Podcast: Andrea Pawel | Oana Namibia

Oana wildlife reserve in the deep south of Namibia is 45,000 hectares of breath-taking mountainous semi-desert. Home to a previously unknown population of leopards, the reserve encompasses 50km of the lush Orange River, which is a wildlife refuge amid the extensive hues of orange and red rocky and sandy plains.

For the past three and a half years, Andrea Pawel and her partner Ed have been working to establish Oana Namibia, which is an enterprise seeking to restore this ex-hunting farmland through a series of wildlife conservation initiatives. They offer a mix of conservation expeditions, community development, adventure endeavours and ultimate relaxation programmes for anyone seeking a wildlife refuge.

During this Oana Namibia podcast we talk with Andrea about how she came to be starting such an exciting and innovative project in a forgotten area of Africa, we discuss how people can get involved and her career journey from public relations in London to African conservation, and hear her advice for others who may dream of following in her dusty footsteps. So if you love African wildlife and want to escape the rat race for a while, you’ll love this episode. Enjoy. 



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Audio Transcript

ANDREA: I’m Andrea Pawel and I am in Namibia in the Namibian deep south on the Orange River on Oana nature reserve.  

NICK: Tell us a little bit about Oana nature reserve, what’s special about it, how big is it, what sort of species would we find it we came wandering around in your back of the woods? 

ANDREA: Oana nature reserve is in the Namibian deep south, we’ve got about 50km of the Orange River. It’s an amazing, very unique area. It’s semi-arid with mountainous landscape and ecotone of three different biomes. So we make up the nama karoo, the succulent Karu and the Namib desert, which is sort of a really rare transition of three different ecotones which makes this place so special, and it just basically makes the place have a larger variety of different flora and fauna. So the type of animals that you can see here are a lot of the plains game, we have a lot of the antelopes, so kudu, eland, hartebeest, gemsbok, and then we’ve got some more of the larger carnivores, quite a lot of African leopard, African wild cat, caracal, we’ve got a special tiny little carnivore called the black footed cat. 

NICK: What’s this black footed cat like? 

ANDREA: The black footed cat, it’s Africa’s smallest cat and the world’s second smallest cat. And there has been a recent disease that has is starting to threaten them, and it’s this fierce little thing. They don’t drink water so it’s really hard to camera-trap them and so we basically need to find evidence of them here. We’ve found footprints of them but we need photographic evidence. The San Diego Zoo are quite interested in funding a black footed cat reintroduction project. At the moment what we’re trying to do is we’re going out every evening and surveying and looking for them. They’re tiny, they’re about 1kg and as soon as you find them they’ll just like burrow underground and so you need to jump off the back of the truck and grab some gloves and dig and excavate and find them. And if we get photographic evidence of one, then we can start a reintroduction project and get a healthy population here. And so the idea is that we’ll start reintroducing them and then collaring them and being able to monitor them. 

NICK: And Oana, how big is the site? You mentioned you’ve got 50km of the Orange River. Just give us a feeling of kind of size or scale, how long does it take you drive from one side to the other, just to kind of get a feel for it? 

ANDREA: Oana nature reserve at the moment is 110,000 acres. It’s hard to sort of picture how big that is but it’s the size of Paris or Berlin. It stretches over 50km of river frontage. To give you an idea, I haven’t actually been to the entire reserve yet and I’ve lived here for about three and a half years. A lot of it is still untracked, a lot of it’s complete wilderness and we want to keep it that way. From east to west it takes about three and a half hours to drive it. Mostly it’s all 4×4 trails.  

NICK: Sounds absolutely fascinating. And who owns and who manages the site? You’re talking about a nature reserve, is that something which is owned and managed by you or is it a company, a collection of communities, like, you know, what’s the tenureship? 

