What the world thinks I do. What family thinks I do. What I really do; I’m a conservationist.

Written by: Fortunate M. Phaka

What the world thinks I do.

The more publicized part of conservation; the occasional lunch at an exclusive lodge.

To the world I am a hopeless romantic head over hills in love with anything wild. My love is unconditional, always willing to lay my life on the line to save that one ancient tree or that rare butterfly. The world sees me as a tree hugger, bunny hugger, or a greenie beanie. These are all code names for “He will strap himself to that tree to save it from being chopped down if you give him half a chance”. Society sees my typical workday as a scenic drive through pristine African savanna; breathtaking sunrises at the watering hole, glorious sunsets on top of a mountain, and dinner besides a crackling fire that burns throughout the night. Lions, elephants and all other animals see my army-green jeep as another animal and that is why they tolerate my presence.

During the day I take leisurely strolls among Africa’s magnificent, but potentially dangerous creatures. I understand these animals more than I understand my lover, so the rifle-wielding safari guide by my side is just a necessary precaution in case one of those animals is feeling grumpy and we cannot communicate as well as we usually do. Life out here is care-free hence I traded the city life for khakis and endless dusty, but picturesque roads. I have little compassion for people because “humans have messed up everything with their greed and selfishness”. I am all about saving wildlife, don’t you dare talk to me about my socio-economic problems.

What my family thinks I do.

Handling dangerous animals is something we learn.

Family in this context includes the community I grew up in. They take interest in my affairs just as much as my blood relatives. For my family I am still that child that spends countless hours in the field catching whichever animal I come across. I am still that boy who finds beetles more fascinating than playing soccer. I will forever be that person who rescues animals, and I don’t mind waking up at 2 am to remove a bat from your house so you can sleep. Sometimes I am a veterinarian; the perfect person to call when your dog has a snake bite. I think I also dabble in animal breeding. Someone once asked if I could sell them a baby snake, while another asked if I could ‘organize’ a baby rhino to walk around with at shopping malls and raise awareness of the poaching crisis. I am also my family’s version of Steve Irwin; no reptile scares me.

To my grandmother this ‘animal thing’ is just a phase but she tolerates it because it seems to be slowly taking me away from the poverty line. It is just a phase, it will pass, and I will settle down and get married. To my mother I will always be that stubborn, rebellious child who always insists on following their own lead. My rebellion is tolerable as it brings her more proud moments than it does disappointments. I think to my girlfriend I am more of a delicacy that evolved into a desire then later became a need. I am that ‘something different’ that she decided to try and ended up loving.

What I really do; I am conservationist.

The less publicized part of conservation; shoveling rhino dung.

What the world does not understand is that I am a conservationist and it is not a fancy profession.  What my family does not know is that I am far from Steve Irwin, I am more Aldo Leopold than Gifford Pinchot. I am an environmentalist at heart but I live in a time where conservationists are needed and environmentalism is becoming outdated. Environmentalism sometimes advocates for a ‘non-use’ policy. This can be considered naive since our influence on this Earth is far too great to think we have not or will not impact any environment. Conservationism acknowledges our impacts and seeks to manage them. It seeks to ensure a harmonious and sustainable existence with wildlife. That little ‘name drop’ at the beginning of this paragraph gives a hint of what I really do; I am glorified nerd, a scientist that gets to spend a lot of time in the field instead of the lab.

Being a conservationist is not what the world makes it out to be and definitely not as fun as my family thinks it is. Contrary to what society believes, going into the field is for research and it comes with real risks. The animals we encounter are dangerous and we get by on assessing their behaviour and making assumptions from that. This is not a fool-proof method hence we always have safari guides who are qualified to handle hairy situations should our assumptions be wrong. By the way, safari guides are the ones that wear khakis as it is their uniform, we are more into jeans and t-shirts. Besides the risk of being charged by a deadly buffalo or territorial hippo there are also life threatening diseases we can catch. Being in the field comes with a constant risk of contracting malaria, tick-bite fever and even sleeping sickness. Ethical codes do not allow us to be like Steve Irwin, we only catch what we are studying and release it after we have taken measurements and sometimes attached a tracking device. We sometimes take samples, but only if the ethics committee allows it. Besides the ethics we subscribe too, catching some animals comes at a risk as they will defend themselves out of instinct. You don’t want to be at the sharp end of a rhino or snake when survival instincts kick in. Simply put, we cannot catch everything we see and we do not catch everything we see.

Conservationists are not that different to other people or animals. Self-preservation is one of our most basic instincts and this drives most of our decisions without us even noticing. Conservation work is recognition that the destruction of the environment will eventually affect our health.  Survival instincts kicked in when increasing evidence pointed to our possible demise as a result of our destruction of ecosystems. Our demise will be a slow one; the effects of our environmental destruction are long-term and sometimes not easy to separate from natural occurrences. Our work is a crisis discipline with results that are not too obvious. Maybe this is why our work is ridiculed so much. The pretty pictures and romantic stories we share on social media are a form of science communication. We do not want to bore people with scientific jargon so we lure them with the ‘cute’ side of what we do. Once people take interest in our work we can then present our ‘doomsday theories’ and hope their basic instincts point them in the direction of long-term survival as opposed to short-term gain.

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