Dale Wright | BirdLife South Africa IBA Conservation Implementation Manager
Dale Wright is the Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA) Conservation Implementation Manager for BirdLife South Africa, where he focuses on the safe-guarding of South Africa’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), as well as the direction of conservation programs within these areas.
How did you first become interested in conservation? Was it something you were always interested in?
At a very young age, 8 or 9, we had a class in primary school about garden birds, and I got really excited about it, and went home and started to look for all of them in our own garden. The next thing my parents knew I’d built a makeshift bird hide on the roof!
Did you study something in the nature conservation realm?
From that early beginning, I identified that a degree in zoology was going to be best for me. At that point I didn’t really know conservation as such. I knew about careers in biology, and I’d done a little bit of volunteer work helping out some game rangers in Pilanesberg reserve, to try to understand how I could get myself involved in similar work. I studied BSc Zoology: Evolutionary Biology at the University of Cape Town, and did my Honours there, then went back and did the Masters in Conservation Biology 6 years later.
What did you do between the Honours and Masters degrees?
After the Honours degree I decided I’d had enough of university and studying, and decided to take a gap year or two. I headed off to a summer camp in the USA, I did some work in the UK and Cyprus, and eventually worked my way down to South America, where I did a volunteer stint for an Andean bear research project. After careening around the world for 2 years I started looking for more permanent jobs, online primarily, and in the game ranger space – I wanted to get out and be in nature, and thought this is the time to do it.
Whilst doing that research I stumbled across a job in Tanzania, working as a conservation area manager and a safari area manager. That really excited me, so I applied and got it. I did that for a few years, working closely with a hunting organization and a conservation organization, and was involved in a lot of logistics, including camp building and management, as well as conservation activities such as anti-poaching and wildlife monitoring. I realized that I wanted to be involved in pure conservation work, and many of the jobs I was interested in required a Master’s degree, as well as the 3-5 years’ experience that I had.
How did that lead you to where you are now, to the position with BirdLife South Africa?
I’d been self-funded throughout my Masters, and so was looking at getting immediately back into the working world. I applied for the WWF-SA Environmental Leaders Internship Programme, and was offered a one year post with the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative. That got me into the environmental management and biodiversity stewardship space, and I was able to do a lot of networking.
One of the exercises on the internship programme was to write a job description for your dream job. I wrote about a conservation manager position for a bird conservation organization in October, and co-incidentally in November there was a Regional Conservation Manager position advertised with BirdLife South Africa! I applied and very fortunately got the position with BirdLife. As a result of the internship I still work very closely with WWF-SA, and the various colleagues I made contact with during my internship.
I was a regional conservation manager for BirdLife until the beginning of this year, and now I’ve moved up to the IBA Conservation Implementation Manager role, still within the Important Bird Area programme. My regional role involved rewriting our directory of IBA sites, after completing detailed technical assessments of each site, and subsequently we’ve had to launch conservation projects in several IBAs. I’m now taking that on at a national scale.
What’s involved in your day to day duties? What are the good bits and the bad bits?
At the moment the focus of my position is to identify key focal areas at which we want to launch conservation projects. These projects generally focus on protected area expansion, achieved through biodiversity stewardship – getting private landowners to declare portions of their land as a protected area. My day to day involves the coordination of these projects, providing guidance for protected area management and occasionally dealing with tough landowners. Another project is to look at the whole private protected area space in South Africa, so I’ve been doing a review of that and trying to understand what the challenges are, how we could unlock those and enhance certain opportunities within the sector.
We’ve written some management guidelines, including habitat management guidelines focused specifically on birds, and scientific articles when we can find the time. I also do a lot of awareness raising for the organization, through popular articles in magazines, giving talks, and engaging with external partners. I’m very interested in helping young conservationists in their careers, so last week I spoke to a conservation biology Masters class. I’m always happy taking phone calls or giving interviews or advice to young conservationists or biology students.
What advice would you give someone wanting to follow in your footsteps, career-wise?
It’s important to try to match your academic qualifications with your years of experience. One thing that you find is that people get very comfortable in academia, and so might push on all the way to a PhD without earning any practical experience. If I’m looking for someone to employ, I might go for someone with more practical experience, combined with the academic qualifications. It’s important to gain that practical experience, unless you want to end up becoming a career academic, or a scientist as part of a conservation organization, in which case you should proceed with your academic qualifications to the highest level that you can. Try to at least volunteer and gain some practical experience while getting the academic qualification at the same time.
Approach organizations to volunteer, because you never know where that’s going to lead. And don’t be afraid of dreaming up a position for yourself, and then even taking the risk of helping write funding proposals that might allow an organization to employ you. As conservation organizations we would love to be able to employ all of the quality students and young conservationists out there, but we’re limited by resources. So if you help us to create those resources that’s quite a win-win.