ANDREA: Oana nature reserve at the moment is owned by Ian and Jane Craig of Lewa Conservancy. They are a renowned family that work in conservation. Ian is the CCO of NRT, the Northern Rangers Trust in northern Kenya and they’ve done a lot for community conservation in Kenya. And Ian and Jane Craig decided to buy this piece of land about five years ago because it’s prime habitat for the black rhino. It’s covered in milk bush. Milk bush is rhino cereal, it’s this plant that is just everywhere, all over the land and so we could have a really healthy population of rhino here. Rhino used to be in the area but they’ve been locally extinct. So that was the primary aim, although in the last few years as we’ve taken over the reserve and started all the wildlife monitoring, it’s actually grown far beyond a black rhino reintroduction project. There’s so much scope here for other wildlife reintroductions. We want to totally re-wild the area. We’re surrounded by commercial farmers and at the moment there’s the worst ever drought in 150 years in Namibia, and we’re seven years into it at the moment. The land is only gonna get drier and the commercial farmers are only gonna have to give up. Most of our neighbours have given up their livestock already and the ones that are still hanging on probably only have maximum about 50, 60 animals left. So Ian and Jane really secured this land because they saw the potential, you know, this is probably one of the only areas in Africa that’s actually growing for conservation. There’s no choice, the government don’t have the funds to buy up the land and the livestock farmers are only gonna, they’re gonna have to sell their land eventually. A lot of the commercial farmers around here, it’s a bit of an ageing population, you know, they’re in their sixties, seventies and their children are all in the cities so they’re in Johannesburg or in Cape Town working in the cities, and they’re not that interested in coming back and farming. And even if they are interested in coming back and farming, they just, they wouldn’t do it any time soon. We have been studying the weather patterns, everyone around here, the scientists are studying the weather patterns and it’s only getting drier. They do say that next year we’re gonna get above average rainfall but, you know, how long is that gonna last? So it’s a tricky situation at the moment, it’s hard to see all the commercial farmers struggling, you know, it’s difficult and we have to be sensitive and we have to be supportive, but it’s also a very exciting time for conservation. And Ian and Jane don’t want to be the sole land owners, they don’t want to own a massive area of land, they want to create a model here and then to show the potential and then surrounding NGOs will come in, or international NGOs will come in, and help buy land off the commercial farmers that neighbour us, and then we’ll create a greater landscape for conservation. You know, because we are semi-arid and we are really dry, when the rain does come it will only come in certain areas and then the animals need to be allowed to naturally migrate, you know, that’s how they… this area never had a high-density of wildlife. It did at some points but that’s because of migration routes, you know, so the animals need to be able to have their natural migration routes, well enough land for them to be able to migrate. So what we’re really doing here is we’re just creating a little model for conservation, and then the world will start knowing about it, the NGOs will come in, they’ll support and buy land, or lease land, off the commercial farmers, and then we’ll just create an amazing mosaic for wildlife. 

NICK: Wow, re-wilding Namibia, that sounds so exciting. And even the drought that you’re going through, I can kind of hear the opportunity for conservation and it does sound exciting also. You’ve been there for, you said three and a half years; what have you been trying to do in terms of establishing, you know, a conservation project? What’s the model you’re kind of seeking to build and test and to kind of scale out from where you currently are? 

ANDREA: So we’re coining it re-wilding the Namibian deep south, because most of the people that come to Namibia and say like, oh we’ve been to the south of Namibia, they probably go like half-way down the country and no one’s really even heard of the Orange River or even come down here, so we’re calling it re-wilding the Namibian deep south. We had to be innovative, you know, most of the people that come to Namibia go to the north on safaris. And we had to compete with that, so if we’re gonna make money out of wildlife tourism, you know, if we’re gonna be a sustainable enterprise to fund conservation, we had to be innovative and we had to be creative. So we chose to start an organisation called Oana Namibia, which is adventure conservation and community expeditions. It’s not your average volunteering project, it’s quite unique, it’s sort of merging conservation volunteering, conservation research and adventure. So we run a range of expeditions, and the way we work is, it’s not an ongoing rolling volunteering programme, it’s sort of set expeditions where people apply and then they become part of a team that’s pre-requisite reading, there might be some pre-requisite training, you get picked up as a team altogether, you start together and you end the expedition together. And then you get a chance to participate in a range of different conservation projects. 

