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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.

Swooping into the Global Flyways Summit

In April, BirdLife International convened the Global Summit for the Flyways in Abu Dhabi. The Summit brought together conversation organisations, scientists, policy makers and donors, to discuss the challenges faced by migratory birds. Among the 200 participants, representing 100 organisations and 70 countries, several CLP alumni hid in plain sight – grantees funded as far back as 1988 and as recently as 2017.

Charlotte Klinting, CLP and BirdLife International Programme Officer, checked in with two recently supported CLP alumni to get their impressions of the Summit: Chaona Phiri (funded by the British Birdfair) and Vincent Onyango (intern at the BirdLife Africa Secretariat, funded by Fondation Segré). Chaona from BirdWatch Zambia delivered a presentation and had an active voice throughout the Summit about critical work to conserve African vultures. Vincent focussed on informing Summit participants about an online platform for the Friends of Landbirds Action Plan (FLAP) under the Convention for Migratory Species.

Vincent Onyango and Chaona Phiri

What insights has the Summit given you into the different ways to approach the conservation problems that you are facing?
Chaona: Listening to examples from Ghana, I learnt about how infrastructure developers – for example those positioning power lines – can be engaged at an earlier stage and BirdLife partners can help them adhere to biodiversity safeguards rather than always being on the reactive end of the discussion.

Which speaker/event impressed you most, and why?
Vincent: Chaona Phiri talking about the Vulture Safe Zone concept! It was easy to understand her presentation. She was very articulate.

What are the most valuable lessons that you will be taking home from the Summit?
Chaona: We are all in this together and our efforts, though small, are making the situation better – we are doing better than we think.
Vincent: It is important to come together, to combine our efforts for conservation work. People from different regions experience different challenges in conservation. Coming together would help find solutions to these problems.

Will your experiences at the Summit change your own approach to conservation?
Chaona: Not necessarily change, but it will definitely enhance it.

What you were expecting from the summit, and what if anything has surprised you?
Vincent: Being able to network and learn about capacity development were my main expectations. The capacity development session was as interesting as it was engaging. I have also learnt a lot about Flyways, the different bird species and the energy sector.

Have you met anyone else from CLP at the Summit?
Chaona: Yes, I met staff, alumni and judges; they were all so interested in the progress on my project. I also had to spend some time reassuring people that I am still on track with my project although I am doing a lot of work on other species as well.

CLP alumni and staff: Achilles Byaruhanga (NatureUganda), Vincent Onyango (BirdLife International), Krishna Bhusal (BirdLife Conservation Nepal), Chaona Phiri (Birdwatch Zambia), Danka Uzunova (Macedonian Ecological Society), Charlotte Klinting (BirdLife International)

To learn about the Global Flyways Summit outcomes and to read the Summit declaration visit BirdLife International’s website.

A turning point

From December 11-14, 2017, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Conservation Leadership Programme ran a four-day course “Building Leadership Capacity for Conservation.” Eighteen participants from Central America gathered for transformational personal and professional growth. Meet some our participants and learn about their course experience. This course was funded by a grant from the American Express Foundation to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

 

Meet Lucero Vaca. Lucero is a conservationist from Mexico who is dedicated to conserving jaguars. She is pursuing her PhD at the University of Oxford and is the Founder of the project “Jaguars on the Move” which aims to understand the behavior and physiology of jaguars. The scientific information collected will be incorporated into conservation practices within rural Mexican communities.

“This course was a turning point for me both professionally and personally. Sometimes as a conservationist you can feel lost when it comes to leadership. The profession requires you to bring together a group of people and yet training is rarely available in how to do this, making it quite difficult to get results in a conservation project. This course helped me learn how to lead a team, how to bring out the best in each member, and how important it is to address interpersonal obstacles.

Having Maureen and Christina as facilitators was so helpful. They have great experience in conservation leadership and the course was well prepared. We were smoothly guided from the basics of what is considered leadership to its applications in conservation. It was very useful to be surrounded by other young conservationists; we each shared our own knowledge which enriched the experience. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to attend this course and I am really hopeful that other conservationists from around the world can receive this training as well.”

 

Meet Alejandro López Tamayo. Alejandro is an Environmental Engineer with a specialization in groundwater. He is the Mayan Riviera Coordinator of Research, Conservation and Environmental Education at the Mexican organization Centinelas del Agua A.C. He is working to research and conserve the Quintana Roo aquifer. He is an alumnus of the MAR Leadership Program.

“To work in conservation is a challenge. You have to face the government, the private sector, and other stakeholders to show them in the right way, and at the right moment, why biodiversity conservation is important, why ecosystems have economic value, and why we need to implement strategies to live in a sustainable world. I learned ways to do this during the course. For me, this course was a paradise of knowledge. All of the lessons and exercises were rewarding. I was impressed by the preparation of the trainers and the way they worked with participants.

This training gave me the opportunity to learn more about myself and the different leadership styles one can have. I realized how diverse we are as humans, and the importance of understanding and recognizing the strengths of others. One of the most important skills I identified is how to motivate and lead my team and my community to work as one in conservation. After the course I feel stronger and wiser. I feel prepared to face the challenges ahead of me to protect the aquifer and their associated ecosystems in the Yucatan Peninsula and the larger Mesoamerican Reef System.”

 

Meet Begoña Iñarritu Castro. Begoña is a scientific advisor at the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONAP) in Mexico. Among other things, she has a passion for bat conservation. She is a National Geographic Society grantee.

“I still miss being part of the course. Since the beginning it was an amazing experience. Even though I live in Mexico City, I had never been to the Sierra Gorda in Querétaro where the course was held. The drive to the cabins where we stayed was wonderful, full of complex curves and mountains!

We had a great experience together. The course offered a complete program that was different from most other courses. This was not a class where participants sit for four days and take notes. The workshop was dynamic. By listening and sharing experience with others, we acquired leadership skills for conservation.

One of the things I found most useful for my daily life was to discover which type of leader I am.  It was wonderful to reflect on my strengths and how to use them while working on a project.  Also I came to understand how useful it is to be aware of other’s styles. We need to appreciate our differences to work together effectively.

I am very grateful to have met this group of people. The environment was constructive, healthy, and binding. I really felt we were in an honest and friendly atmosphere where my mates —at first strangers— showed me how strong-minded and unique I am. Sometimes I feel vulnerable and insecure. Other times I suffer from the impostor syndrome. But during this week I realized I am not the only one and that in the end these are thoughts that we create ourselves; these thoughts are not reality. I am also very grateful for the lovely and prepared facilitators and for the advice I received from my peers on this course.

Thank you to everyone for helping uncover and strengthen my inner-self and my biologist-self!”