Combining Veterinary Science and Conservation: An Interview with Fabiola Quesada

Dr Fabiola Quesada is a veterinarian and wildlife conservationist based in South Africa. As the CEO of Wild Spirit and co-founder of Wild Spirit Fund, Fabiola used her veterinary background to pave the way for veterinarians interested in wildlife conservation. Read more to hear about Fabiola’s work with Masai tribes, her life as an entrepreneur and CEO, and to discover what she enjoys most about her job.

Could you tell us about your current role?

I’m currently involved in two projects. One is Wild Spirit, an education programme, and the other is Wild Spirit Fund, an NGO with a One Health (an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes – WHO, 2017) and conservation projects across Africa.

With Wild Spirit, we wanted to share wildlife veterinary medicine knowledge with students and vets from around the world to allow them to have an impact on conservation. I handle the coordination, training and teaching on the project here in South Africa.

White Rhino, Game Reserve South Africa, 2017. Credit: Fabiola Quesada.

Wild Spirit Fund

Wild Spirit Fund started because as a vet I found it very difficult to become more involved in conservation projects and to find a place to make a change. We wanted to work out why as veterinarians we were not succeeding in conservation projects, and what could be done. With those questions in mind, I approached and found collaborators to start this NGO.

Currently, we are working on projects in Tanzania and Gabon; the project in Gabon focuses on protecting the population of gorillas in their natural habitat of 450,000 hectares. In collaboration with local government institutions, we are promoting research because we need to establish the baseline of information on the causes of disease transmission between humans and gorillas (and vice versa) in order to protect both species. The project is beautiful because it combines research on the health of gorillas and humans, but also conservation, communities, and sustainability.

In Tanzania, we are coordinating a more human-orientated project with the objective of mitigating human-wildlife conflict within the Masai. The project is located between two national parks, the Serengeti and Tarangire, and we are working with the communities, empowering the women, and paying for education and schools, with the next step being to establish veterinary disease control in the area.

Fabiola talking with a Masai leader in Tanzania, 2018. Credit: Fabiola Quesada.

Do you find working with the local communities an enjoyable aspect of your work?

Absolutely. The only way that we are going to succeed in conservation is to work with communities. It’s very important that we engage with them and that when working with them we take one step back.

I’ve noticed that, because we come from ‘rich’ countries, we can think that we know everything which can be aggressive and lacks empathy. For me, working with communities teaches me way more than I could have expected. I take one step forward, and they’ve taken three in advance.

In some countries it might be more challenging, but when I work with the Masai in Tanzania and the communities in Gabon, I get back much more than I put in. We cannot expect to teach people if we are not open to learning and I think that is key. When they see that we want to learn from them, they in turn want to learn from us.

Fabiola with children from one of the Wild Spirit funded schools, Tanzania, 2018. Credit: Fabiola Quesada.

What does a normal day look like for you?

My normal day is mainly office work [Fabiola then turned her camera to show me that her office space included resident cats, dogs, and two antelope which she had raised].

I work very closely with wildlife, partly as a hobby but I’m also lucky enough to rescue and be close to them. I’m doing a lot of project management and also getting more into research as I’m going to be starting my thesis on gorillas. I also enjoy a large amount of teaching through my courses when the vets come here to South Africa, and I also do online courses or go overseas. It’s also beautiful to teach others.

Eighty percent of my time is between my busy life with these animals and office work, then for a month and a half every year I do field work with my students.

On top of that I have projects in other countries in Africa, where I used to visit, but because of COVID and limited funds I have not been able to visit them for the last two years. I was also concerned about visiting the gorillas because of the high risk that COVID might pose to wild great apes. I used to travel quite a lot for congresses or conferences or to visit universities. Luckily 2022 looks very promising, and from the beginning of the year I will be travelling for work again.

Giraffes drinking water, Etosha National Park, Namibia, 2016. Credit: Fabiola Quesada.

How did you get to where you are now?

Ever since I was young, I always wanted to be a vet and I felt the ‘call’ of Africa. I was determined that I was going to be a vet who contributed to conservation. I didn’t find the place for me, so I created it.

I needed to learn about wildlife, and I didn’t know how to get involved, so I created a training programme where I taught myself then trained others. Then I couldn’t find myself a place on conservation projects because, again, I didn’t want to be a normal vet darting animals in the field; I like problem solving and management, but I couldn’t find a suitable position because most roles excluded the veterinary part, so I created it.

