Carnivores, communities and conservancies in Africa: An interview with Lana Müller
Lana Müller has been involved in carnivore research and community-based conservation for almost a decade and has experience working in multiple National Parks and community conservancies across Africa. She has been instrumental in the on-going success of organisations like the Cape Leopard Trust and the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust.
She is currently the Operations and Research Manager for the Cape Leopard Trust, a huge position that sees her extremely busy developing the long term research and conservation strategies for the Trust, liaising with scientific and community stakeholders to find solutions to the conflict between predators and farmers around the Cederberg Mountains of the Western Cape, South Africa.
Between this very demanding schedule, Lana was able to answer a few questions about her career so far and why she recommends this line of work over anything else.
Why do you work in conservation?
My interest and love for the outdoors and wildlife started way back and was my biggest drive to study and work in conservation. From an early age I travelled extensively across Africa with my family on camping safaris. I was privileged to experience some of Africa’s wildest places and local cultures from a very young age. These experiences made such a big impression on me as a young child. As a result I developed a keen interest in wildlife and particularly large carnivores. I was fascinated by lions and as a little girl I dreamt about becoming a lion researcher one day. As I grew older and I got to understand more, I realised that these animals and landscapes that I love and enjoyed so much as a child, are under serious threats. Human-wildlife conflict became a harsh reality, and it was then that I felt it was upon me to help to make a difference in solving these problems and protecting these beautiful animals and the landscapes that they roam for future generations whilst at the same time taking cognisance of the needs of the humans in the vicinity.
What do you consider the most rewarding part of your job?
One of the most rewarding things for me is to be part of a challenging project, and to experience it evolving from planning to successful implementation and seeing the results and the positive impacts of that. I often also get to work with and to train illiterate local people as part of my job (i.e. tracking skills, use of GPS, camera trapping or recording data digitally on a PDA device/Smart phone, etc). It gives me the greatest pleasure and fulfilment to see how these people develop and get excited about a subject or skill they never knew before. Another big reward of my job is that I get to experience beautiful places and get to be in the outdoors often.
What would you consider one of your biggest achievements in your career so far?
There are two stories that stand out for me.
When I started my conservation career in East Africa as a young South African woman, it was a huge challenge. In my role as Conservation Manager for Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust I was required to mainly work with Maasai men (I had a ranger force of 100 rangers working for me). It was really difficult because apart from the fact that I was a foreigner working in their country, I was also a woman in a patriarchal society and much younger than most of the male workers. I was however determined not to be defeated by this challenge, and made an effort to learn all that I could about the Maasai culture and their traditions. I then also learned to speak Swahili. These efforts made such a difference that soon things started to change. I was accepted as their manager and gained the respect and trust of the people I worked with. To me this was a great achievement. It enabled me to do so much more for conservation and the people in that particular landscape.
The other big achievement for me that stands out is the extensive camera trap survey I coordinated and completed in the Cederberg mountains of South Africa. When I started it seemed like an impossible task. I thought to myself “where does one start with deploying 146 cameras across a 1700km² rugged mountainous terrain”. But after careful planning and hard and long hours of work in the field, the survey was successfully completed after 15 months, and it delivered very good and robust data. I am currently busy with the data analysis and will soon be an able to report on the leopard population density of the Cederberg which will be an achievement in itself.
What did you study? Would you recommend this to someone considering a career similar to yours?
I studied BSc Conservation Ecology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and then decided to spread my wings and move to The Netherlands to peruse an MSc degree in Biodiversity and Sustainability. The biggest draw card for me to study at Leiden University was their ongoing lion projects in Cameroon and Kenya.
My studies provided me with a solid basis to further my career in conservation.
I can certainly recommend studying the courses that I did for the type of career that I follow. I can also recommend to study at a different university for a post graduate qualification in order to get exposed to different philosophies regarding conservation in general.
What career choices have led you to be in the position you are in now?
My decision to study abroad at Leiden University, and being involved with their lion projects in both Cameroon and Kenya during my MSc studies was definitively instrumental decisions sculpturing my career in large carnivore conservation. I learned a lot and was exposed to real life conservation issues such as human wildlife conflict and bushmeat poaching.
I think taking the leap of faith to find a job in Africa outside my home country after graduation was also a key decision in my career. It built my resilience, broadened my knowledge and network, and opened the door of opportunities to me.
It was not an easy road. I did baby-sit work in The Netherlands after I graduated to find enough money to do a paying conservation volunteer job in Kenya. I did an overland trip to Kenya from South Africa; on the way I stopped at various Conservation Organisations along the way and introduced myself and expressed my interest for a job in conservation. I realised networking was important and that I needed to put myself out there. After 3 months volunteering at Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust in Kenya I was offered a job as Conservation Manager to oversee the various conservation programmes. These included the training of community rangers, wildlife monitoring, running a predator compensation programme and developing a lion research and conservation project. I worked in this position for 4 years before deciding to head back to South Africa. Upon my return I worked as Area Manager for Human Wildlife Solutions, an organisation tasked with monitoring human baboon conflict in the Cape Peninsula of Cape Town. I however soon realised that Africa’s big cats remained my passion, and then joined the Cape Leopard Trust as Operations and Research Manager where I still work today.
What are some of the biggest challenges in your work?
The nature of my work often requires me to work and live in very remote and difficult conditions. This is a huge challenge and often goes along with social and personal life sacrifices.
What advice would you give to anybody looking at going into the conservation field?
Working in conservation is tough but at the same time it can be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding jobs if you are serious about conservation. Allow yourself to dream. Decide what you are passionate about and what you love and dare to pursue that. Stay focused on your goal and don’t let the challenges and hardships in the field distract or de-motivate you. Always keep the bigger picture in mind.