relation to their own perceptions and biases, which are informed by their unique life experiences.

So, the only way we can ever hope to achieve a holistic understanding of a system is by talking to and working with others.

As a programme dedicated to building the capacity of early-career conservationists, CLP works to achieve levels of collaboration not often seen in the conservation sector. We are a close partnership between three organisations (FFI, BirdLife and WCS) and we each have strong lines of communication and co-operation with one another.

Through our annual Team Awards, we fund and train exceptional conservationists leading applied biodiversity projects that seek tangible, long-term solutions to the world’s most pressing conservation challenges. Many of our alumni have gone on to deliver remarkable conservation impacts, most recently showcased in our latest annual report and in our News pages.

Each year, we host awardees at key events and at our regional and international training courses, where they get invaluable opportunities to meet peers and establish long-lasting friendships and potential collaborations.

This year, during the pandemic, we continued to form these important links in our first-ever online international Conservation Management & Leadership course, which has connected more than 30 conservation leaders from several countries including Kenya, Argentina, Georgia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, South Africa, India, Bolivia and Tajikistan (to name just a few!)

This year, CLP held its first-ever online international Conservation Management & Leadership course, which established links among conservationists around the world.

Collaborative thinking and action are key

We are all vital components of the systems in which we operate and we each see these systems differently. In this way, collaborative thinking and action are essential to understanding and combating the complex problems facing biodiversity. By taking the time to acknowledge and understand the perspectives of others, our alumni are able to build a more complete picture of their projects and the challenges they need to overcome. Only in this way can we not only keep our ‘blue jumper’ from unravelling, but also ensure the threads, and the connections between them, are strong and effective enough to last.

About the author

About a year ago, Henry Rees joined the CLP team as a Programme Officer at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in Cambridge, UK. Before joining CLP, he had completed a BSc in Zoology and an MSc in Conservation Science and worked as a wildlife surveyor. Born and raised in London, he grew up in a family who instilled in him a deep love of nature. Working in conservation had been a dream that had motivated him for most of his life, but it wasn’t until he studied conservation formally that he began to view it as an interconnected system.

How conservation can help prevent future pandemics

While the exact cause of the COVID-19 outbreak is still a matter of debate, the broad consensus is that at its origin is a coronavirus that occurs in wildlife (a zoonotic disease). There is also strong evidence to suggest that human actions enabled the causative coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, to jump from wild animals to people.

In search of expert insights, we spoke to CLP alumnae, Iroro Tanshi and Dr Mariane Kaizer, who both lead conservation projects impacted by a zoonotic disease. Below they explain how human actions contributed to the disease outbreak, and why conservation efforts will play a vital role in preventing future pandemics.

Yellow fever is one of the main threats to the survival of Critically Endangered northern muriqui monkeys © Rodrigo Silva

COVID-19: A bat conservationist’s perspective

CLP awardee and bat specialist, Iroro Tanshi, has dedicated her PhD research and 2020 CLP project to saving the only known population of short-tailed roundleaf bats (Hipposideros curtus) in Nigeria. Thanks to her research efforts, the IUCN Red List has recently uplisted the species from Vulnerable to Endangered.

Yet Iroro’s vital work has been put in jeopardy since an ancestral version of SARS-CoV-2 was found in bats. Iroro and other bat conservationists are concerned that the misinterpretation of these findings will make people believe —very wrongly—that bats cause the spread of COVID-19.

Iroro notes substantial anecdotal evidence indicating the escalation of bat culling around the world, presumably due to the mistaken belief that it will curb the spread of the disease.

The only known population of Endangered short-tailed roundleaf bats in Nigeria was discovered by 2020 CLP awardee, Iroro Tanshi. © Chidiogo Okoye/SMACON (left image) © Benneth Obitte/SMACON (right image)

Iroro and her colleagues are fighting to prevent bat culling by stressing that it is people who transmit COVID-19 to other people, not bats. It’s also important to note that, while bats and other animals are known to harbour SAR-like coronaviruses, the exact mechanism that caused the virus to move from wildlife to humans (viral spillover) remains unknown.

According to Iroro, what is clear is that people played a key role in causing the outbreak. “Normally, the chances of a viral spillover event occurring are very, very low. But through our actions, we provided an already adaptable coronavirus with ample opportunities and the perfect conditions to flourish,” she said.

