Creating connections for conservation, Scott Trageser tells us how it’s done!
Scott Trageser is the Director and Co-founder of the Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA) and is a member of the Board of Directors for The Biodiversity Group. Having grown up in the United States but now living an itinerant lifestyle, Scott now calls the world his home. As a conservation biologist and photographer behind NatureStills, he is dedicated to preserving the natural world and uses his exceptional photography skills to create awareness for endangered wildlife. His adventures in conservation have led him from continent to continent with countless stories to share. Scott shares a glimpse of some of these fun stories and what it takes to be a conservation biologist.
What is the Creative Conservation Alliance?
The Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA) is a non-profit organization based in Bangladesh. Our organization began with, and continues to conduct, species-specific research initiatives with threatened species such as the Chinese pangolin and the Asian giant tortoise. We quickly discovered that research alone would not save the forests and we now primarily deal with the preservation of Bangladesh’s last primary forest, within the Chittagong Hill Tracts in the south-eastern region of the country.
To accomplish this, we focus on providing alternative livelihood options for the local indigenous communities allowing them to reduce their dependence on forest resources. Several, culturally-appropriate options are provided; one such option is our Crafts for Conservation initiative. Here we provide artisanal training workshops to revive nearly-lost traditional craft production techniques. We provide sustainable materials and the market chain to realize profits from their work – which are routed through social enterprises managed by the Mro people, including the women of the villages. This not only provides reliable incomes for the local communities, but also reduces our program’s dependency on grants and international support.
Another initiative we’ve been running is our parabiologist program where we empower indigenous hunters to become conservationists. We provide training for traditional hunters to effectively operate modern technology like camera traps, cameras, and GPS to conduct research in areas that are unsafe for outsiders. Utilizing their traditional ecological knowledge has gained us insights into the ecology of Bangladesh’s forests that were previously unattainable. They’ve discovered tigers where no one else could, rediscovered several species thought to be extinct in the country, and we even get to show them around the country surveying for endangered pangolins. After only a short amount of time, these hunters become hardcore conservationists and ambassadors for conservation in their communities, convincing people to preserve the forests better than we ever could!
What is your role as Director and what do you spend the majority of your day doing?
Being Director of the Creative Conservation Alliance is a bit of a catchall, but my main responsibility is to promote our work, secure funds to support the programs, and consult on various aspects of our work. Our Creative Conservation Alliance CEO, Caesar Rahman, is the real hero here though. He makes it all happen on the ground, while I just do my best to ensure he has all the resources he needs.
Caesar and our incredible staff know far better than myself how to work in Bangladesh – a country where Western approaches have routinely failed. My international connections and experience still lend themselves well to working in Bangladesh, but it is best left up to the locals how to apply that experience in the end. A lesson all conservationists should heed!
As a photographer, I also provide most of the promotional media (photographs and videos) for the organisation. I do this to support the organization though, not as a for-profit venture. I know first-hand how little money there is to play with in the world of conservation and if we had to pay for my photography, it would severely hamper our progress. I’d much rather help the forest and the people than get rich.
On a day to day basis you will find me on my laptop writing grants, publications, newsletters or networking through social media and emails – even if I am on expedition. The work never stops.
How did you end up working in conservation and how do you make it work for you?
A combination of luck, hard work, meeting the right people, and sacrificing anything close to a normal life. When I was a kid I wanted to catch beetles in the Amazon and dreamt of being an entomologist. Then college came around and I discovered that wasn’t a real option, so I explored other disciplines. I eventually got excited about genetics and began a PhD program, but quickly realized my hatred for the indoors was too strong. It was at that point that I stumbled upon biological consulting. I had quick, easy money, but also no purpose in life. As luck would have it though, a colleague mentioned Caesar’s work to me, I sent out an email and ‘It was love ever since.’ It’s now been six years since we started the Creative Conservation Alliance.
