Having Faith in Conservation: An Interview with Stephen Awoyemi

Stephen Awoyemi is Founding Chair of the Religion and Conservation Research Collaborative. He is originally from Nigeria and is additionally currently studying for his Master’s Degree in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge.

Stephen Awoyemi

What is your job title?

I currently work in conservation in two capacities. I serve as president elect for the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB), Africa Section and I am the chair of the Religion and Conservation Research Collaborative. I have been volunteering for the SCB since 2003; it is where I got the platform to launch my career in conservation biology.

After you have completed your Masters in Conservation Leadership, where are you hoping to go?

I have come to a point in my career where I have to consider what is coming next. I have been volunteering for many years and I am now ready to work in conservation to earn a living! I would like to get paid for doing what I love to do.
My contingency plan would be to do a PhD because I am very interested in the role of religion in conservation. A PhD would allow me to do in depth research and contribute to current knowledge. The all-rounded self-development opportunities in a PhD also appeals to me.

Why do you work in conservation? What is your motivation?

I read zoology as my first degree. Some people do zoology because they love animals and wildlife but I didn’t choose the course for these reasons. I didn’t expect to end up there. However, I went on a field course with the Tropical Biology Association in Tanzania in 2002 and my perspective changed. All of a sudden, I knew that there was something special about zoology. Conservation appeals to me because it is something that is beyond the study of species and habitats, it is a connection between planetary processes as a whole. It is something transcendent that is larger than me. I see spirituality in the cause to conserve nature which gives me fulfilment and that is where my love of conservation comes from.

So tell me more about working with religious groups in regards to conservation?

My first real contact with Buddhist religious groups involved with conservation was in Baltimore at the Society for Conservation Biology 2013 conference. We sponsored a symposium on religion and conservation, specifically looking at animal release in Asia. At that symposium we were trying to find common ground between religion and conservation, and try and lessen the impact of releasing animals as a religious act of compassion. The problem with this practice is that invasive species are often released and these animals could potentially affect the environment. At this conference we met a Buddhist monk and Buddhist practitioners, who spoke about how they are conducting their religious practices in a conservation-friendly way.

What do you do day to day in your job?

When I came to Cambridge, I knew what brought me here. It wasn’t due to an ‘extraordinarily high IQ’ – I didn’t have a first class degree. But what brought me here was what I had been doing over the years in terms of being dedicated, contributing ideas, using initiative… When I arrived, I thought ‘I don’t have to stop doing what brought me here’ so I carried on volunteering along with my school work, carrying them hand in hand.

Most of the role I take is leadership – I coordinate people and help people work together to find solutions to conservation problems. Earlier this year, we were thinking of organising the first international conference for religion and conservation, so we tried to craft a proposal for that and start fundraising. Then in March there was a call for people who were interested to run to be the president of the Africa section, and I said to myself ‘this is another very important opportunity’ as I had run for the same position twice before but didn’t make it so I nominated myself again and was elected as president this time. One of the things I was involved in as president was to develop a strategy for the next 3 years, and luckily we have just finished an assignment on my Master’s course on how to develop conservation strategies!

What is the best part of working within conservation?

I get a lot of fulfilment from contributing. When I am making a difference and I have results, I see myself growing. That gives me a kind of joy that is inexpressible. Secondly, the relationships I make with the people that I meet. I work with people who are more experienced than me and so I learn a lot from them.

Copthorne Macdonald notes that there are three things that characterise highly successful people. One: significant doing, two: psychological and spiritual development and three: intellectual development. I see these three things come into play in my conservation work. If I do something significant, it validates my self-efficacy which boosts my confidence. Secondly, psychological development – I meet challenges which stretch me and allow me to grow. Thirdly, intellectual growth – I am doing intellectual work and meeting intelligent people and it expands my mind. So I am getting all three things I need to be satisfied in my job.

What is the worst part of working within conservation?

Because of the kind of person that I am, I do not like conflict, which is an aspect of my position in working with diverse people. Sometimes I meet people who are masterful in dealing with these situations, and I can learn from them. This is why mentoring is very important, you can go to your seniors for advice when you are in over your head, and get the help of someone much more experienced than you are.

What would you say you are most proud of achieving in your career?

So far there are two things I am most proud of. There has been a culmination of things to a tipping point for me in 2014. I have been volunteering for so many years, and coming to Cambridge has been a reward for all my efforts and for me that is a great achievement. Also, becoming the president for the Africa section is something that I am very proud of, and I know there is more to come.

What advice would you give someone just starting out in their conservation career?

When I first started, I didn’t know where to start from. I was receiving conservation biology journals, and reading them and being overwhelmed by the intellectual language and intensity.

You have to try many things, try all sorts of stuff and that way you will find your strong spot. Don’t just sit in one place. When I was starting out, this is what I did – I experimented. You need to discover what you really want to do, take advantage of opportunities. Secondly, you need mentors. You need people who will believe in you and care about you and see the potential in you. If you are close to such people, they will take you places because they can see the opportunities for you, point you in the right direction and advise you. It is also important because they can recommend you to others.

Can you tell me about a memorable experience that conservation has given you?

Between 2008-2010 I went through a crisis. I left my career in conservation for these two years, but I was able to come back and do excellent work afterwards. Being able to overcome those challenges and then succeed is something that I will never forget. I have grown and I feel that is very important.

We all go through challenges in our lives and of course that affects our work. Once we can overcome these challenges we grow psychologically and have greater clarity in what we do. The values of empathy, compassion and connecting become more profound in our relationships and work; this has implications for your career. I remember the things I did in the years of recovery, one example being coordinating 40 scientists to discuss the problems of animal release in Asia. That was no easy feat; and the results of these findings were published in ‘Science’. That was a big deal for me!

About Stephen:

Stephen Awoyemi is Founding Chair of the Religion and Conservation Research Collaborative (RCRC) of the Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group (RCBWG) – a branch of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB). The RCRC is a committee that aims to research the part religion plays in worldwide environmental conservation and translate findings into policy action. He co-founded the RCBWG of SCB in 2007 and the founded the RCRC in 2012.

Stephen is originally from Nigeria and has volunteered for SCB for over ten years, playing a large role in the drafting of policy statements for the society regarding religion and conservation (SCB Position on the Religious Practice of Releasing Captive Wildlife for Merit and SCB Position on the use of Ivory for Religious Objects). He is additionally currently studying for his Master’s Degree in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge.

About the author

KetKeturah Smithson studied a BSc in Zoology at the University of Leicester. A love of animals, nature and being in amongst it all inspired her to aim for a career in Conservation Science. She is currently a Research Assistant in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, and is looking forward to travelling the world, seeing all kinds of ecosystems and aiding in the field of conservation science.

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