It was thanks to my background that I managed to create these new scenarios and projects that I could be involved in. Most important is that I did both projects not only for me, but for many other vets to follow, and together be able to protect wildlife and nature.

Fabiola changing the telemetry and GPS collar of an elephant under anaesthesia, South Africa, 2020. Credit: Fabiola Quesada.

How did you find starting your own business?

It was very challenging, and I doubt anyone could describe it as easy. Also, the fact that I am a woman, a foreigner, and in some cases my skin colour, made it more difficult.

I understand now after many years that, when you come from a different country, there is so much to learn. Sometimes people make your life difficult, but on the other hand, once you prove yourself and show that you are determined, doors will open for you.

I think what is most difficult is the internal fight that we have with ourselves to keep focused and determined in a world where there is a lot of noise coming from people who try to tell you what to do and how to do it. After ten years, the realisation that I did what I wanted to do and that this is the place for me brings me peace.

Do you think that being from a different country and/or a woman influenced your journey?

It’s a different culture and language which is challenging, not only because of the locals but also because of me as I had a lot to learn. Now that I know so much more about South Africans for example, things are much easier, because I understand how they think and what they expect from me. It’s also not just about the language but also about how you communicate and how you present yourself.

In terms of being a woman, I would say that if I were a man people would question me less, and I would question myself less. I think this happens everywhere in the world. If you are a man, people assume you know. If you are woman, people assume you don’t know, until they are proven otherwise. So, for self confidence that is terrible as we are constantly questioning ourselves, but once you prove it, you are there. I take nothing for granted.

Fabiola carrying out disease research in Kruger National Park. Pictured with a lioness under anaesthetic, 2014. Credit: Fabiola Quesada.

What do you enjoy most and least about your job?

The least would be the amount of time spent in front of a computer. I try to turn everything in my life into a positive because we only live once. The good thing is that I found meditation as a way of introspecting when working alone; so, I now know myself very well and I am comfortable spending many hours in my own company.

Having said that, I always have the company of pets and wild animals and my office is surrounded by nature as I live in a big five game reserve. I spend many hours on the computer, but at the same time I am always learning. Admittedly administration is not very cool, but it’s often part of a research area which you really enjoy.

With this job you feel like you are really living when you are outside, when you are in the field, when you are in remote areas in the middle of nowhere; you feel that you are connected with nature and that you are there for a reason, that you have a purpose in this life. Another great aspect is that sometimes when you go to big congresses or talks at universities, the students want to make a change and look to me as their influence which is an amazing feeling.

Changing the tracking collar of a cheetah under anaesthetic, 2020. Credit: Fabiola Quesada.

Do you have a career highlight?

The training programmes that I have put together and the large number of students that are interested in joining and learning; the ability to put that together, make dreams come true and fuel the commitment of future generations to wildlife medicine and conservation. Also, obviously the projects where we are helping communities and wildlife and therefore doing something for a greater purpose than ourselves.

Do you have any advice for new conservationists?

Economically it is not easy, but while some people look for money in their lives, the rest of us live for something else! We have the luxury of being in nature – that is a luxury for me, and I’m sure most conservationists would share that feeling.

Unfortunately, when you work deep in conservation you can feel quite isolated and that the world is working against you, and this is a feeling that many of us share. There will be times when you may want to quit, but you must remember that if not us, who else will do it? The feeling of being needed is very important. Remember why you are doing it.

Also, be true to yourself and remember what you really want. If that is conservation, be focused and remember that you are doing this for nature or something greater than yourself. That gives you a sense of having a superpower.

Try to bring everything you do to the ultimate professional level, but at the same time don’t lose yourself in the system. Learn to have an open mind, don’t question before it’s necessary, be open to collaborating with a lot of people, and remember that only when you think you know a lot, is when you realise that you’ve only scraped the surface. We need more people who are committed to saving the planet. We are late, and the system is not set up for protection but instead for destruction.

I always dreamed too big, then got frustrated achieving little by little. Life will teach you that every small success is a big achievement.

Chimpanzee, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, 2018. Credit: Fabiola Quesada.

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To learn more about veterinarian conservation careers, read about conservation careers in Africa, explore careers in community-based conservation or environmental education, and much 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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