Iroro explains that the destruction of bats’ natural habitats and the wildlife trade are likely to have caused novel species interactions and increased human-wildlife contact, allowing the virus to spillover to humans. However, as the specific origin of the virus is still being investigated, it is unclear whether bats were involved directly or indirectly (via an intermediate host) or if there are other wildlife origins we don’t yet know about.

Irrespective of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, human actions are ultimately to blame for the spillover and community transmission. It is thus our responsibility to prevent such zoonotic outbreaks from happening again.

Yellow fever: Learning lessons from the past

In 2018, Brazilian primate expert Dr Mariane Kaizer led a CLP-funded project to raise public support for the conservation of endemic primate species in Brazil, including Critically Endangered northern muriquis monkeys (Brachyteles hypoxanthus).

At the time, Brazil was experiencing an epidemic of yellow fever (YF), an infectious disease caused by a mosquito-borne virus (for which non-human primates are the main reservoir of infection). The outbreak was spreading in both human and non-human primate populations throughout the south-east Atlantic forest region.

Mariane and her team set out to uncover how YF was affecting monkeys in the area. In the Caparaó National Park, they found dozens of southern brown howler monkeys (Alouatta clamitans) had died from YF. Another team working just 80 kilometres north in the Private Reserve Mata do Sossego found the illness had killed 26% of the northern muriquis population, which was a crippling blow to the already declining population.

Dr Mariane Kaizer during fieldwork in the Caparaó National Park, south-east Brazil. © Francisco Homem.

But the monkeys here aren’t just at risk from YF. Along with illegal hunting, wildlife trade and habitat destruction due to deforestation, they are also in danger of being persecuted and killed by local people who mistakenly fear they cause the spread of diseases like YF.

Such actions are probably increasing the risk of YF outbreaks in people. Deforestation destroys the natural barriers that would otherwise keep infected mosquitos at bay. And, by entering forests to illegally hunt or capture monkeys, people are more likely to be bitten by infected mosquitos and carry them back to other people, such as in vehicles.

Now that there is an increased risk of YF and other zoonotic disease outbreaks, health authorities in Brazil have had to start relying on non-human primates as ‘natural sentinels’ in wildlife disease surveillance programmes. In the case of YF, the virus affects monkeys before it affects people, providing a vital early indicator of a potential YF outbreak in human populations.

Mariane believes that learning lessons from such well-documented cases and conservation projects could help us prevent future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases. “After the COVID-19 outbreak, it is now more vital than ever before to use what we have learned from past experiences (like in the case of the yellow fever epizootic in Brazil) to improve how we monitor and mitigate harmful zoonoses,” says Mariane.

Reinforcing the barriers against disease

To prevent future zoonotic disease outbreaks and protect nature, Mariane and Iroro are among many conservation leaders who are campaigning for change. Among the CLP partners, for example, two public petitions are calling on governments and the private sector worldwide – one to make living on a healthy planet a human right and another to pledge $500 billion in funding to local conservation groups around the world.

Moreover, there has been a call for a ban on the commercial wildlife trade that considers cultural and socioeconomic implications related to the traditions and food security needs of local people.

Across the world, it is clear that we must work together to prevent ecological degradation and restore natural habitats, prohibit nonessential hunting and the commercial wildlife trade, and establish comprehensive wildlife disease surveillance programmes. These changes could prevent future zoonoses and their potentially devastating impact on both people and wildlife.

 

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.

From the Kalahari to the Atlantic Forest

By: Dirk Pienaar

It was a pleasant surprise when I received the news that I was given the opportunity by the De Beers Group to attend CLP’s Conservation Management and Leadership course in Brazil. I would have a long journey from the Kalahari to the Atlantic Forest. In the end I can say it was definitely worth it, not only for the new skills, but for the new family I found among 17 other participants from around the world. My conservation journey led me here and it began long before this course. Allow me to share part of my story.

I am #Khomani san, a South African bushman. I grew up in a very remote and traditional village of the Kalahari in the 1980s. I was part of a family which I felt at the time was too concerned about dwelling in their past lifestyle as hunter gathers, focused more on the well-being of the family dogs and donkeys than their own children. I became the family animal caretaker in order to get the attention and affection from the elderly that I so desired. In a short time I was baptized “the animal child.” As I spent more time with them, I developed a deep love for animals which became so strong that when I learned that the meat we eat comes from the animals I love, I began to hate people, especially adults. I did not know what I could do to change things until my favourite uncle taught me about the traditional way of bushman life. His teachings made me realize how ecology works and why energy needs to be lost in order to be created. Gradually I could convert my childhood hate for humans into a deeper understanding of the human species.

