Purposefully lost: The story of Manon, a woman for nature
I went through the classic, sometimes painful and frustrating route of young conservationists. During my BSc, I interned every summer, working part-time throughout the academic year to finance my internships. Not knowing exactly where my place in this field was, I went from zookeeping, to managing volunteers in Iceland, to volunteering at the behavioural biology lab of my university. Originally set in my ambition to study animal behaviour, I did my undergraduate dissertation project on white shark conditioning around cage-diving boats in South Africa, organising my fieldwork in the summer before my last year.
Increasingly, however, I was becoming frustrated at the lack of perspective displayed by some of the more ‘traditional’ ecology and conservation researchers I met. Indeed, having spent most of my life in East Africa, I knew local conservation issues to be inherently complex, and that sustainable conservation practices have to take into account the hardships of populations that still rely on protected areas and wildlife to secure food security and basic resources, as well as their cultural heritage and traditions. ‘Conservation at all costs’ just wasn’t quite cutting it for me.
Fortunately, those realisations just so happened to coincide with my acceptance into a multidisciplinary MSc programme in Environment and Resource Management at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Specialising in Ecosystem Services Valuation and Biodiversity, I plunged into an intense course, studying economics, governance and policy within the nature conservation arena. I was suddenly gaining all the perspectives I’d been lacking from my training as a zoologist, and I had the chance to apply them during my master’s project.
I left to investigate a complex, yet universal and growing problem in the field of conservation: human-wildlife conflict. Our fieldwork around Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park revealed that farmers impacted by wildlife raiding agricultural land did not have the same tolerance for a given amount of damage. Indeed, their perceptions varied greatly, depending on their socio-economic background, knowledge of nature and wildlife tourism benefits, personal experience, and many other factors. This work was eye-opening for me, prompting me to orient my career choice in this direction. I am still very much at the start of said career, however, gaining clarity on exactly what I wanted to focus on has been tremendously helpful in helping me decide on where to steer my future career.
Why do you work as a wildlife conservationist?
Growing up in the African bush, one can’t help but marvel at the wonders of raw, still mostly untouched nature and landscapes. People from all over the world are drawn to this continent to experience these unspoiled, wild sceneries; yet the environmental degradation of natural habitats is, here too, increasing at a catastrophic rate. I witnessed very early the plights of such environmental degradation, be it poaching, forest clearance for fuelwood, land grabbing, pollution… Like most conservationists I’ve had the chance to speak to in the past few years, I too realised I could not stand idly by, watching these problems worsen year by year, without attempting to do my part.
What do you love most about conservation?
In my opinion, sustainable conservation – taking into account all potential trade-offs and synergies in socio-ecological systems – is the only path to the long-term success of preserving our natural heritage. True, it may be a hair-pulling, nightmare-inducing, migraine-giving endeavour. It is a world of millions of shades of grey, yet for the sake of our planet and humanity, we need to embrace the idea that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.
It is precisely that challenge that draws me to the field of human-wildlife conflict. The need for peaceful coexistence between people and nature will undoubtedly involve sacrifices and trade-offs, but our job as conservationists should be to ensure these remain minimal. One thing I have come to love in this line of work is the constant conversations and debates between researchers, practitioners and policy-makers: they reflect the huge complexity of the problems we are currently dealing with, and although it can be daunting to reach an agreement, it is a necessary tool to learn and make more informed, sustainable decisions.
Are there any downsides to being a woman working in conservation?
It can definitely be a challenge at times, depending on the institution and country/region you work in. In more traditional environment, where the status of women in society is normally lower, it can be very difficult to make your voice heard and respected. It is also a consideration that I think employers take into account: I once had an interview where this was made very clear to me; as the project manager was required to supervise a local, male team, a male candidate would have a clear advantage over me (for otherwise equal qualifications and experience). At times, it can also be daunting to feel that a woman is not taken as seriously as her male counterparts. But I do also think there are advantages to it: having worked for a time with women’s cooperatives in East Africa, I was immediately more trusted and accepted, which greatly facilitated our interactions and work.
What are your career highlights / most proud of so far?
I would say working as a freelance consultant after finishing my MSc. It was incredibly rewarding to work -mostly independently- on important research and write reports that would contribute to shaping policy-making in the biodiversity conservation arena. It was the first time that I could SEE the direct impact that my research could have on this field.
What advice would you give to young woman hoping to take up a similar career path to yours?
Conservation can be an incredibly rewarding field, yet. Over the years, I spoke to countless people who turned away: disheartened, broke, angry, frustrated. Yet, all those who succeeded had one thing in common: a never ending tenacity. Should you know what you want in this field, be ruthless about achieving your goals. No matter the time it takes, the odd jobs you have to take to fund your studies, acquire skills and experience. No matter the people who say you’re being unreasonable, unrealistic, to stop dreaming with your head in the stars and come back down to earth. It does take time to know where you wish to steer your career, and it can feel like a blow when realising what you’re currently doing just isn’t ‘it. I know of no advice to help people find their passion in life, but what I can say is this: once you know what that passion is, identify exactly what it will take for you to get there.
I’m still looking for where I belong exactly in this field, in this world.