It was in Kenya in 1998 when the world made sense to me for the first time. I was a junior in college studying abroad and I found the secret that I had been looking for. As a child growing up in Massachusetts I was fascinated with animals. Most children are. At the lake I caught frog, in the yard I caught snakes and at the beach I caught hermit crabs. I volunteered at zoos to work with more exotic animals. When relatives asked if I wanted to be a vet I always said no- imagining myself working with domestic dogs and cats did not keep my interest. I was fascinated by wild animals in far off places and the big cats seemed the wildest of all. Watching documentaries on cheetahs of the Serengeti or lions in Kruger National Park truly captured my imagination. My family had never traveled to Africa, so watching documentaries seemed to be the extent of my vision for myself. I hoped one day that I would be able to go on a safari but I couldn’t imagine how that would happen since we had little money for regional family vacations.
Then I started looking at colleges. I applied early to Connecticut College in New London as it was the only small school close to home with a Zoology program. Back then I did not know the difference between a Zoology degree and a degree in Wildlife Management. I did know that animals were in my future but I didn’t know how. My grades were not great in my introductory classes as we memorized the functions of minor structures in embryonic development. I was not sure how these lessons would allow me to make an impact for wild cats. I found a study abroad program through the School for Field Studies that focused on wildlife management. This was my chance to learn about field conservation.
When I arrived in Kenya, I was grateful for the opportunity. I saw my first wild giraffe and zebra in Athi River. I saw my first elephants, lions and leopard in Samburu National Reserve. My curiosity about the animals was matched by my interest in the tribal communities we worked with. As we got to know Kenyans through our case-study based curriculum, I realized that helping wildlife would only be achieved by working with people. If people felt secure then wildlife could have a chance- if done right.
We met experts in the field of conservation. These were the people I had long admired in documentaries. I learned how they approached their work, ate lunch with them and it shaped the way I saw myself- not as a kid who liked animals with an average GPA- but someone who could do this work and make a difference.
By the time I left Kenya it was all clear to me. All of the things I liked most were wrapped up in the field of wildlife conservation. Of course Wildlife was at the heart of my interest, but so was learning about Culture and Problem Solving. These three pillars- Wildlife, Culture and Problem Solving- are cornerstones of all wildlife conservation programs. This was it. This was my purpose and nothing was going to deter me.
I returned home to the States a different person. My goal was to return to Africa within 5 years. After a few short detours, I started my first leopard conservation project in South Africa, then a job studying wild dogs in Laikipia Kenya then a Fulbright Scholarship to start my PhD on leopards in Namibia. Now, after a post-doc in Botswana, I have started my own community centered conservation non-profit called the CLAWS Conservancy. CLAWS stands for Communities Living Among Wildlife Sustainably and our flagship program Pride in Our Prides works closely with communities along the northern edge of the Okavango Delta to promote coexistence with communities living with lions. I am proud of our work and our program staff who are all locals- including two PhDs!
My journey has taught me to follow my passion and try to make the world a better place for the wildlife I care about and the people living among them.
In the next few blogs, I will be exploring my approaches to our current conservation work in Botswana. I hope you find them interesting.