NICK: So yeah, let’s go dive into that point actually, yeah, tell us about some of the kind of conservation projects and sort of experience that people can get involved with at Oana. 

ANDREA: In terms of hands-on experience, and you’ve really become part of the reserve management team, we’re all in it together, you know. If there’s a kudu that’s stuck in one of our northern boundary fences and we have to go out there and take it out and save it, then if you’re on an expedition and you’re here at that time, you’re getting involved in that. Other types of projects that you can get involved in is we’re doing a lot of removal of any human infrastructure that was on the reserve. So the first thing was rip up all the internal boundary fences. The reserve was four different plots and now it’s one large park. So there was about 50km of fencing that had to be taken down. And we work alongside locals from our local community, none of our volunteers take jobs away from what we could hire people to do. So you work alongside the local community. So it’s ripping up internal boundary fencing, it’s removing invasive tree species, it’s building sand dams to create reservoirs for water in times of drought, sand dams are incredible. They’ve totally changed the landscapes and ecosystems in some of the driest areas in the world, they use them in northern Kenya, in Israel, in Jordan, you know, it’s hands-on activity, it takes four or five days to build a team of 20 people, and it can totally transform the landscape. I’ll send you a link later to a sand dam so you can see… watch a little video on it and see what I mean by that.  

NICK: Yeah do and we’ll embed that in the blog post. I saw some pictures as well on your website before we kind of popped on and it looks quite incredible, what you’re doing. What about some of the camera-trapping type stuff? You seem to be doing like ecological monitoring studies across the site too, that seems to be really interesting. 

ANDREA: We do a lot of ecological monitoring because this area has never been studied by science before. Because it was all commercial farms, scientists just haven’t been invited to the area so it’s really exciting. We’re getting interest from around the world and a lot of Namibia as well so we’ve partnered with many different universities and we get leading scientists to come down, set up our monitoring programmes for us, and then all of our volunteers contribute towards those research projects. So nothing gets set up just for the sake of it, all the research that’s done gets sent off and we receive reports on it and they contribute towards PhDs or masters research, and some of the monitoring programmes that we have at the moment are leopard monitoring. They’re Namibia’s forgotten leopards, they’re really cool. Nothing’s known about them, no one knows about their behaviour, their population and we’ve got a resident PhD here from the Czech Republic University of Life Sciences, he’s been here for two years and he’s already identified 17 different individuals, that’s a huge population of leopard in such a small reserve. We’re hoping to collar the leopards next year to be able to track them and understand a little bit more about their behaviour, and it’s really to find out and reduce the human-leopard conflict that we have in the area. We are surrounded by commercial farms and naturally there is a bit of conflict there with the leopards, so we need to quickly identify what is going on with the leopards, are they moving into the farmlands or do we have a really healthy population. Because then they know that they’re safe here and then later when we understand more about the leopard then we can do some education around that. We also have a brown hyena monitoring programme, again very little is known about this amazing, amazing carnivore and we’re also planning to put some collars on them and track them to understand their movement patterns, their breeding habits, their diet. And then we are studying our medium carnivores as well, we’re doing a lot of small mammal trappings, because some scientists say that there are definitely new species to be found here so although it’s a drought and stuff is quiet at the moment, I think a lot of things are underground and waiting for the rains but we are studying our small mammals and basically doing a lot of baseline surveys, you know. Find out what’s here, because before we start doing our big wildlife reintroductions, we need to find out what’s here, what’s not here and if they’re not here, why are they not here anymore.  

NICK: It must be enormously exciting to have such a huge reserve, lots of undiscovered corners, places that even in three and a half years you’ve not visited yourself yet, which has some really unique wildlife in it. Yeah, it must be incredibly exciting to think like, what are you gonna find?  

