Conserving Lions through Evidence-Based Conservation and Local Rights: An Interview with Amy Dickman
Professor Amy Dickman is a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford who was recently appointed as the new Director of the University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). Amy has a particular interest in resolving conflict between humans and large carnivores, and has spent many years working alongside communities in Africa to consider solutions which benefit both wildlife and people. Read on to discover the key steps in Amy’s career and the importance of putting communities at the heart of conservation.
What is your current position?
I wear a couple of different hats but my main position is the Director of WildCRU (Wildlife Conservation Research Unit). I am also a Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Oxford, as well as the joint CEO of Lion Landscapes where we work on lion and other large carnivore conservation across three different countries and four key landscapes.
Were there any key steps that you took in your career?
Definitely. I think it’s hard when people approach you in this field and ask how we got there; it’s not like you’re a doctor and can go through the traditional route of being a resident then a house officer and a consultant. It always feels like you’re hiding some key of how to do it, but that’s not the case at all; it’s about who you meet and connections.
For me, I’d done my Zoology degree but was left at the end of that, as many people are, a bit stuck. I really had no idea what to do and happened to pick up a copy of New Scientist where they were advertising scholarships at WildCRU. I’d always wanted to work at WildCRU and it was a great opportunity, so I went and started there. It was low paid internship work, but that was a foot in the door to what WildCRU was doing.
That led to me going out to Namibia to work with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and they ended up supporting me to do an MSc at Oxford. The next jump came when I bumped into Sarah Durant from the Serengeti Cheetah Project at a conference and ended up doing my PhD with her. Those were the big moments for me.
What do you find most enjoyable about your job?
Having an impact is always the endpoint for me. Even though I have quite an academic position here and the science is really useful for creating an evidence-base, what really gives me joy is seeing a positive change in the field.
That can be a positive change both for wildlife and people; we may see lions which have had cubs on village land and they’re growing and being tolerated which is amazing, or we’re seeing that promising students are getting scholarships through the programme and we’ve actually helped change peoples’ lives. That’s really fulfilling. For me, it’s definitely about seeing that small changes can have big impacts on wildlife and people.
“For me, it’s definitely about seeing that small changes can have big impacts on wildlife and people.”
What do you find difficult about your role?
It can be a very challenging career, especially early on as you are having to spend lots of time in the field. That can have its joys, but trying to split yourself across continents and manage different responsibilities, particularly for women if they have babies, can be challenging. If you pick a field that’s far away from where you are, you’re always going to have this split life.
One of the things that increasingly for me has come up is this increased disconnect in the field, the realities, complexities and nuances of conservation are clear, but particularly in the West (where much of the power still is), people often view conservation very simplistically and often elevate wild animals even above the rights of the rural communities. That is very difficult to deal with because unless you put people at the heart of it, I don’t think we will have effective conservation. We won’t get anywhere unless we really respect the rights of local communities; even if those choices offend us personally, we still need to respect them.
I think it’s important to weigh into these challenging discussions, even though because you can become a sort of hate figure which is difficult. I think that is particularly hard for women as for some reason we seem to receive more attacks (and often sexist abuse) when we stand up on social media in particular. We need to push back and say that no one should receive abuse no matter where we stand on these topics, and we should all consider evidence-based conservation and local rights as being important.
“Unless you put people at the heart of it, I don’t think we will have effective conservation.”
Do you think that being a woman in conservation has become easier since you started in the field?
It’s definitely become easier as there are more women in the field, and there seems more of a movement towards women adding their particular value, not just emulating how it has been done in the past.
From my experience, I think that women tend to have a more collaborative approach and are more open to sharing, whether that is experiences or data. For instance, in the lion conservation field we saw a model of conservation where you’re directly competing with each other: if you have a good idea you’re not encouraged to share it with your peers because that’s your way of getting grants, so it’s unhelpful for scaling up effective conservation.
There were six of us who formed the Pride Lion Conservation Alliance and we all happened to be women who said we wanted to build a better way of actually sharing things, our successes, our failures, and being open. That’s what led to the merger of our project with Alayne Cotterill’s work as Lion Landscapes; we actually want to live this collaborative conservation approach.
We want to show that this approach has more benefits than risks – yes, we are women and there seems more openness to this approach, but anyone can do it if they are truly open to trusting people and sharing both successes and failures.
