Bringing an end to illegal wildlife trade in the Horn of Africa: An interview with Greta Francesca Iori

Greta Francesca lori is the Director of Program Development for the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation and advises various African governments, International Organisations and NGOs on issues of wildlife crime and conservation. We discussed the importance of trusting your gut instinct and championing small wins.

Could you explain what your role is now?

I would say that my predominant role is the Director of Program Development for the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation (EPIF). I’m also the lead for our human-elephant conflict team which was developed in 2020 and I manage all government relations in the Horn of Africa.

What that boils down to is everything from site-level project management to high level government relationship building, as well as funder relations. I also do a lot of pro bono work for the wildlife authorities in my home countries of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

I started my work in this space by setting up my own consultancy business as I couldn’t find jobs in the conservation arena, but I knew I had the skillsets required to make a difference. I feel honoured to be able to work in this field as a result of my extensive consulting experience with the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), as well as my postgraduate thesis research and field work which helped me to develop vast “on-the-job” learning regarding ground interventions for managing and mitigating the illegal wildlife trade.

What does day-to-day life look like for you?

No two days that are the same for me, but since the pandemic a lot of it has gone online. There is a lot of programmatic follow up, administration, and ensuring that everybody on the ground has all of the tools required to do their job. Doing this from afar has forced us to adapt in unfathomable ways.

Working in an ad-hoc manner means you must remain flexible and provide support wherever you are needed. This can be in the long-term management of things like wildlife protocols, ivory management, issues of human-elephant conflict, and trying to find both environmentally- and socially-just solutions in complex situations.

Before the pandemic when it was easier to get together and travel, in the week I would probably be carrying out workshops, community meetings, and field work, as well as making sure that everyone’s opinions were being heard. I believe that you have to co-create everything with the people that deal with it in their day-to-day lives.

Greta watches collared elephant Shoshangan in the distance, Balule Nature Reserve, South Africa 2015. Credit: Greta F Iori.

What is the best part of your job?

Definitely the small wins. That can be anything from finding a small-scale solutions to deterring elephants and making it better for the community that have been suffering, to passing policies that take into consideration the rights of communities and the land that they live on and share with wildlife.

I would definitely say that celebrating the ripple effects of small successes make you feel that you’ve been productive and are moving forward. The small wins keep you committed, keep you believing in the cause, and inspire others.

I would also say the fact that you get to meet and work with some very inspiring people who are conscious of the environment and the world. I’ve met some incredible people and feel very lucky.

Is there anything you find more difficult about your job?

Definitely, and I would probably say that, sadly, there are a lot of difficult parts to it, so you really need to have thick skin and be able to build that up over time to avoid burn out. The deeply complicated realities of our socio-political, economic and cultural differences and the systems we belong to which play out daily in our geopolitics can be overwhelming.

How deeply ingrained these are in society make it quite difficult to progress because it is such a big problem. Unless we start openly voicing the reasons why things have become this way, even if they are rooted in historic realities, we will never progress. It’s this devil cycle of creating surface-level interventions without really identifying the root causes.

Greta leans on friend and colleague Ute after a long day tracking Elephants in Chebera-Churchura National Park, Ethiopia, 2018. Credit: Greta F Iori.

Have there been any pivotal moments in your career?

One of the first pivotal moments for me was my post-graduate dissertation, as I chose to focus on the militarisation of conservation and anti-poaching at the height of the horn trade. I always advise anyone that I work with that no matter how young you are, you hold power to create your career and your value in an industry if you care about it. That was a pivotal moment for me because I ended up trusting my gut. It was probably the hardest thing I’d ever done at that point in my life, but it paid off so much.

Another key moment was taking on jobs which, on paper, I would feel completely unqualified for. No job is too big for you, because you will learn on the job. If you are willing to put in the time, be on top of it, and ask questions, you can pretty much do anything and excel at it. That means a lot of reading and critical analysis and thinking, as well as meeting people and gaining an understanding of different aspects of the same industry to get a broad understanding of what everyone is doing.

Everyone will advise you not to make it hard for yourself, but I say you can either be part of the millions of people who will not make it hard for themselves, but then end up settling for a job that is alright, or you can believe in the value of you as a single human being to bring something to the table.

Choose something that you are passionate about, but don’t be afraid when people try to dim your light or make you conform. Most people move away from challenging projects or scenarios, whereas I go straight in. If we all did that a bit more, we would be radical in the way we existed.

Community and Scout meeting in Kafta-Shiraro National Park, Tigray, Ethiopia, 2017. Credit: Greta F Iori.

What are the highlights of your career?

There are two times when I thought, this is really paying off. One of those was early on in my career when I was asked to develop Ethiopia’s first community conservation strategy. That was a huge honour for me because all of my work has always been rooted in social justice and uplifting communities, so being given that opportunity at such a large scale was really overwhelming – in a great way.

It really goes to show that people are going to trust you when you trust yourself. I felt for once that we were really doing it the right way. We weren’t telling communities what to do. Instead, we were going to co-create the solutions with them and see what they needed for themselves to protect their own rights.

The second was when I managed to encourage Eritrea to become a member of the Elephant Protection Initiative. Eritrea is one of the most closed off nations in Africa and has been for a very long time. It hasn’t engaged with international NGOs or organisations since it became independent, so being given the opportunity to develop that relationship as an individual was amazing. It was a huge moment for me when they agreed to sign on and commit to the EPI because it showed me that no dream is too big.

Greta and Ato Demise, a pioneer scout, rest in Chebera-Churchura National Park, Ethiopia, 2016. Credit: Greta F Iori.

Is there any advice you would give to aspiring conservationists?

Yes, I could go on for days! The first one is to trust yourself and trust your gut. Always go with your intuition because it’s guiding you to where you feel most comfortable and confident. What others dictate that you’re good at, or that you should go into because everyone else is doing it, is not sustainable long term. The passion needs to stem from within you.

My second piece of advice is to work harder than anyone else. Be willing to put in the hours and be the best at what you can do because that will allow you to make a career from it. You have knowledge and information that others might not and therefore the only way that you can confidently work in that space without having imposter syndrome is to make sure that you feel confident. That requires sacrificing a lot in order to be the best, but it isn’t really a sacrifice if you get to do what you love.

My third piece of advice is to learn to separate yourself from your career. It is easy for conservationists and anyone working in justice to become extremely invested because it’s such a deeply emotional and triggering sphere. Unfortunately, that can be at the expense of your own mental and physical health, which is not good long term.

Interestingly, when I’m on holiday now or trying to be relaxed I actually don’t go into nature because it triggers me to start thinking about work. Instead, I’ve started taking on completely different skills and hobbies like fitness and arts because it really helps me switch off.

It’s very important to remember that you are still human and you are allowed to be every aspect of yourself other than a conservationist or a wildlife activist. Trying to make the world a better place is probably the hardest work in the world because it’s a lifelong journey and you have to remember to pace yourself.

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To learn more about Greta, you can find her on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. You can also find some of her reports, podcasts, interviews and more here.

To learn more about conservation careers in community-based conservation, project management, elephant conservation, illegal wildlife trade and more, explore our Careers Advice Blog.

For more on women in conservation, check out our webinar Women in Conservation, or read interviews with women conservationists from all over the world on our Careers Advice Blog.

Author Profile | Emma Phipps

Emma lives in London and currently works in scientific publishing for a conservation journal. She will be studying for an MSc in Conservation at University College London in October 2021, with the hopes of moving into environmental policy in the future. She is a nature enthusiast and animal lover who enjoys hiking and reading in her spare time.

 

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