Most of the conservation work I do for the Creative Conservation Alliance is pro bono so the key for me has always been securing seasonal consulting work to subsidize the conservation work. This afford me freedoms, unattainable to most conservationists. California is unique for the consulting work; if you have the right permits and are willing to live away from home, it’s feasible to work half the year and travel the other half. I can then freely attend conferences, lead my own expeditions, or learn useful skills.
Luck was pivotal to my success. If I hadn’t met certain people at the right times, I might be doing something completely different with my life. By putting myself out there and taking virtually every opportunity available at the expense of having a home or any securities, I certainly garnered more luck than most.
‘You just have to throw out a bunch of darts everywhere and eventually you will hit a bull’s eye and it comes back to you. Sometimes it will be in a year or two and other times it could be a week’
How does being a photographer influence your work in conservation?
Photography opens a lot of doors for me. I get the opportunity to engage with people productively when I show them images or videos, especially construction workers when I’m consulting. They will want to know the story behind the image and stay entertained for longer, which allows me to get my message across. The great thing about interacting with the workers is that I’m granted insight about what the typical American thinks and cares about. As conservationists, we often stay in our own bubble and think everyone knows what we know, unfortunately, that’s not the case.
I get invitations from different organisations to photograph for them because they’ve seen my photography. This grants me opportunities to help on projects, see cool places and establish networks in many countries which all ties back in to connecting people, expanding resource bases, and making conservation happen.
As an avid traveller, how have your experiences in conservation changed in different places?
Probably more than you can imagine. The first time I travelled to Asia, the culture shock was exciting, but I was constantly frustrated with people not doing things ‘right,’ and that I couldn’t do anything about it. At first, my approach was that of a narrow-minded westerner, always wanting to tell people to do things the ‘right way.’ Before long, I began to understand the culture, how people lived their lives, and why people do things the way they do. That understanding was key, but I’ve now learned to assume things are generally done for good reason and instead of finding friction with the differences, I find intrigue.
What are the ups and downs of your job?
I don’t have much of a social life as I’m always traveling. I meet up with friends every 6 months or so if I’m lucky. I’m constantly broke since all the money I make I throw right back into conservation. I have health issues from different trips (living in the wilderness comes with perks like parasites). The list goes on, but honestly, conservation can be quite depressing. Too often I wake up to see messages on my phone with multiple fires to put out and dire consequences looming on the horizon. It’s an emotional rollercoaster!
On the up side, I get to meet incredible people from around the world, exchange ideas, enjoy my life and experience more than I ever thought possible. In the end, you sacrifice a traditional life for a productive one and you have to decide what balance of life and productivity you want.
What are some of your career highlights?
The Creative Conservation Alliance recently established ten Indigenous Community Conservation Areas within the Chittagong Hill Tracts. This protected 500 hectares of habitat. It was a pilot project and is experiencing great success and we’re currently looking to expand the program.
Last year, we took over 20 Mro chiefs and elders to see the ocean for the first time and seeing them in complete awe. Their jaws literally dropped, which is a sight I’ll never forget. Having never left their part of the forest and to see an entirely different ecosystem may have been as much of an incredible experience for them as it was for me to watch it happen.
I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work alongside my conservation and photographer heroes which has been very inspiring.
My highlights keep changing as I grow. Five years ago, the answer to that question would have been simply going to Bangladesh as a surgery specialist to work on pythons and pulling it off. But the stakes keep getting higher.
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Follow the dream because you can probably make it happen. Be prepared to make numerous sacrifices if this is what you want though. Put yourself out there, say yes to opportunities, take big risks, and work harder than anyone around you. Don’t let fear, past experience or present situation hold you back. Instead of watching Netflix, teach yourself new skills that will help you achieve your goals. If you find a niche that isn’t saturated, you will stand out and people will want to work with you. Being a conservationist in 2018 is tougher than it’s ever been. There’s more competition for jobs, with ever increasing expectations. Use your time wisely, help your colleagues without expecting anything in return. Always go above and beyond and bank that karma because it tends to come back in spades.
Check out www.naturestills.com to see some of Scott’s incredible photography!