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.


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!”

Close encounter of the first kind

Zoya Irshad Tyabji, 2017 CLP award winner, shares some of her memories of the training course that she recently attended, including the unforgettable moment when she came face to face with a live shark.

Just a few months have passed since we received the news of winning the Future Conservationist Award from the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP). A few months is a short time, but for us those months were packed!

In July, I had the opportunity to represent my team at the CLP training held in Indonesia. During the workshop, we had sessions where various modules were covered – leadership skills, project planning, behaviour change and communication, and gender and equality. These modules were held unconventionally with activities, ice-breakers and interactions that honed and developed skills both personally and professionally. As a result, I am more confident, aware and motivated, and I definitely took away more than I came with. I will also be implementing most of what we have learnt in order to take our work forward.

Additionally, it was inspiring for me to spend time networking, sharing ideas and listening to the experiences of like-minded people, coming from different places in the world and facing difficult issues – some the same and some different, be it development, management or pollution. I am thankful for the CLP facilitators – Stu, Christina, Laura and Charlotte – who made it comfortable for us and encouraged us every step of the way, to share and be ourselves so that we could take the best from this experience. I am also thankful to the rest of the CLP participants – now alumni and my friends for a lifetime, who have all contributed tremendously to my personal and professional growth and memories during the workshop.

After the CLP training, I got an opportunity to visit Bunaken, a marine national park in Indonesia. Growing up in India, experiences like these are far-removed from everyday life and I have only experienced them while watching the overly dramatic Bollywood films, so I cannot thank CLP enough for giving me this opportunity to star in my own movie. While scuba-diving at Bunaken, we were suspended in the blue, awestruck by the psychedelic colours that the reef threw at us – I was imagining how my friends and colleagues would conduct fish transects here, as the diversity and abundance was baffling. And then, by chance, I happened to look down into the unending depths – and saw something cut through the water gracefully with its white flank and black tips. It was a blacktip reef shark and my first live shark ever!

After sampling over a thousand dead sharks harvested by fishermen at fish-landing sites (which is what my work entails), I had seen my first live shark underwater! The shark was a contrast to the reef in its simplicity of colours and conveyed power and grace as only an apex predator and a keystone species. The moment was a fleeting one, but powerful enough to motivate me to get back to sampling dead sharks in the Andamans in the hope that I can make a difference and enjoy sightings like this one in future during the course of my work there.

Apart from the CLP training and grant, being a CLP alumna and joining the CLP network has opened up tremendous opportunities for my team and me. I recently attended a statistics workshop held by the CLP alumni network of India in Bangalore. Apart from learning statistics, I met other alumni and we discussed past experiences, dealing with multidisciplinary conservation issues, growing as a team and taking away memories. My team members interacted with other CLP alumni from India during the CLP meeting at SCCS Bangalore, in turn developing a good network of conservationists. One of our guides is a CLP alumnus who has provided advice not only with developing our CLP proposal but also for other projects. Networking and collaboration form an important part in any conservation-oriented field and we thank CLP for bringing us all together in order to achieve this efficiently, fruitfully and with a fun-filled journey.

Zoya’s CLP Future Conservationist Award and participation at CLP’s Conservation Management & Leadership training course was made possible thanks to the generous support of Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

Conservation Agreements: A win-win in the Western Ghats, India  

By: Jayant Sarnaik

People of the indigenous community ‘Mahadeo Koli’ have lived within the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary (BWLS) for hundreds of years. They have rich traditional knowledge and rely on the land and forests for food and income. As an Important Bird Area in the northern Western Ghats of India, the sanctuary is also home to abundant biodiversity including hundreds of endemic plants, birds and mammals.

In recent years, pressure has been increasing both on the local people and on the local biodiversity. When the sanctuary was established in 1985, shifting cultivation became illegal. Shifting cultivation is a practice where an area of land is clear-cut and farmed until the land is no longer fertile. At that stage, a new area is cleared and farming shifts while the first plot is naturally restored. If not managed properly, the practice has negative consequences for conservation: key habitat can be lost and species suffer. In addition, BWLS is a famous pilgrim destination. Every year, over 500,000 tourists from all over India visit the sanctuary. These pilgrimages put additional pressure on the forests.

Communities that were dependent on harvests from shifting agriculture became economically vulnerable. For the younger generation, job options can be further limited due to lack of education. As a result, many young people migrate to nearby urban areas to seek employment.

Since 2007, a team of four people working for the Applied Environmental Research Foundation (AERF), with many other partners (the S. P. Jain Institute for Management Research, Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE) and Credit Suisse volunteers), have developed new approaches to balance the needs of communities with conservation in Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary. Having won all three awards from CLP (2007, 2009, 2016) the team has used its training and funding to develop and implement an innovative strategy that helps conserve wildlife and provides economic benefits to vulnerable indigenous community members.

This strategy involves asking community members to be part of a Conservation Agreement. By signing an agreement, communities gain access to alternative livelihood opportunities. In return, community members agree to let their land regenerate and to use resources from it in such a way that sustains, rather than degrades, the forest. An example of this occurred in early 2017 when the CLP team proposed a Conservation Agreement to Mr Devram Sagaji Lohokare (age 65) and his family, who had lost the right to practise shifting cultivation on their land in the sanctuary and were searching for a new livelihood.

The CLP team had already undertaken a detailed biodiversity survey of the forest with a focus on the presence of endemic birds. Part of this area included Mr Lohokare’s land. The team sighted 46 bird species during the survey, four of which were endemic – the white-cheeked barbet, white-bellied blue flycatcher, crimson-backed sunbird and Nilgiri wood pigeon.  They found evidence of other important wildlife in the forest, too, including several nesting sites of the Indian giant squirrel and natural beehives. Most importantly, the forest has a water body used by many species. Having discovered that the land was vital for so many species, the CLP team approached Mr Lohokare and his family to consult with them about the prospect of entering into a Conservation Agreement.

During the conversation, the CLP team learned that one of the family members, Tanaji Dhondu Lohokare, was looking for employment. The family was also in need of some vital household utensils. Under the terms of the Conservation Agreement, in return for letting his land regenerate, the team was able to assist Mr. Lohokare and his family with their needs. The CLP team agreed to help train Tanaji Lohokare in conservation and ecotourism and thereby assist him with finding employment. They also agreed to provide the family with much needed utensils including a household stove-heater and solar-powered battery chargers. The agreement was prepared in the local language so that everyone would be able to understand it, and so that Mr Lohokare could help spread the message to others about this approach.

In March 2017, Laura Owens, a CLP staff member based at Fauna & Flora International, visited BWLS. She watched as this agreement was signed. She reflects: “I enjoyed seeing the beautiful bird species already flourishing there and saw first-hand how the land is already starting to regenerate into a good secondary forest.” Through this Conservation Agreement, the CLP team has ensured the conservation of 57 acres of community forest for the next ten years. The team is slowly setting up and entering into new agreements with other community members to create a system that benefits both people and wildlife. To date, 100 acres of land have been protected by seven agreements.

As a separate but related initiative, the CLP team, in collaboration with AERF and DICE, set up an international certification scheme called FAIRWILD in 2015. Local community members who follow certain practices to protect biodiversity achieve the certification and can thereby sell non-timber forest products for a price that is about 70% greater than for non-certified products. Together with the Conservation Agreements, this certification scheme will continue to improve income opportunities for local families going forward.