“Growing up in North Carolina, wild places and animals fascinated me. I loved playing in the woods, traveling to the mountains, and watching PBS Nature specials. When it came time to go to college, I chose Middlebury College in Vermont for its proximity to the mountains as much as anything else.
“During a winter camping trip during my freshman year in nearby Smuggler’s Notch, one of my bagpiping buddies regaled us with stories of tracking rhinos and all kinds of other up-close wildlife encounters in the Namibian desert while on a Round River program. I decided then and there that when I got ready to study abroad my junior year, I would apply for Round River’s Namibia program. A chance to live in a tent in a desert in Africa and see awesome animals for 3 months? How could I pass this up?
“My Round River experience proved more fruitful than I could have ever imagined. On a basic level, it supplied me with all the wild I could have hoped for. However it also helped me determine that conservation was a career goal that I wanted to pursue. Part of this realization stemmed from Round River’s innovative approach to conservation. In its work all across the globe, Round River has sought to engage local community members (who are often indigenous) in conservation efforts. It may make intuitive sense to involve local people who might be affected by conservation efforts in the planning, decision-making, and benefits of these same efforts. This tactic, however, has been employed only rarely across the broad spectrum of conservation. Round River, however, has made it a worthwhile emphasis of its excellent program.
“During my semester abroad in Namibia, I was part of a community mapping project that looked to empower both Damara and Oshiwambo people in conversations with the national government by developing land-use maps with members of both groups. These maps allowed the Damaras and Oshiwambo to identify areas that they use for livestock grazing and areas in which they focus their Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM). In other words, the maps functioned as a method to organize the local knowledge of these groups into a format that could be made accessible to government land managers. As the Namibian government tries to re-connect Skeleton Coast and Etosha National Parks through the Damara and Oshiwambo territories, the Damaras and Oshiwambo can use these maps to outline their current land-use to facilitate discussion with the national government and to establish their position in such a discussion.
“I found working with the local Namibians as cool as observing and recording information about lots of oryx, rhinos, springbok, giraffes, and elephants, to name a few. The Namibians were almost universally happy to talk with us and harbored a strong belief that we could help them. They knew that Round River was trying to listen to them and was trying to help them by making sure that conservation efforts took their voices into account. From these conversations, I gained a lot of respect for the local knowledge of the Damara and Oshiwambo, who were continuously examining and dealing with the movements of animals in the area. I particularly admired how some of them, including many former poachers, had translated their hunting skills into conservation skills in working to monitor highly endangered black rhinos with Save the Rhino Trust, a partner organization of Round River. These innovative techniques of incorporating the local people in conservation struck me as profoundly correct, as the way conservation should be done. Whenever I have studied, considered, or worked on a conservation project since my Round River experience, I have considered the effect of the project on the local people. In addition to this insight into the proper method of conservation, Round River gave me the necessary field experience to land other jobs in conservation.
“Other field work I have done, conducting prey necropsies (cause of death analyses) and radio telemetry for the Wolf Project in the Greater Yellowstone Area in the summer of 2008 (a position I landed because of my Round River experience), illustrated (in a different way) the importance of connecting science to communities. The project attempted to assess wolf prey selection to provide management information for ranchers. While indigenous people in Namibia were happy for our help, Wyoming ranchers did not believe we could help them. Years of network building between Wyoming Game and Fish and local ranchers were necessary before such a project could be suggested. Still, some ranchers maintained at best an apathetic and at worst an antagonistic relationship towards researchers despite our best efforts to foster friendship and cooperation. In most cases, they felt that wolves represented a constant burden to their livelihoods and that more information about wolves would not help reduce the vulnerability of their cattle and elk stock. I believe that this work probably would have been met with less opposition had ranchers been asked how they felt research might benefit them and had they been incorporated in research design. This would have been more in keeping with the community involvement I participated in with Round River. Science, particularly in the United States, needs to forge better relationships between scientists and local communities.
“Comparing my Round River experience with that of the Wolf Project, I was able to design a project in which I would cooperate with the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC) to attempt to design field climate-change related research projects with Native Iñupiat Eskimos in Barrow, Alaska. Similarly to the Damaras and Oshiwambo, the Iñupiat Eskimos have a great deal of local knowledge about the ecosystem since they hunt many different types of animals within it. This knowledge, however, tends to be general and holistic, meaning that it does not translate easily to traditional notions of scientific rigor, which tend to be narrow and supported by meticulously recorded data. These two types of knowledge are not incompatible, however, and if cooperation occurs in research design, they can both benefit each other.
“Traditionally (and globally), however, scientific projects have been designed by solely researchers with advanced degrees who spend considerably less time living in and studying a given ecosystem than the local people. Conversely, by designing field projects with the Iñupiat, I hope to both benefit the Iñupiat, by showing them that scientists could and wanted to help them answer questions the Iñupiat had about the ecosystem, and to benefit sciencists by nudging it into a greater consideration and valuation of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of local people such as the Damaras, the Oshiwambo, and the Iñupiat. For this project design, I was awarded a Compton Mentor Fellowship, which provides funding of $35,000 for one year of post-collegiate work on a self-designed project. Round River not only gave me the necessary background to speak intelligently on this issue, but its progressive approach to involving local, and particularly indigenous, people in conservation had sparked my interest in spreading this form of conservation to other parts of the world.”