Despite my love for nature, my family decided that I should study law when I finished school and as a village child I had to oblige. This felt like a mistake but I understood the reasons: my community has struggled for years to claim their ancestral land without any success and could not afford lawyers’ fees. Despite feeling motivated to help this cause, I quit law school after trying for two years. By that time, the community was awarded a portion of our ancestral land back and a project began to reconnect bushman with their ancestral land and to ensure that they transfer their traditional skills to the new bushman generation. I began work as a youth coordinator for this project. I also translated the negotiation documents with the South African National Park about traditional conservation methods and utilization from a #Khomani san bushman perspective.

All the while my interest in conservation as a profession was growing. Through various training and education opportunities, I became a nature guide, then tourism manager, and I am now a tourism and conservation officer in my community. I have started looking into new projects to monitor and conserve biodiversity on the #Khomani san properties. One of the projects is related to aardvarks (Oryteropus afer). My fascination with them aside, I chose to study them as very little is known about the species and because we as bushman hunted aardvarks in the past. This project investigates if aardvarks are still hunted and if so, what is the rate of utilization. The project will also document the traditional bushman hunting techniques and create educational material for our children.

Attending the CLP training in Brazil was a turning point for me, and I found the tools shared in the leadership and behaviour change sessions valuable. The approach to learning and teaching was very fresh and new and it provided ample opportunities for all of us to continuously participate and engage during sessions. When I got home, I completed the logical framework exercise with my colleagues who really appreciated the tool. My all-time favourite part of the course was learning a new way to conduct daily check-ins: reflecting on highlights from the day before, expressing gratitude, celebrating accomplishments, and sharing desires for the future. When I introduced this to my team during our compulsory Monday morning meetings, our work environment almost changed overnight. We now have a constant flow of positive energy and we all are willing to embrace it after struggling to pinpoint the source of challenges among the group. I have been a part of numerous workshops in the past and conducted a few myself, but CLP, you guys are the best!

I met the awesome people of Brazil and enjoyed the hospitality at the training center and the nearby villages. Mauro and Jeff gave my roommates and I Spanish lessons while watching soccer in the village. I experienced my first boat ride with bird experts William and Martin. I tried local food and drinks and watched Bollywood moves in action while Akshay, Upma, and Christina danced during culture night. I once went to bed laughing myself to sleep with Sherilyn’s voice in my ears – she was saying the words to a game we just learned to play. I sang in front of people for the first time, wrote and sang a song and poems, but most of all I gained a new family. Don’t ask me why we call our group the “swamp monkeys” – the name just stuck. No matter how tired I am after putting my children to sleep at night, reading updates from everyone on our group chat brings a smile to my face.

I brought seeds of emotional treasures to the Kalahari to plant a CLP tree in my garden, a tree that will grow amongst the other beautiful plants I have already collected. I water this colourful tree constantly and talk to each of the leaves. Each has a unique shape, size and character of its own.  The other morning it had a fresh leaf which puzzled me at first. I soon realized it was Mridul, a CLP alum who was remotely connected with our group even though he couldn’t be with us in Brazil. Here he was on my tree, saying hi.

This course was made possible thanks to the support of the following donors: the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation, American Express, Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, the British Birdwatching Fair, De Beers Group, and the Global Trees Campaign.

Learning to lead like a wolf

By: Erica Cuyckens

Erica Cuyckens is an Assistant Investigator in Argentina’s National Commission of Science and Technology (CONICET) and teaches natural sciences to PhD students at the National University of Jujuy in Argentina. As an alumna of the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), she was accepted to attend our four-day “Creative Leadership for Conservation” course in Salta, Argentina in March 2019. Read about her experience on this course in the following blog. This course was funded by a grant from American Express to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

When I applied to participate in CLP’s “Creative Leadership for Conservation” course, I really didn’t know what to expect. Since CLP was offering it, I was confident that it would be an interesting and valuable experience. I thought that it would be a traditional course where the students sit in rows and write a lot in their notebooks and the teacher stands in front and talks and talks and talks. But nothing was further from the truth. This course was so interactive and dynamic that I never got tired or bored. Also, we almost never wrote anything down because knowledge was directly poured into us through experiences.

