Discover More: Conservationists
Many species around the world are under threat, often due to changes humans have made to their local habitat, but some courageous conservationists are stepping up to the challenge of protecting nature. Discover more with Linnean Learning.
Published on 13th September 2021
The Discover More series is a collection of animations, blogs and interviews exploring a wide variety of topics to enrich your appreciation of the wonderful natural world that we are a part of. There are seven topics which will be released throughout 2021 and the animations are best viewed via Instagram @LinneanLearning.
Over many years, we humans have gotten better at transforming the planet to suit our needs. Building bigger and bigger cities, mining fresh minerals from the ground, turning more land into farms to make more food, creating dams, new rivers, and systems of sanitation. The changes we’ve made are so profound, without intending to, we’ve shifted the climate of the Earth, with consequences we are still trying to understand.
One of the biggest impacts we’ve had on the planet is that in improving the environment for ourselves, in the short term at least, we’ve made it much much worse for many other living things we share it with. But, now we have realised this, many brave, clever, and caring people are stepping up to the challenges of trying to improve the situation, protecting the environment not just for ourselves, but the many other living things we share it with.
This month we are highlighting some of these individuals from across the world who have taken on the task of conservation. We’ll be talking with expert Norina Vicente from Gorongosa National Park’s E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory about the work that she does there.
Hot topic! Many people assume fire is bad for the environment, a destructive force for habitats; however, fire can be a creative force in many local ecologies. Jamie Graham-Blair is a young activist, scientist, and conservationist from North East lutruwita (the Indigenous word for what British colonists called Tasmania). Jamie is interested in how Indigenous knowledge and political resistance can be complemented by Western science in order to protect biodiversity and slow climate change, and is particularly interested in the controlled use of fire by indigenous peoples for land management. The controlled use of fire has historically meant the Australian and Tasmanian bush would not get overgrown. If it were to grow too much it would eventually ignite in the heat and result in devastating bushfires. Since colonists came and took over the land, murdering or dividing many of the native peoples, the remaining Indigenous people were barred from doing their controlled burns, which has had incredible ecological consequences. Many organisms in this part of the world also use small amounts of regular fire as part of their life cycles, such as plants that need fire to germinate. These plants not being able to grow due to a lack of or too great an amount of fire means that the other organisms that depend on them also struggle to survive. This disruption to these ecosystems has been worsened by the increasing temperatures of climate change. Jamie aims to spread awareness of this, and other aspects of his cultural heritage.
What’s that smell? Could it be the scent of the alpine musk deer? Oh dear! This cute critter lives on the Lingzhi Park Range, part of Jigme Dorji National Park, western Bhutan, is in the eastern Himalayas, alongside two of Asia’s most-threatened big cats, the Royal Bengal tiger and the snow leopard, as well as a number of other less iconic threatened species, such as the red panda, the dhole. The alpine musk deer has faced increasing threats by poachers, who hunt it illegally for its scent glands (for which it gets the “musk” part of its name), which are sold for medicinal purposes, reaching a high price on the black market. Phuntsho Thinley is leading a programme to increase awareness of the local (human) residents of the Range, so that they understand how threatened these species are and the importance these various species have to the local ecology. Simultaneously, the programme aims to create more anti-poaching patrols. Phuntsho believes to be successful, having the park involvement and the local community together is pivotal to protecting their incredible biodiversity.
Finally, our last courageous conservationist is Hotlin Ompusunggu, a doctor of dental surgery, who co-founded Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI) in 2007 with the aim of protecting Gunung Palung National Park, a rainforest, in southwestern Borneo whilst improving the health of communities surrounding it. The park is home to endangered species including hornbills, gibbons, clouded leopards, and 10% of the global population of orangutans-- an ape hugely threatened by habitat loss. Much of what threatens this habitat is deforestation through logging. Poor health and poverty are important factors in deforestation, as people often turn to logging to pay for basic yet necessary needs, such as healthcare. Hotlin is using innovative solutions to provide healthcare, giving discounts to families that stop logging, or allowing people to pay for healthcare through participating in reforestation projects or alternative work programmes, like organic farming.Humans have used their brains to transform the world around them, overhauling landscapes, mass-producing materials and editing ecosystems beyond recognition. From dogs to wheat, we have formed unbreakable bonds with numerous species, selectively breeding them for traits that benefit our species in that moment, and often discovering unexpected results along the way.
An interview to an expert in conservation
We spoke with Norina Vicente from Gorongosa National Park on the subject of conservation. The following text is an edited interview between Norina and our Research Officer, Zia.
Could you please introduce yourself?
Okay, thank you for the invitation. My name is Norina Vicente. And I am a research technician in Gorongosa National Park. So I work for a science service, specifically in E.O. Wilson Biodiversity laboratory.
Gorongosa National Park... where is it in the world?
Gorongosa National Park is located in Africa, in centre of Mozambique.
How did you first get interested in ecology or biology?
So, everything happened when I was in grade 12. I always loved mathematics, and biology. So I was really good at these two disciplines. I had great marks. But my first concern was about the cutting of trees, because I was seeing a lot of journals that were explaining that a lot of tracks were being made by cutting trees in a particular area. And I was asking my mother, like, how can people do that? Why is that happening? So I wanted to do like a course related to the protection of trees. Then when I had the opportunity to apply for university, I realised that rather than just studying trees it would be nice to study abroad. And then I could not just focus in one area. So that's why I did ecotourism and wildlife management.
