What does it mean to be an ecologist?
Written by Dr. Louisa Richmond-Coggan
from LRC Wildlife Conservation, www.lrcwildlifeconservation.com
I am one of the lucky people who knew from my early teens what I wanted to do with my life, when many of my fellow school and university friends battled with this question, wildlife. African wildlife in particular had caught my attention from the many David Attenborough wildlife documentaries I had watched and the zoos I had visited. Initially, all I wanted to do was to go and see the animals for myself, in the wilds of Africa. Prior to my gap year, knowing that I would enjoy working with African wildlife was just theoretical. During my gap year I spent 3 months volunteering with a conservation project in Tanzania. I went to test myself; did I really want to work in Africa? did I like the climate? the culture? and understand the many other challenges that this career path would inevitably bring. Within 24 hours of being in Tanzania the simple answer was, yes!
The university degree course I signed up to was Environmental Management which was a mixture of environmental science, geography and biology. At the time I thought that this would give me the best opportunity to manage and conserve wildlife as a career. It turned out that there were only eight of us on the Environmental Management degree and the course intersected the two main degrees of Environmental Science and Geography, this left us in limbo, moving between the courses. I quickly discovered that sections of the environmental science course were not for me as they took me away from my main interests. At the end of my first year I was left with some decisions, how do I move forward and get back on track? I decided that I had to make some changes, so I visited the department heads to discuss keeping certain modules and dropping others, after explaining my reasoning they all agreed. In the end I created my own degree that was unique to me.
Going to Tanzania with a group gave me the confidence to break from the norm when it came to the final degree project. My fellow class mates collected their data in relatively short periods of time, from 2 days to 2 weeks. My whole plan, inspired by the original BBC Big Cat Diary, was to go to Kenya and study cheetah, the detail would come later. I planned and undertook the 8 week study on my own, many things did not go to plan but by thinking on my feet and being flexible meant I came back with enough data to complete the project. So many lessons were learnt on that trip but it left me hungry to return to Africa and its wildlife as fast as possible. At this point I still did not see myself as an ecologist or conservationist even though now looking back at my project, I can confidently say it was an ecological study, adhering to many of the ecological principles I use in my work today.
Having the confidence to recognise that I was heading down a path I did not want and being strong enough to create a change was a critical moment in my early career path. I left university as a geographer, environmental manager and part biologist.
I then faced the dauting task of finding a job. It was then I first realised that the job which fit all my interests was Conservationist. Was I qualified to be a Conservationist and work in Africa? Well, no, according to many of the employers I asked post rejection of my CV. So, I did the only thing I could think of, when my dream job came up, that I was totally unqualified for, I applied anyway. I did so with the sole intention of, after the inevitable rejection, asking the employer how I could actually get onto his interview list and have a shot at the role. He came back with one sentence “more qualifications, more experience”. The next day I applied for my masters in conservation biology. This was the final piece of the puzzle as at that moment I joined myself to the world of conservation and I have never looked back!
The love I had for African wildlife has only grown throughout my years working in Africa as well as my drive to ensure that the landscapes and wildlife are still here for many years to come. The scope and scale of the challenges facing wildlife in Africa (and globally) is vast, if you sit down and think about it for too long the weight of the task can become overwhelming. However, every piece that you add to the scientific puzzle will only help the situation by creating positive change, no matter how small.
My masters and PhD taught me the complex role that people play in wildlife conservation, they can be both the heroes and the villains. It was then I realised that taking a purely ecological approach to projects i.e. only focusing on a species diet, home range, habitat preferences, was not, in any way going to be enough if the end goal was to save that species. People, they had to be included, which required a whole new range of skills. My career so far has centred around the main theme of human-carnivore conflict across Southern Africa. It is focused around balancing the needs of the people with the needs of the wildlife. Tipping the balance too far one way or the other inevitably leads to failure, my job is to successfully walk the line.
Over the years I have come to understand, admire and enjoy working with the farming communities of Africa which many people think should be in direct conflict with, why I started this path in the first place, to protect wildlife. However, I’ve found that the majority of farmers are just as passionate about their wildlife as I am, sometimes even more. Harnessing this passion is what will ultimately bring success when trying to save a species at a national or international level.
My current project, the national leopard census being undertaken in Namibia is the perfect example of walking the line. The project includes a purely ecological study; simply put, how many leopards are there and where are they located? The rest involves people, in this case farmers, to understand human-leopard conflict and their sustainable utilisation. All of these components are needed to provide a complete understanding of the leopard population in Namibia as they all link together and influence one another. It is these interactions that I have come to find fascinating as they each provide their own unique challenges to overcome but when you bring all the pieces together you can finally see the whole picture which is extremely rewarding. Only then can governments make the necessary decisions that leads to changes in policy and legislation. It is within these legislative changes, based upon sound science, that a species will either survive or decline, the importance of this should never be forgotten or underestimated.
What is an ecologist?
Passionate, committed, driven, empathic, adaptive, collaborative, non-judgemental, innovative, resilient, and creates positive change.
I am a geographer, environmental manger, biologist, and ecologist. I am a conservation scientist.
Louisa graduated with a BSc Geography from Lancaster University (2004) which included a project in the Mara Triangle, Maasai Mara, Kenya looking at cheetah behaviour in relation to presence of spotted hyaena. Her MSc in Conservation Biology was from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University and Kent (2006). Her master’s research, which was in collaboration with a Darwin Initiative project and Friends of Conservation, assessing wildlife distribution in the Greater Mara Ecosystem, Kenya by focusing on the effects of landscape variables and anthropogenic threats on four key species: elephants, lions, zebras, and wild dogs. For four years she was a scientific team leader for the Earthwatch project ‘Scavengers of South Africa’, looking after volunteers and teaching them new skills. In 2014 she completed a PhD at Nottingham Trent University on the comparative abundance and ranging behaviour of brown hyaena inside and outside protected areas in South Africa. The thesis identified the factors that affect the abundance and distribution of brown hyaena between areas of high and low human-wildlife conflict using GPS collars, remote camera traps and questionnaires. She joined the Cheetah Conservation Fund, Namibia in 2014 as the Ecology Manager and was responsible for coordinating and assisting in all aspects of their ecology and community-based research as well as managing their capacity building training programmes for local communities. In 2017 she set up her own consultancy business, LRC Wildlife Conservation. For the last 2 years, as an ecological consultant, she has been undertaking the national leopard census project in Namibia. The project takes a multi-disciplinary approach, inside and outside national parks, by combining ecological methodologies and social science to understand the pressures on, and status of, the leopard population across Namibia.