ANDREA: Yeah, it’s really exciting and it’s, you know, it’s such a different wildlife than I’ve seen before. We have a lot of aardvark, honey badger, porcupine, we have lots of sort of bizarre little animals, we’ve got jennet, spring hares, God the plains are covered in spring hares. And just little bizarre creatures that you don’t see in other places there, it’s just really incredible. And I’m sure there’s new things to be found. And what’s really exciting about this place as well is that it comes to life at night-time, because it is semi-arid and it can get very hot during the day, most of our animals come out at night-time. So we do a lot of full moon wildlife monitoring, and the animals are quite relax at night, you can get much closer to them, so we have some cool interactions there and it’s, it’s just a different way of monitoring them. So I’ve never really done that before on other reserves, which is just super exciting. 

NICK: It sounds like it, yeah, I can kind of hear it coming through too. I really want to visit, we were just talking before we kind of popped on the call properly about how you get groups come through, you currently have a mum’s groups there, right, people who did a gap year 20 years ago now come out from the UK just to have a couple of weeks off experiencing being in nature, getting involved in conservation activities. It sounds like a lot of fun.  

ANDREA: Yeah, it is good fun. We’ve got mums now and we’re doing dads in May, so yeah, if you’ve got a chance you should join that. 

NICK: (laughter) I’d love to, I’ll have to speak to my wife first. So tell us a little bit about your background then Andrea, what have been your kind of careers steps to lead you to be in the wild and now kind of managing the projects as you are, like what have you done so far? 

ANDREA: Well my background is, I’m actually Brazilian but I grew up in London, I went to international school and then I graduated and went and did an undergraduate in PR and marketing in London. Yeah I gained some skills, I mean it was good, you know, a bit of website development, marketing, graphic design, which I think is quite useful for this start-up, you know. When we started it we were sort of on our own doing it so we just kind of had to do everything from scratch, build the website, do all the marketing. And then I went on and took a gap year after I graduated, and did some travelling and that’s when I really got into conservation. I just volunteered as much as I could at different conservation organisations, I went to Kenya, did some colobus monkey research, yeah, and some volunteering there and then I went to Peru, and then I went back to Brazil where I’m from and did some volunteering there and then that’s when I really sort of sparked my love and my interest for conservation and realised it’s actually a career that you can get into. I didn’t know anything about conservation when I finished high school. And then I applied and went to DICE University, University of Kent in Canterbury and did… 

NICK: Which is the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, is that right, DICE? 

ANDREA: Yeah. And did a masters in primate behaviour and conservation. I’ve always been into primates, I’ve just always been obsessed with chimpanzees, I just never really knew that you could sort of follow a career in it, you know? I was totally unattached from that growing up in London. So luckily I got into DICE and finished my masters, I did my research in Sierra Leone at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, I spent three months there. And that’s when I knew yeah, just definitely had to move back to Africa as soon as I finished my degree but what I was really interested was in education and conservation education, and wildlife filmmaking. So I went to Tanzania and made some education films outside of Ruaha national park but again like the… how I managed to fund all this, I would just make little fundraising campaigns to fundraise all of my volunteering. And so I would make, you know, a landing page on and I would fundraise for myself to go out and make these education films in Tanzania and then after I did that I worked for Tanzania People and Wildlife Fund. 

NICK: Just to kind of back up a little bit there, because I think that’s really kind of quite insightful, so you wanted to go off and make conservation research, well conservation films, out in Africa, it’s gonna cost, you know, money to do that so you set up a JustGiving page, like a charitable fundraising page. How did you then, you know, drive donations to that page, you know, where did that money come from? 

