Working from the Heart of a South African Reserve – An Interview with Jarryd Foster
Wildlife ACT is an award-winning wildlife conservation organisation running Critically Endangered and priority species conservation projects in South Africa. They provide wildlife monitoring services and state-of-the-art animal tracking and anti-poaching equipment at no charge to several reserves across KwaZulu-Natal, working closely with many other global conservation organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT).
Since 2008, Wildlife ACT has successfully fitted over 700 animals with tracking equipment, relocated close to 800 Endangered species to new homes in protected areas and saved hundreds of animals from snares. They also play a key part in the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project, which is hoped to mirror the huge success of the 1960’s project Operation Rhino which saved White Rhino from extinction.
One of Wildlife ACT’s conservation projects is based on the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife protected area: Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) – the oldest reserve on the continent and the birthplace of African wildlife conservation. Jarryd Foster is the lead Priority Species Monitor for the iMfolozi project with Wildlife ACT and shared his journey so far within the conservation industry.
Talk me through your path towards a job within the natural field.
From a young age I have always loved the African bush and my parents took me camping often. While I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go specifically following university, I just knew I wanted to work in the natural field.
I studied a three-year undergraduate degree in Biodiversity Ecology at Stellenbosch University and found it fascinating. However, options on from there seemed very narrow to me at the time and I felt like I was being pushed towards a more research-based career.
After graduating I published some of my Honours work and got a job with Sanparks as a field assistant at Kruger national park. I was quite fortunate to meet a wildlife vet in Kruger who knew someone at Wildlife ACT. We got chatting and when he mentioned that they were looking for a new addition to the team I passed on my details and was later contacted by someone at Wildlife ACT.
When I heard about the role here it was a no-brainer. Had I known five years ago that this kind of role existed, it would have been something I’d aimed for from the beginning.
What are the responsibilities of your role?
Primarily, my job is to track Endangered and priority species in the park, focusing particularly on Wild Dogs and Cheetah, as well as Lion, African Elephant, Black Rhino and Vultures. A priority species is any animal species of management concern for reasons such as ecological impact, population status or being at risk of commercial exploitation. That work is done with telemetry equipment and tracking collars, and this is to monitor population demographics, the animals’ condition, and ensure that the animals are still in the park.
There is also a large admin component to the role; I compile data reports which are forwarded to Wildlife ACT management and park management, and I regularly update our identification kits, collar data and location data.
How did the skills you gained through your degree help prepare you for this?
As part of my ecology degree we worked with data and data analysis, so my degree definitely helps with the work I do now. As part of my job is to collect, sort and present a lot of data, I find that much easier given the experience from my degree and what I’ve learned.
Further to that, basic ecological principles that you learn through a degree like mine, you come to the field and you can easily apply them and explain them to others.
In addition to work relationships, your role also includes a lot of interaction with people such as the volunteers that work with you, as well as the general public in the park. How does that play a part in your role?
Wildlife ACT uses a voluntourism model as an important part of our funding, where we bring in 3-5 volunteers onto each project for two weeks at a time and they help us with all aspects of the project such as data collection in the field, helping at camp, pretty much anything that comes up.
It can be hard sometimes; every two weeks you’re meeting new people. If you are not much of a people person it can be difficult, but what’s great is that you learn how to become a people person very fast. For me it’s exciting meeting new people. When it comes to the general public, they tend to learn that we are the ones who often know where the animals are so you get asked a lot, but it’s great to see people get excited and race off to see the animals.
What is your favourite aspect of your role and is there anything you are particularly proud of achieving?
Definitely the field time. You meet so many charismatic, Endangered species, which people pay enormous amounts of money just to go see for a few days, and we get to see them and work with them, playing an active role in their conservation which is very, very special.
So I am proud in general to work with the species that I do, and to work with the people and organisations that I do. Not many people get to work on such a historical conservation area and I’m part of that history now.
The highlight so far? That’s tough as there’s a lot. The practical management procedures such as collaring and relocations are very special. The biggest one being the relocation of three wild dog females to Madikwe game reserve. We had to drive through the night and then bond them with the dogs already waiting and it was an amazing experience.
Are there any parts to the role that you find more challenging?
The more general project management things such as finances, vehicle maintenance and camp maintenance aren’t necessarily my forte but it’s still an important part of living here. The not-so-glamorous parts, I guess. But it doesn’t detract from the job as a whole.
What advice would you give to someone seeking a similar role to yours?
Firstly, there are so many more options than you think. There is a plethora of conservation roles other than simply ‘research’ as I once thought.
Similarly, I think people sometimes fret about not having “the right” degree, because conservation is such a diverse field and a large part is field experience and people skills which are things you can learn in multiple ways. A lot of that is not degree dependent. Studying a relevant degree sets you up with the skills you need so you’re in pole position for a job, but you don’t necessarily need to have a conservation and ecology degree specifically.
Secondly, putting yourself in a place where you can meet the right people is also very important, so for me working as a field assistant in the Kruger proved to be the right place and time so that I met the people I did. And on from that, putting yourself out there and getting as much experience as you can in the relevant field.
I know for some networking can be challenging but conservation is very much a networking industry so it’s important to try and put yourself out there. It’s also important to keep moving, growing and developing; if you’re even in a semi-relevant field to where you want to be you’ll still be gaining the right skills and meeting the right people to get you where you want to be.
Main image: Once tranquilised, blindfolds are placed on the animals to reduce stress and protect their eyes. Credit: Jarryd Foster.