There is vulnerability in being able to say you were wrong or something went wrong, or if you’re finding it hard and need support. Particularly with field research and maybe even more with things like big cats, there’s traditionally been quite a macho culture and it’s not very helpful to many people. I’ve cried in my tent so many times, and we need to recognise that it’s hard and that’s ok, you need a more supportive environment.
What does a general week look like for you?
It depends on where am I. If I’m in the field, it involves living in a tent and can be very variable, but a lot of it is community meetings, working with teams, checking what needs to be done, often battling to see if we can get a car fixed or power working.
If I’m back here [in the UK], it’s working on papers, supervising students or being on social media. The latter seems like such a ridiculous way to spend time, especially at work, but actually you reach so many people that way and online debate seems to influence media, public and political pressure. I could spend months writing a paper and actually one tweet could have as much impact.
As scientists I think we really value publications, so it’s partly disheartening and sobering that we need to recognise that the ways we used to communicate are not the ways we are communicating now. We have to keep with the times.
Then things like grant proposals, which always takes up a lot of time, working with colleagues, communicating across teams to look for collaboration across research themes, it tends to be very varied.
“I could spend months writing a paper and actually one tweet could have as much impact.”
Do you think working in the field is something that every conservationist should do?
If you are going to speak in a way which changes policy or has impact in that field and how it’s operated, I think it’s important that you’ve tried to understand the complexities of that situation. The best way to do that is usually by embedding yourself there, living there and really seeing it.
Of course not everyone can do that, so if you’re in that position you can take the time to understand it in a different way, but field research gives you a depth of understanding that you wouldn’t get elsewhere. You’ve still got to understand that fieldwork tends to be in one place, in one landscape, so yours might not be translatable elsewhere, but it gives you a depth of understanding that you probably wouldn’t get from learning about it in a more removed way.
Do you have any advice for aspiring conservationists?
My advice would be to not try and mould yourself into what you think a conservationist should be or look like, for instance thinking it is all about having GIS (Geographic Information System) skills or very prescribed zoology skills.
Conservation is such a wide field and we need to engage people in all different ways. I once met a young poet who was passionate about helping and asked how he could contribute to conservation, so I told him that through his poetry he would reach people that I would never reach. Those people probably won’t read my papers or listen to podcasts, but he could reach them through messaging in a different way.
You’re always best at what you’re passionate about, things that excite you, so whatever that is storytelling, statistics, art, engineering, field research or anything else, find how you could apply those skills in conservation. Of course you spend a lot of time doing things you don’t love, but as long as the contribution that you’re making can include that theme then I think you’ll stay in it because you’re doing something you love. You have to be fulfilled by it.
I just wish we could drop the idea that you need a Biology degree to be a good conservationist. I’ve got three biology-related degrees and I’ve never used them, I wish I had other degrees to some extent. Bringing different skills is so important.
“Conservation is such a wide field and we need to engage people in different ways.”
Is there anything that you wish you’d known before starting in this field?
At the beginning, I wish I’d realised the value of social science. Also, having the courage to know what you know and be confident about it and not doubt yourself, because that can be problematic. No-one can know everything, but you can be confident in what you do know and share that and stand up for it, while of course always being open to changing your mind as your knowledge changes. Being supportive of others is also key, so that we are all more effective and happier.
“You’re always best at what you’re passionate about, things that excite you, so whatever that is, storytelling, or statistics, or field research, find how you could apply those skills in conservation.”
What is something that you wish people knew about conservation?
I wish people knew about how complex conservation it is. Lots of people have some kind of passion for wildlife, which is fantastic, but people often seem to think that passion and expertise are the same thing, which they’re not at all. It undervalues expertise in conservation in a way that anyone who is interested in wildlife, or is a wildlife TV presenter etc., is automatically viewed as a conservationist.
It’s important to understand that this is a field that has a lot of complexities and expertise, and that expertise comes in different forms. For example, community leaders have huge amounts of expertise and that shouldn’t be devalued compared to a western scientist.
It is hard and complicated, it’s not just a simple way of saying that we put the animals over there and leave them be. It’s so much more complicated than that. We need to recognise all these different roles and look for common ground, so that we can blend together passion and expertise, and build a better future for both people and wildlife.
For more on women in conservation, check out our webinars Women in Conservation Part 1 and Women in Conservation Part 2, 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.
Main image credit: National Geographic.
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