ANDREA: Mostly friends of friends, family, I went to lots of local cafes, lots of just local businesses around my area and just talked to as many people as possible, I made fliers, I fundraised for that trip to Tanzania to make those education films, and I also fundraised for my volunteering in Kenya at the Colobus Trust. Because volunteering in conservation is quite expensive, so I did work to pay for that but I also did a lot of fundraising to go out and that’s how it all really started. And then after I finished making my wildlife films, I got an internship at the TPW, which is Tanzania People and Wildlife Fund, just outside of Tarangire national park in Tanzania, and I was there for a year working on the education… in the education department. And then I got this job here in Namibia. We were thinking about leaving and we got a call from Ian Craig and then yeah, he invited us to come out here and start this business with him. 

NICK: And the rest is history, as they say. It’s been really interesting kind of hearing how you through your gap year and I guess, maybe, I don’t… were you interested in wildlife in childhood also? 

ANDREA: Yeah, I was always obsessed with chimpanzees. When I was younger I always told my parents that I wanted to be a psychologist for orphan chimps (laughter). I don’t know where I got that from. It’s Jane Goodall really inspired me, you know, I read all her books and I watched all her stuff. But I should also say I’m the cofounder of Oana Namibia, I run it with my partner Red. And he did his masters research, he also went to DICE, he did conservation and business. But he did his masters research at NRT in Kenya for Ian Craig. And that’s the link there, so that’s how we got into this. So we went together to Kenya and spent a week there with the Craigs after Red did his research and then that’s when we all started brainstorming and putting together ideas for this initiative. And so when they were ready to launch it, when we… we were already working in Tanzania, you know, this was a year later… when they were ready to launch it, that’s when they called us and said, look, are you interested, do you want to come back and give it a go? 

NICK: That sounds great. We were talking again before the call about, you know, conservation and the different kind of models out there for conserving wildlife, you know. One model is the charity model, whereby people give donations, you know, they fund their activities and it’s by far the biggest and most impactful, and the most important conservation activity on the planet. But there’s also these kind of new… I guess of more enterprise, you know, which is what Oana is, what Conservation Careers is as well, you know, we’re trying to find some business enterprise solutions to save wildlife and to engage people in it. What’s your kind of thoughts about that? 

ANDREA: I think, you know, we need to be creative and we need to keep up with the times. I think conservation used to be completely run by scientists and there was a lot of funding for research. But I think, you know, conservation has to pay for itself and we need to make money and in order to do really cool wildlife reintroductions and really cool pioneering conservation, we need to make money. It’s a business, and we have to be creative, innovative and I think we need to be authentic and we need to be genuine but people want to help. I think safaris are great, photographic tourism is great, but people want more than that. They want more of an experience, they want to be involved. They want to see the background, you know, they want to be part of the nitty gritty, it’s, you know… it’s not always glamorous, it’s not always just go to a lodge and then take a couple of photos of your leopard and then that’s it. They want to know, you know, what did it take to get this leopard here or… they want the background, they want to speak to the rangers, they want to go out in the field, they want to work for it a little bit. I think there’s just so much more access to information now, people know so much more so they want to be involved in so much more and I think what we offer here is a really like authentic experience, you know. I did a lot of volunteering in my year in Africa and I worked for many different organisations and I think sometimes you feel like the work you were doing wasn’t necessarily going anywhere, or wasn’t for anything. It was just for the sake of it, and I think that’s something we’re very strong about and very, completely transparent about is that, you know, if you sign up yes it is expensive to come here but if you sign up and you come on an expedition, your work counts. We’ve got a five-year plan, what we want to achieve in five years, and you know, you come here and you do authentic volunteering. Every activity or every project you get involved in needs to be done and it’s for the benefit of wildlife and for the community here. 

NICK: If there’s people out there, and I guess many people listening, you know, are looking at conservation experiences, they’re looking at a volunteer opportunity or an internship, you know, and they’re kind of doing their research, what sort of questions should people ask in your view when they’re kind of looking at an organisation, to ensure they’re gonna get, let’s call it an authentic experience, or a high-quality experience that has impact, both for wildlife and communities but also for themselves? What are the sort of things that, you know… or even the red flags, things that you should avoid? 

