The evolution of a conservation intern

By Fortunate M. Phaka

Y4AW conservation interns (July 2015).

Everyone involved in conservation has a story of how it all began. Some had passion for wildlife and it translated into a lifelong dedication. Some got involved after finding out that our destruction of the environment eventually affects our wellbeing. Others got involved purely because of the prospect of monetary gain in the conservation industry. Having been part of three Youth 4 African Wildlife (Y4AW) conservation internship programmes puts me in a privileged position of witnessing how the mind-set of an intern changes as they start their lifelong conservation journey. I started off as an intern myself then later on was promoted to a supervising role on the Y4AW internship. During this 4 week long internship pure passion evolves to a strong conservation ethic and meaningful action to preserve wildlife.

Interns generally start this program with a rose tinted view of conservation. They imagine conservation to be all about army-green jeeps, khakis, untouched landscapes and peaceful bushveld nights. This, of course is the more romantic version of conservation, and as with everything in life they learn to take it with more than a pinch of salt. First there is a realisation that living in a tent for a month means discarding most of your city-savvy ways. You realise that you are more of a trespasser than any of the wildlife in the reserve will ever be. It becomes apparent that nature is more in control than you despite our species being top of the food chain. When a lion or any other predator strolls through camp you stay out of its way as the local SPCA will not come remove it. Monkeys are not cute and cuddly animals to be hugged, and when elephants are munching on the vegetation outside your tent you keep quiet and let them eat in peace.

Y4AW conservation interns on a bush walk (Photo Credit: Andrea Mendez)

Once the new rules of engagement sink in and all notions of a comfort zone have disappeared, you start on an emotional rollercoaster as you learn about the harsher truths of conservation. You wonder why most television shows tend to romanticize conservation while neglecting to speak about the rising extinction rates that conservation is struggling to contend with. A seemingly simple fence becomes a subject of hatred when you realise how it decreases sizes of habitats, blocks ancient migration routes and may eventually drive some species to extinction. The fence hatred reaches fever-pitch when game wardens mention that populations of certain animals have to be regulated to suit the size of a reserve. Anger leads some interns to ask; “Why don’t we regulate our own population numbers more effectively and leave the wildlife alone since they got here before us?” The question is valid yet loaded with so many ethical pitfalls that I dare not answer it. How would we morally justify suppressing human populations while letting other animals flourish? Then again, how do we justify our superiority when the most fundamental of Earth’s life-giving processes assign the same value to all life forms?

The hatred of fences is usually followed by anger at the world as interns ask themselves how we carry on with current ideas of development even though they are slowly killing our environment. This anger is coupled with confusion as to how we can claim to be bettering our lives while simultaneously destroying Earth’s processes that give us life. Learning that one of the biggest conservation challenges is poaching and canned hunting leads you to concentrate your anger on certain nations. The East annoys you because of its obsession with either eating almost any animal or using it for dubious medicinal purposes. Any wildlife product that is not consumed is then likely to be used as a status symbol or collector’s item. There’s disgust towards the West’s incessant need to shoot animals and hang them on living room walls for friends to see. A society that has supposedly reached the pinnacle of civilisation still conforms to ancient ways of proving one’s manhood by hanging dead animals on walls. Respect for western nations diminishes further as you fail to understand how such seemingly smart people get duped into believing that canned hunting or lion petting has conservation’s best interests at heart.  African nations are not exempt from this dismay. There are questions as to how such a proud continent can sell off its soul for short-term gain. Poverty may be rife in Africa but poaching will only make matters worse as any gains from it cannot be maintained indefinitely.

Y4AW interns (July 2015).

The focus shifts to individual governments that seem content with letting criminal syndicates do as they please with the world’s natural heritage. Faith in most governments is lost as you realise that they have little political will. Some poaching kingpins are known but they are rarely ever brought to justice. Corruption is so rampant that it seems part of normal administration. South Africa has the world’s biggest population of rhinos, the recent rhino poaching problem has been going on for more than 4 years, and yet there is still no commitment to laws that adequately protect rhinos. The US has some of the toughest anti-terrorism policies, poaching has strong links to terrorism, some poached wildlife products end up on American shores, and yet they have not really cracked down on this form of terrorist activity.

Scrutiny of the world’s governments eventually leads to self-scrutiny. We live in a largely democratic world so we have the power to change the status quo. We may not be as powerful as politicians but collectively we can lobby our governments towards more environmentally responsible ways. With realisation of individual power comes disgust as interns realise how ignorant they were to some of the world’s most pressing issues. Some question how they continued with their seemingly normal lives unaware that poaching not only threatens the lives of wild animals but theirs too. At this point there comes a commitment to changing one’s own ways and leading a more environmentally-friendly life. There is a commitment to being a conservationist. This commitment is not only backed by passion but there is an epiphany behind it. There is a realisation that through saving wildlife conservation is saving our own lives.

Personally I have also gone through change while on this internship. I started with an idea of how urgently we needed conservation. Now I know that we urgently need to communicate the importance of conservation to those without first-hand experience of the wildlife crisis. I know that we need to show others that conservation is not a lifestyle choice, but a struggle to ensure that our great grandchildren have a chance at life.

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