Life on the Front Line | Vital Research to Conserve Endangered Lives 

Melissa Dawson’s lifelong passion and enthusiasm for biology and conservation has led her to a slice of bushveld heaven. In South Africa lies Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, a small family business with over 500 species from Giraffe to Dung beetles. They focus on the importance of research and education within conservation. 

Melissa first visited the reserve in 2013 and the years have brought her back many times in differing roles. She is now the full time Research Coordinator, since starting her PhD on ‘The habitat utilisation of the Southern White Rhino’ in 2019 and has been a Research Assistant for the Earthwatch Institute since 2017.

Read on to find out more about her career path and determination to change the outcomes of many endangered lives.

Why did you choose to work in conservation?

I’ve always loved animals. My mum always encouraged me to continue with the subjects I enjoyed the most and my favourite were always biology and conservation. Biology has been a big part of my education from high school to now.

My placement year was working with the Game and wildlife conservation trust on several projects for UK wildlife. This showed me the misunderstanding surrounding many species and how hard people fight to protect them. It really opened my eyes to conservation of habitats and species, the skills I learnt and experience I had in the field made me realise on the ground conservation is where I wanted to be.

What are your responsibilities within your role?

My role is very broad; I design, develop, execute and write up the main research projects being undertaken at the site. These projects are often very broad looking at avian species, vegetation, mammal studies and so much more. I also work with the universities that we collaborate with on projects that they want to conduct on site. While they are away I coordinate any data collection that needs to be conducted for them in the field.

As an Earthwatch research assistant I manage the field based data collection for their project, and work with the volunteer’s that need aid with data collection. I also work everyday on the front line helping with the daily reserve management and with anti poaching teams helping in the protection of the species and the site.

What is the best part of your job?

I live surrounded by amazing animals such as Eland and Rhinos, I’m privileged to observe them everyday. On night patrols I can sit with rhinos lying in the middle of the road. It is such an incredible thing, I have to pinch myself sometimes that this is my life. 

The most inspiring thing about my job is working with such incredible people. Operations manager Dr Lynne MacTavish and her father and Chief warden Dougal MacTavish are perfect examples of passionate, determined and hard-working conservationists who I am so privileged to work with. They focus on education which you don’t often find in game reserves and it is an honour to be part of a team that is so passionate about inspiring the next generation. 

I could talk about the positives for hours. I always wanted to make a difference and here I can do that. 

What is the worst part of your job?

Only little things really, such as when putting out camera traps you have to use animal innards to try and observe the nocturnal or shyer species and the smell can be quite troubling. Emotionally and personally, also dealing with the risk. I feel just as safe here as if I was at home in the UK, however, the risk element is always there. We do have poachers come on site and the team do have to manage and sort that situation. 99% of the time though everything is normal.

What is your proudest moment in your career to date?

It’s not necessarily the proudest moment, but one thing that made me stay at Manwe was the poaching incident in 2014. That event shook the reserve to its core, and to protect our rhino the reserve decided to dehorn. Dehorning is a very controversial topic and was not an easy decision to make, but without it we were at high risk of losing more Rhinos.

We have lost none since that decision was made. So to be part of that and be educating others is something that makes me incredibly proud. We really are making a difference and working towards supporting policy changes in the protection of this species.

I’m also proud that we are researching the effects of dehorning to assess the effect of the management decision that was made. It enables a full scientific understanding of the long term effects, ensuring that management on site is not undertaken irresponsibly. You can’t use a management technique and not support your choice of using it, so we do vital research and make sure the science aids everything we do for the best interest of our animals.

What steps did you take to get to where you are now?

For me it wasn’t just one thing, it was all the little things combined. In high school I went to Namibia with World challenge, 6th form I volunteered with Operation Wallacea in Cuba working on research projects and at local wildlife reserves back home in the UK. 

Both my bachelors field study and my masters were done here at the reserve. In 2014 I became a member of the Earthwatch field team for the start of our Rhino dehorning project. I have been working here full time since 2018 but initially as a volunteer coordinator supporting early career conservationists and ecologists to get field experience and reserve management skills.

I was offered a PhD from the University of Brighton so my job role here changed, putting me in charge of research onsite. Earthwatch then promoted me to full time research assistant as I would be permanently based at the reserve for research.

Do you have any advice for upcoming conservationists?

The biggest thing I’d say is find the thing you’re passionate about; that has pushed me all the way through. Volunteering is a key part, it could be anywhere, it doesn’t have to be abroad. You need the educational background but you also need practical experiences to give you skills to go out and find your thing. Take opportunities when they come, learn what you can and when you do find what you’re passionate about, fight for it! 

What is next for you?

I’m now coming to the end of my first year on my PhD so the next couple of years are about that. I will be returning to the UK for my write up. After that I will come back to Mankwe for a few years; I don’t see that plan changing anytime soon.

After that, who knows? Depending on what life brings, I’ve always had a passion to work in the cloud forest in South America so maybe live there for a few years researching to conserve the Cloud forest and its endemic species.

Do you want to explore more about Mankwe wildlife reserve? Check out their
website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

You can also learn how you can get involved in an Earthwatch Rhino conservation project in South Africa.

Main image credit: Melissa Dawson.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Scientist