For the past two years I have been taking classes in a higher education teaching programme where I learned a lot of new techniques that I try to apply in the classroom. After the CLP course, I am totally convinced that traditional teaching should no longer be used in some cases. I believe more strongly in informal learning processes. I think the teaching techniques I learned on this course are excellent to use in conservation programmes. I no longer go to the community and teach them about some topic. Instead, I aim to make experiences possible through which we all learn.

One of my weaknesses is getting out in front of a group. I am reaching a stage in my life and career where supporting others is becoming important. Young conservationists in Jujuy do not have a lot of options to get guidance. Also, if I want to contribute to conservation beyond just publications, I need to go further. This course helped me to strengthen my self-confidence by learning what kind of leader I am (not all leaders are naturally inspiring) and by knowing myself better. I learned how to not get stuck when something isn’t the way I excepted it to be. I also realised I have to learn how to deal with difficult conversations; not all partners in conservation have to be friends, but yes, a good relationship is needed. The stakeholder mapping activity helped me learn how to see things from someone else’s perspective. I always thought I was good with empathy, but I learned that to work in conservation and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, a lot more is needed.

I believe in horizontal structures, not top-down imposition. On this course I learned how to strengthen myself as a leader without changing this ideology. I also loved the meditation session. I bought a book on meditation and I am now implementing it at home with my partner.

I now think of myself as a pack leader, like a wolf. To me this animal is strong, wise, and leads with a sense of justice, always listening to the needs of others while keeping an eye on the weakest. They fight shoulder to shoulder with pack mates. I have my pack – my students, including my first PhD student. I hope to help the group grow and to provide good guidance for them. I feel more prepared than ever to do this.

From food source to friend

By: Rafid Shidqi

“My dad catches this shark!” A little boy shouted his reply from the corner of the class in response to my question. My team and I were doing our outreach activities in two schools in Alor, Indonesia where local people target thresher sharks to sell and consume their meat.

The rest of the students in the classroom laughed when I showed a picture of an elderly man and told them that thresher sharks can live to be up to 60 years old, just like our grandparents.

Children in Lewalu and Ampera already know what a thresher shark is; some of their parents are thresher shark hunters. Our mission for these outreach activities is simply to grow their compassion toward this animal which, to date, they only know as a food source. We have to share the material as generally as possible to avoid any sense of controversy among the adults, in particular among the teachers who are with us in the classroom. In fact, this is quite challenging to do.

The headmaster offered an introduction for the team. He said, “these people, our brothers and sisters, are visiting us today to give us information about thresher sharks, which are the source of living for the communities here. I hope you all can learn and benefit from what they will share.”

I tried to adjust my thoughts to make it clear that our knowledge isn’t supposed to support catching thresher sharks. It’s a fine line to walk.

I did this kind of presentation before at Lamakera, a village that was once the biggest manta ray hunting community in the world. In 2014, manta ray fishing was banned throughout the country and the policy was strongly opposed by the community groups that lived there. There was a strong sentiment about the education program back then, one that I was involved in. The communities were blocking our efforts to change the behaviour of their children because they wanted their children to view the manta ray as something they can harvest, and to continue the tradition of hunting.

Even though Alor is only separated from Lamakera by a few islands, we were relieved that the atmosphere in Alor wasn’t as intense as it was in Lamakera. In Alor, fishers are aware about environmental sustainability already. They’re completely against bomb-fishing, trawls, and other practices that they believe would destroying the ocean. Their history is actually attached to the ocean. There is a tribe which they say was descended from the ocean spirit. Thus, respecting the ocean is the first rule to live by. This traditional belief is not shared by all islands.

Through education, we hope to shape children’s minds for the better. We designed a children’s book for this purpose. It’s a story about a little thresher shark called Tresi that got lost in the ocean and was separated from his mother who was caught by a fisher. Two kids from Alor —based on real children from the villages —were there to help. They went on an adventure exploring Alor’s waters, meeting many new friends.

“Tresi the thresher has a family too!” one girl in the back of the classroom exclaimed after the presentation. The other kids shouted their agreement. This book was meant to offer a simple story about an animal that has a trait in common with humans. We all have family.  We wanted to reach the minds of these children and transform their image of the thresher from being a food source, to becoming a friend.

