Welcome to the first blog in the Chats with Conservationists series, where we learn from the front-line of wildlife conservation and what we can do to help. Today, we meet Conservationist Sophie…
Hi, I’m Sophie! I am 23 from Manchester (UK), and I recently graduated from university with an MSc in Zoo Conservation Biology. I have loved animals all my life, and I always knew I wanted to have a career that included them but wasn’t sure exactly what. So, I studied all of the sciences at high school and college, then went to do a BSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare.
It wasn’t until this point that I realised I wanted to go into conservation, as I enjoyed learning about this more than anything else. The big ‘ah-ha’ moment for me was definitely visiting South Africa in 2017, where experiencing the challenges of real conservation in action really consolidated my career choice for me.
I am still not entirely sure where I am headed, as there are so many aspects of conservation to get involved in, but communications is definitely up there for me. I set up my own blog adayinthewildlife.com over lockdown, and I have just loved writing and sharing my knowledge with other like-minded people.
What’s your most memorable animal encounter?
I was on safari in Pilanseberg National Park – South Africa, and we had seen a couple of lone male elephants wandering about, but hadn’t really got close enough to take a decent picture. Then we were driving along quite an open road, with the view of a huge lake below… and we saw a herd of at least 20 elephants walking towards it.
Everyone was so excited and eager to get a photo, but the safari guide kept driving so we were all wondering what was going on. Turns out he was driving us to the lake, as he guessed where the elephants were heading. We ended up stopping right by them, and they played beside us before crossing the road right in front of our vehicle.
Why is the work conservationists doing so important?
Using rhino as an example, without conservation protecting them day in day out (anti-poaching teams, horn-trimmings etc) they would be declining much more rapidly. Even with their current protection in place, they are predicted to go extinct in as little as 20 years if poaching continues at current rates.
If this happens, obviously it would be a huge loss for one of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo) to disappear completely, but the greater impact would also be detrimental. Every species has their own unique place in the ecosystem, especially when they are as large as the rhino.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your conservationist career so far?
Since I am only really at the start of my career in conservation, I think my proudest moment so far would be receiving a distinction in my MSc. I had finally got to research my passion- the driving factors of rhino poaching in SA, but there were so many challenges throughout the process.
My supervisor was out in Africa completing his own research for the majority of my project, so I didn’t get much guidance, and at one point thought I would never complete it. I think this is the first time I realised what I was capable of on my own, when you are passionate you can achieve anything- you just have to keep slogging through even when it feels hopeless.
I didn’t even see myself finishing the project at one point- so to finish with a top grade, knowing I did that on my own, was an amazing feeling. It has made me think twice whenever I start to doubt myself, I am hoping my passion and hard work will get me somewhere one day!
As a conservationist, why are you so driven by rhinos?
Honestly, rhinos were never my favourite animals growing up. I became drawn to them after my first trip to South Africa when I was 20 years old. We went on a university field trip to an amazing reserve where the people are so passionate about their animals.
The reserve owner told us her heartbreaking story of finding one of her precious rhinos dead, killed for its horn. The aftermath was traumatic as well- with police officers poking fun and not taking the matter seriously.
I had never heard a first-hand account of the horror that is poaching before- and it has stuck with me ever since. After witnessing the incredible amount of work that goes into keeping these animals safe daily (some people working 24/7), I was inspired to make a difference.
What documentaries would you recommend for us to learn more about Conservation?
Obviously as a conservationist I love David Attenborough, all of his documentaries are incredible for showcasing the beauty nature provides. However, I think sometimes the hardest ones to watch are the most important to see.
I recently watched ‘Stroop: Journey into the rhino horn war’. It just showcases how deep the problems go into culture, society etc. It isn’t as simple a fix as people may make out, it is not possible to just ‘stop people consuming it by telling them how great rhinos are’ or ‘just stop poaching by making it illegal to trade horn’. People need to realise that what we are doing isn’t working, something else must be done.
How can we help conservationists from home?
I think finding conservation programmes that you are interested in and following their journey is a great place to start. It may not seem like a lot but even just following a reserve on Instagram gives them an audience, and you will learn a lot about the issues they face and what they do. I feel it is so important to educate ourselves and learn as much as we can about how we can help.
I think finding those smaller programmes and reserves that are on the front lines and struggling is so important. One programme close to my heart is a very small reserve in South Africa, and because of everyones donations through quarantine, they have managed to stay open and keep all of their staff on.
I am a recent graduate, but I have probably donated around £100 to conservation programmes throughout quarantine in small bits here and there, but it just shows how it can really add up and mean a lot. Plus, I have always got something in return for my money, such as t-shirts, key-rings, or entry into raffles.
I think buying from businesses that donate to conservation causes is also an amazing way to help from home, because not only are you making a donation through your purchase, you are also spreading a message through your clothing. Also, if you buy from businesses like Pigments by Liv, who also make everything sustainably, you are indirectly helping conservation too by helping the environment- all animals need their habitats to survive!!
A big thank you to Sophie for sharing her conservation journey so far as well as her wildlife photography! If you would like to continue to follow Sophie, then check out her blog: A Day In The Wildlife or follow her on Instagram. Keep an eye out for future features in the Chats with Conservationists blog series!
‘Til next time!
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