And so you first got into it via ecotourism and wildlife management?
Management. Exactly. So the course is really huge in that there's a variety of subjects that you can study, you have ecology, you have tourism, you have wildlife, you can study interactions between animals and plants, you can use those wildlife to attract tourism. So it's kind of interesting course.
How would you define conservation?
From my point of view, conservation in a simple way, it's the protection of something against, let's say, an illegal activity or anthropogenic [human-caused] activity that may make a species go extinct. So for me, this is conservation.
We hear the word biodiversity a lot. But what does biodiversity mean?
Yes, so biodiversity! we have two terms, we have bio, which means life. And then we have diversity, which means variety. So it's the variety of life. So it's a huge term that was described by Professor Wilson. And now he is considered the father of biodiversity.
How did you then get involved in your particular field? How did you come to work at the park?
So everything started when I was in my third year of university. So we would hear so much about Gorongosa National Park, the work that they were doing here, but one of the things that caught my attention was seeing women involved in that. So at the time, I saw a documentary of two girls who were studying lions, so that was like, really fascinating. Because in our society, we have this thought that women are vulnerable, women cannot do something or cannot pursue these kinds of activities. So, for me, I was asking myself, Wow, this is almost like impossible. How can a woman be in a park in the middle of like, brave animals; they are risking their own lives to do this kind of work and protecting. I remember that was my biggest dream to come here and meet those women, and It was really nice to meet them and have a conversation with them. Then I had the opportunity to come here, and I had an internship for, five months.
In a way you're living your biggest dream.
Yes, my biggest dream because I was praying to myself, saying, I just need one opportunity to go there even like to just to go in and back on the same day will be fine.
Were there any things that you felt as kind of struggles in your process towards becoming a conservationist?
Well, definitely yes. Because, for example, in Mozambique, it's not a new thing, but it's something that women are fighting. For example, in my province, it's not unusual to see women marry very early or sometimes get pregnant as teenagers. So for me it was a struggle, when you are a teenager, you suffer a lot of pressure from your family, from outside. So if you don't concentrate on yourself, and have a big dream, like see yourself in future, sometimes you can fail during this process. So I had to go through that. And my father, my parents were always educating me like, see, if you don't study, you will depend on someone and you will suffer with that. And you can see a lot of examples. So my father was just indicating some of my cousins, because on my father’s side of the family, I am the first grandchild who had a bachelor's degree. So he was just using this example, and say, if you don't study, if you don't think abroad, you will just be like your cousins. So you just need to focus on yourself, and just pursue your dreams, pursue activity and you will become something.
Could you name one of the best things and one of the most exciting things for you about getting into conservation?
I think one of the best things I can say it's, it's just the process of learning every day. Because nature can always surprise you with a new thing. when you think that, Okay, I already know this, but the more you go into the field, the more you do field work, you realise Oh, it wasn't what I was thinking, actually it’s this, and you just become happy because you are just learning every single day. And you will also discover new things. So this is the thing that I'm most like, sometimes I find myself laughing and talking to myself, because I just like discovered something that I thought was something but now I realise Oh, it's not that. So it's really, really amazing.
Are there any, like positive stories about conservation that you wanted to share with our audience? Something that you're like, yes, this is going really well.
For example, here, we were having a lot of traffic of-- not just here, of course, you know, not just here but of the whole world-- of pangolins. At the beginning, we were suffering a lot with the traffic of pangolins. But now-- because conservation is about integrative methods. If you are, for example, the manager of the park, if we're not connected with the community, it's like your effort is useless. It's useless because you are not connecting the people that are directly connected with the wildlife. So what the park always does is get involved with the communities. So in most of the cases that we rescue pangolins it was because of the communities, because they just call our post office of rangers and say, okay, we saw someone with a pangolin on this and that coordinate. And with this collaborative work, the Ranger was going there and they were rescuing the pangolins. I think now, we are in great level, it's not that much. But we are in great level, in terms of combating the traffic of pangolins here in the park. Also one of the like, huge, huge, huge examples is the recovery of elephants here. So during the 16 years of war, elephants, lions, let's say those big mammals suffered a lot. And elephants here, the number was reduced. And what we are doing is, with the restoration programme, we translocate some species, close to Mozambique, just to get better genetics and avoid inbreeding between elephants. And at the time, if I'm not mistaken, the number was really, really low. And now we have more than 600 elephants within this time. So this is a really great example that we are doing a lot, we are putting a lot of effort to maintain the species in the ecosystem, and also protect them.
It seems more and more people are becoming ecologically aware, becoming more aware of conservation and more aware of biodiversity, and particularly young people at the moment. Is that also your feeling kind of on the ground?
Well, I could say yes and no. Because for example, in developed countries, I could say yes, because there's a lot of platforms, there's a lot of social media, there's a lot of like groups of meeting, doing actions that can benefit wildlife. But for example, in rural areas, we still need to work a lot because some people in remote areas that they don’t even have like radio or network and these people are the main people that interact directly with the wildlife. So, for those people, I think we should continue to do education, letting them know that it is important to save this ecosystem, it is important to save this species, because you could have this and that benefit.