Many of the thresher sharks that are caught in Alor are pregnant and often carry two little pups. Kids gather around when fishers cut the womb to see if the babies are big enough to survive. They’ll give a little massage to the pups as a way to revive them before setting them back in the ocean. Kids would cheer and swim next to the little sharks they release, until they are gone to the deep water. We hope they’ll believe in keeping these friends safe.

Rafid Shidqi is project leader for a 2018 CLP Future Conservationist Award. This outreach work is part of the team’s CLP project activities.

Where do the threshers go?

By: Rafid Shidqi

“Hey, someone has a shark! It’s Bapak Tami!”

I barely heard the fisher’s shout. The wind was quite strong and the noise from the small solar-engine in our wooden boat made it hard to hear anything clearly. Pak Mark Erdmann, our supervisor from Conservation International Asia Pacific, was here that day, along with Sarah Lewis my professional supervisor from the Manta Trust. Both were helping us with the trip we organized to tag thresher sharks in Alor, Indonesia, as part of our CLP project.

I gave signal to the other fisher, Bapak Sahlul, who rolled back his string with no catch, and headed to Bapak Tami’s boat. Bapak Tami was still moving his hands, up and up, as he tried to get the shark to shallower depths. Pak Mark and Sarah joined us in their boat. We were three boats moving in a circle, waiting to see if it was the shark we were looking for.

Thresher sharks are listed as vulnerable from International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In Indonesia, they are become common catch within big tuna fisheries but the information about the species is very limited, especially regarding their habitat and movement for the conservation measures. Their population has declined in Indonesia by more than 80% and it continues to decrease. The Indonesian government is planning to improve the conservation management of this species and data from this project will help us make recommendations on how the thresher can be well-protected.

I was feeling desperate to see a thresher. We had spent almost four hours under the scorching sun, sometimes without wind, waiting for the fisher to catch something. When someone shouted that a shark was caught, I almost exploded in joy!

I couldn’t wait any longer to get into the water. After I filled the survey form, I grabbed my underwater camera and jumped.

“Is it up now?” I asked Bapak Tami as he continued to pull up the lines. A few minutes later I put my head in the water and looked into the dark, deep sea. The rays of the sun faded as I traced the fishing lines with my eyes, deeper and deeper.

There it is!

I couldn’t believe what I saw in that moment; a long tail wiggled up and down. It was indeed a thresher shark! It seemed to be very exhausted after being pulled up from the depths and it moved sideways very slowly tried to disentangle itself from the strings that gripped its long tail.

That’s how people in Alor catch the shark; they learned how to modify their fishing lines so they target thresher sharks specifically. People in Alor rely on this species as a source of livelihood, where meats of threshers consumed locally and distributed within local markets. Fishers join multiple hooks into one and tie colorful strings in each of the sides so the shape mimics that of its prey. The string color is not random. When a thresher shark is caught the day before, they cut the gut and find out what kind of food the shark had eaten. Black strings are to mimic small black anchovies, red to mimic squid and chicken feathers to mimic small mackerels. Fishers have to change the bait every day to match the shark’s desired meals.

Thresher sharks use their long tail to stun fish before eating them. When the shark slaps the joined-hooks, its tail can become stuck, immobilizing the shark and making it difficult to fight back.

Pak Mark prepared our satellite tag and the spear pole used to sink the dart into the shark’s musculature. Once the shark is tagged, we will be able trace its movements via satellite.

Sarah and I were swimming in a circle, trying to catch good images and videos. Meanwhile, the fishers on the boat lifted the shark to the surface and tied the tail with a rope so we could take measurements. We waited a few minutes for the shark to recover before measuring its length. Afterwards, Pak Mark aimed the tag at the base of the dorsal fin where the satellite tag will be deployed. I was waiting very nervously with my camera. When the current started to change, waves began to rock the boat, setting all of us on edge.

Wush!

I saw bubbles and heard a short sound from the pole as the tag was transferred to the dorsal fin of the thresher. The shark showed little sign of being hurt when the tag was secured, aside from a little blood. It wasn’t long before the shark began to opened and closed its gills. Once stabilized, Pak Mark checked the response and untied the rope so it was able to swim back to the deep. It swam very slowly at first, but picked up speed as it descended out of sight.

The sun had already set and the wind was picking up so we headed back to the village. I took a deep breath, relieved that we finally tagged the shark. We tagged the shark!

