Lindsey West: Saving our oceans one sea turtle at a time
Today we meet Lindsey West, Director of marine conservation organisation Sea Sense. The NGO, initially established in Mafia Island, Tanzania, in 2001, works closely with coastal communities in Tanzania to conserve and protect endangered species, including sea turtles, dugongs, whales, dolphins, and whale sharks. Lindsey is also a member of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group and the Vice Chair of the Western Indian Ocean Marine Turtle Task Force, and took some time to talk to us about the joys and challenges of being a marine conservationist in the beautiful yet troubled coasts of East Africa.
Why do you work in conservation?
“I work in conservation because I want to change the way we as human beings view our natural environment. Initially, my interests lay with direct species conservation. However, as I moved through my conservation career I became increasingly aware of the need to address the human dimension of conservation. Almost all of the threats faced by endangered species and habitats are human induced, so now my focus is on changing peoples’ attitudes and behaviours for the benefit of both endangered species and the communities that live alongside them.”
What are the main activities in your work?
“Designing, planning and organising work plans and research programmes, managing project budgets, writing technical and financial reports for donors, fund raising, managing our website and social media sites, designing educational materials, publishing work in scientific journals, popular magazines and in mass media, and representing Sea Sense at national, regional and international meetings.”
What’s the best part of the job?
“Working closely with coastal communities to implement conservation initiatives and witnessing over time how their attitudes and behaviours change as they start to recognise the value of natural resource conservation. Most of the community members we work with have very little or no formal education, so the attitude changes we see are even more meaningful because they are brought about through their own efforts to take positive action for change.”
And the worst?
“Seeing the hard work and effort of conservation minded individuals being undermined by those who conduct illegal activities such as dynamite fishing, sea turtle slaughter and mangrove harvesting. Poor governance at a local level often means that illegal fishers are protected by people in positions of power or influence (e.g. village leaders or district councillors) who are the very people elected to represent the interests of the community.”
What are you most proud of achieving through your work?
“The establishment of a comprehensive sea turtle research programme, which is helping to address a range of data gaps which were an obstacle to the development of effective sea turtle conservation measures in Tanzania. Our understanding of nesting and migratory behaviour, stranding hotspots and threats from fisheries interactions has been greatly improved due to the tireless efforts of a network of community Conservation Officers who have collected a wealth of data on sea turtles and dugongs and threats to their survival.”
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
“Breaking into the field of conservation is very challenging and it can take a long time to get the experience you need to get that dream job. My advice is: don’t give up! Volunteer when you can, keep up to date with the latest research in your specific field and try to gain a diverse skill set beyond just field conservation. Employers are looking for people that can write proposals, manage budgets (even small ones), design publicity materials and write quality reports. Conservation is not all about being in the field!”
What would you say is the biggest challenge working as a conservationist in Africa?
“Poor recognition of the fundamental link between natural resource conservation and poverty alleviation. Sustainable exploitation of natural resources plays an important role in the well-being and prosperity of local communities, yet is not considered a priority by many African governments.”
What’s your favourite animal?
“A sea turtle of course!”
About the author
Paolo Strampelli is a recent graduate from Imperial College London. He has a passion for conservation, developed during his years in Africa. His main interests are carnivore conservation, human-wildlife conflict mitigation and protected area management.