ANDREA: I think the rehabilitation- and the sanctuary-based volunteering experiences, I think there’s definitely a place for it and a lot of places are doing it properly and ethically, but I think they just need to be careful and they need to do their research, you know. Are the animals getting reintroduced? Where did they come from? Where are they going? Is there any post-monitoring on those animals? It’s good to do a lot of background work, I would call the organisation, speak to them on the phone, find out if you are involved in wildlife research, you know, where is that research going? Can you receive a report on that research after it’s been published? Is it contributing towards PhDs? If so, speak to the actual PhD in charge of it, speak to the universities that are in charge. I really like that all the people that we get, I speak to them on Skype before they come out here, you know, and I’m getting a lot… a lot of really interesting questions, people are interested and they are more knowledgeable and they want to know more and more, you know. Where’s the money going? How’s it contributing to the wider community? You know, is the research for the research’s sake or is it research for conservation? And I think that… 

NICK: Those are really insightful questions, yeah. Are you happy when people ask you those questions?  

ANDREA: Yeah I like it, because I want people here that are actually interested in conservation, or even if they’ve got… they’ve never been involved in conservation, you know, they’re curious and they want to do good work and those are the type of people we want to attract. 

NICK: Fabulous. Well you’ve had a really interesting career so far and it’s gonna be fascinating where you’re gonna go as well, and where Oana’s gonna be, you know, five, ten, fifteen years from now? It’s an exciting time to be, you’re still in the early days but you know, there’s so much opportunity for you and it’s gonna be, you know, fascinating to kind of hear that story. As a final question, you know, if someone wants to go and follow in your footsteps, you know, if someone wants to kind of set up their own reserve or to follow their passion in conservation or whatever, what sort of careers advice would you give someone? What have you learnt so far about working in the industry and things that help or hinder? 

ANDREA: I think to be honest just go for it, you know, I was 21 when I moved out to Africa and I think it’s not as dangerous as people say. Definitely not, just totally go for it, it’s amazing out here. And just get stuck in and meet as many people as you can. Whenever I was back in London during my university, I was going to all the events you could think of. Whether it was ZSL or the RGS or British Exploring or whatever talk was happening in London at the time, there’s so many, go to as many as you can, network with everyone and then just get out to Africa. Because once you’re out here, you’ll make it work. And… 

NICK: That’s great advice. And it’s interesting to go through the networking too, because it is about who you know a little bit in this world, and luck and chance plays a big part of that and it certainly played a chance for you and Red, hasn’t it? With your connections to the Craigs and, you know, and the research and the connection with them brought you down to Oana so just getting yourself out there and being open to opportunity clearly has helped you and will help others. 

ANDREA: Yeah definitely, and just go for it, you know. What’s different between you and the next person next to you? I’ve never managed a nature park before, we’d never started an organisation before but we just… Red and I just went for it and learnt along the ways and there’s been certainly a lot of challenges, a lot of hurdles but we’ve had amazing support, amazing advice and definitely ask for advice. Definitely get as much support as you can, but just go for it. 

NICK: I couldn’t agree more, I couldn’t agree more. Well it’s been really nice chatting to you and getting to know a little bit Andrea, thank you so much for finding the time and jumping on the podcast. If people are listening and they like the sound of Oana and Namibia and want to kind of get involved, find out more, where should we point them? 

ANDREA: Check out our Instagram, OanaNamibia and our website and please do get in touch and sign up to our expeditions because even though we’re doing amazing work, it only happens if people sign up. The more people the better. 

NICK: Sounds good. The more people, the more the conservation, the more the impact. Yeah, I love it. Ok, thanks again Andrea, really nice to talk. 

ANDREA: Thanks Nick. Thanks for having me.  

NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out. 

Careers Advice, Podcast, Senior Level, Wildlife