Not only that, it was my first time to see a live thresher shark. And, this was our very first thresher shark to be satellite-tagged in Indonesia! I couldn’t hide my excitement!

I can’t wait to see what data the tag will generate. Hopefully our work can help solve a little mystery about the shark: where are they going….? With this data we will be one step closer to recommendations that help could help conserve this amazing creature.

The colours of CLP

By Reshu Bashyal, Executive Member of Greenhood Nepal

With my coffee mug, I stand on the balcony looking at deep coconut forests, and beyond the trees a wonderful beach. My desire! I feel like I am drinking in joy. I am filled with an overwhelming sense of peace and how lucky I am to be here. Meanwhile, I hear somebody calling “time is up guys!”. The scenery around is so striking that I feel like our 20-minute break passes in just a second. Okay, let’s go back. I want to tell you why I was here in wonderful Sulawesi, Indonesia.

I was representing our Taxus team in the 2018 Conservation Management and Leadership training organised by the Conservation Leadership Programme. The training arrived quickly and before I knew it I was packing my bags and on a Malaysian Airlines flight from Nepal. This was my first international flight. I felt a bit excited and a bit nervous. When we were about to reach Jakarta, a fascinating view of small islands caught my attention and I realised I had reached the island country! I was travelling with Devendra, another CLP trainee from Nepal. We had three hours transit in Jakarta so I had plenty time to hover around.

It was evening when we reached Manado and I felt all my energy drained from the journey. We were picked up at the airport by a wonderful lady, Charlotte, from the CLP staff. We drove through traditional villages to reach Botanica Nature Resort, the course venue. My first impression was of rustic simplicity. The room I shared with Janet and Van was homely and comfortable. The classroom was on a hill, a seven-minute hike up a steep road. It offered beautiful views of a beach. The breeze set the petals of flowers fluttering. It was a perfect training venue for conservationists.

The course offered us different modules on leadership, project planning, gender and conservation, behaviour change, fundraising and monitoring and evaluation. The sessions were very effective, I must say. And, throughout the sessions there were four amazing faces from the CLP management team – Christina, Stu, Laura and Charlotte – who never got tired of motivating us. I got to explore my own leadership style with the help of Mo and I learned the value of stakeholder mapping and peer consultation. Over three days, Martin helped us build a logical framework using a giant blue sticky wall. The main message from the gender session was clear: effective conservation requires the participation of all. Sari showed us that information does not equal behaviour change. She helped us organise an event for our class, modelling what community engagement and material preparation should include. I have another new lesson from the fundraising session: fundraising is not about asking for money, but it is all about selling ideas.

Besides these regular modules, our time was filled with group work, presentation sessions, field activities, culture nights and an alter-ego party. Our first field trip was the exploration of Tongkoko nature reserve. After walking for almost an hour, we encountered the black-crested macaques; one of them welcomed us with pee! It was fun watching them pose with us.

Our next break was a morning trip to the beach. All of us were excited, but my level of excitement was a bit higher as it was my first time visiting the ocean. When we arrived I saw its beauty –  the long sandy beach, the deep blue water. Being from a landlocked country, I guess anyone can imagine the level of excitement I felt at seeing the glistening blue sea for the first time.

Another adventurous part of this training was our day trip. We started with a hike to see Mahawu crater. I was thrilled to see a volcanic mountain in front of my eyes, again for the first time! We walked through the cloud forest, which offered views of different orchid varieties and well-managed agricultural land. We stopped at a museum and saw the world’s largest playable trumpet! It took me some time to learn how to play it, but I did!  Our last destination for the day was Lake Linow, a sulphurous lake. The scent of sulphur perfumed the air, and bursts of steam came from the deep blue water. This beautiful moment was accompanied by banana chips and sips of dark coffee.

Thinking back on my time in Sulawesi, I remember all that I learned through sessions that kept us engaged and energised. This training allowed me to both reflect on conservation issues and also to identify innovative and effective ways to deal with them. I began to discover my own potential and was inspired to continue working for nature.

I can still hear the group shout: “We are CLP, yeah yeah you and me!” I am so happy to be part of CLP and I’m grateful for the unique opportunity to participate in this workshop.

The Conservation Leadership Programme appreciates the support of our donors whose investment has made this training possible: the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation, American Express, Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, the British Birdwatching Fair, Fondation Segré Conservation Fund at FFI, and the Global Trees Campaign.