Mongabay

by Rhett A. Butler on 28 June 2021

  • Long-running concerns about discrimination, colonial legacy, privilege, and power dynamics in conservation have come to the forefront with the recent resurgence of the social justice movement. But will this movement lead to lasting change in the sector?
  • South African conservationist Colleen Begg says that meaningful transformation will require dedicated and sustained efforts to drive real change in conservation.
  • Begg, who co-founded both the Niassa Carnivore Project in Mozambique and Women for the Environment, Africa, says that conservationists in positions of power need to open themselves to criticism and change, while creating pathways for new leaders and ideas to come forward.
  • Begg spoke about these issues and more in a recent conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing last year, long-running concerns about discrimination, colonial legacy, privilege, and power dynamics in conservation have gained prominence, forcing many organizations in the sector to reckon with their origins and how they operate. Current and historic injustices against Indigenous Peoples and local communities in the name of establishing protected areas, racism and abusive practices within institutions, representation in leadership, and disparities in funding and advancement opportunities are but a few of the areas that have drawn particular attention over the past year. But while there is certainly an uptick in reflection and discussion, it’s unclear whether this period will result in lasting, meaningful change or if the sector will revert back to business-as-usual.

Colleen Begg, a South African conservationist who co-founded the Niassa Carnivore Project in Mozambique, says she isn’t sure either, but meaningful transformation won’t come on its own — it will require dedicated and sustained efforts to drive real change.

“I have had more conversations about privilege, racism, and sexism in conservation in the last three years than before but there is still such a long way to go,” Begg told Mongabay during a recent interview. “To me conservation really is one of the last bastions of racism and exclusion on the continent and it is very resistant to change.”

Colleen Begg
Colleen Begg

As a white South African who has never lived outside Africa and has worked in conservation for 30 years, Begg has seen how race, gender, and privilege play out in the African conservation sector.

“We can be antiracist but still be enormously privileged,” Begg said. “I also battle with this feeling of ‘unbelonging.’ I do not have another passport, nor have I studied abroad, yet still I am often not seen as African and it hurts, I get it. But, for me, white conservationists in Africa must learn to lean into this discomfort if we are going to be able to come out the other side with new conservation models that work and are inclusive, sustainable, and effective.”

“We cannot change who we are, but we can open ourselves up to criticism and change and we can also start to use our privilege and influence to change how conservation is done. I do think ‘the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice,’ but I do not think it bends on its own, we need to help catalyze the change and not sit on the side-lines, quietly murmuring our support whilst still being careful not to put our head too far above the parapet in case we are called out or lose our positions, our salaries, our privilege. Nothing good comes without cost.”

Niassa lions. Photo credit: Colleen Begg
Niassa lion. Photo credit: Colleen Begg

Begg points to leadership development, creating spaces for new ideas and voices, and establishing pathways for people from underrepresented groups to advance within organizations as important mechanisms for driving change.

“I am 52, and many conservationists of my generation are currently in leadership positions in conservation organizations. There really is an opportunity to use our influence and voices strategically,” she said. “As a founder, we can set up succession plans that allow us to step out of our roles and allow others to move up into these positions rather than always hiring from outside or even worse, promoting family into these high-level positions.”

“If we have conservation organizations or even meetings that are less toxic there will be greater trust, less turnover, higher productivity, higher resilience and we will attract the best African minds to conservation and will be able to hear their ideas. It will be a viable career option and growth opportunity.”

With this idea in mind, Begg co-founded Women for the Environment, Africa in 2017. WE Africa is working to bring more African women into positions of power in conservation.

WE Africa 2021 Fellows
Women for the Environment Africa (WE Africa) 2021 Fellows

Conservation can also benefit in learning from success stories from the field. In that respect, Begg says that the pandemic — while bringing incalculable loss and hardship for communities across Africa — has provided further evidence that there are effective alternatives to top-down conservation models.

“Some of the conservation organizations that weathered the COVID storm the most effectively were those that were locally managed and staffed, nimble, resilient, and deeply embedded in the communities around their work areas. They were able to respond to the crisis positively because they were in situ and not reliant on expats that were in lock down half a world away.”

For example, Begg said that her organization’s on-the-ground work was not heavily impacted by COVID.

“Our team is mainly local and all Mozambican, so they continued as normal. Many of our programs are deeply embedded in the villages like our community guardian program where we have guardians in 42 different villages that collect information on mortality, presence, fishing and conflict as citizen scientists. We connected with them on WhatsApp so there was very little change.”

More impacted were the communities that depend on tourism to sustain village livelihoods. Begg says those communities are hoping for a rebound when international travelers start going on safaris again.

Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg
Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg

Begg spoke about these topics and more in a June 2021 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

Mongabay: What originally prompted your interest in wildlife and conservation?

It is so hard to say. There was no “aha” moment for me, no mentor nor deeply moving experience.

I grew up in suburban Johannesburg, my father was a merchant banker and my mom a nurse before we (my sisters and I) were born. I went to the local government school down the road, I lived in the same house until I was 21. I have always found wildlife documentaries tedious. I think, on reflection, that it was simply that being outside was so much more interesting and peaceful. I enjoy my own company and have always loved nature and animals. 

My parents were avid gardeners. From a tiny girl I created landscapes from moss and weeds with my farm animal collection, spent endless hours up a tree reading, bashed rocks with a hammer to find “crystals”, kept ants in a match box, and watched birds. When I was 11, I gave a school speech on “what I wanted to be when I grew up”. It began “imagine waking up on a Land Rover roof, under the stars in the bush….”. My teacher was a little taken aback. It was a yearning for nature, to work with wildlife outside and make a difference.

Niassa lions. Photo credit: Samuel Alberto
Niassa lion. Photo credit: Samuel Alberto

I guess the moral of this story is to get children outside into green spaces, to build that connection with nature. It does not have to be a dramatic gesture or a defining moment, just a moment of joy and connection and these can be simple experiences. 

When I listen to our team about what motivated them, it is often something simple, a grandfather that loved nature and shared his experience, a wildlife club, a garden, a teacher. It is why it is so important that we help to create and nurture these moments for children that grow up close to or in protected areas where they can feel these connections away from the stresses of everyday life and away from fear of wildlife.  

Mongabay: A combination of high-profile controversies in conservation in recent years and the global outcry following George Floyd’s killing last year has put a spotlight on colonial legacy, racism, and lack of inclusivity in the sector. From your vantage point as a conservationist in Africa, what impact is this having?

Colleen Begg: This is such a complex question and a big topic that deserves proper attention. I do not want to minimize the enormous impact that the colonial legacy, racism and lack of inclusion are having today on conservation in Africa by giving some sort of soundbite or glib answer. I have had more conversations about privilege, racism, and sexism in conservation in the last three years than before but there is still such a long way to go.

What is interesting is that when tourism collapsed due to COVID-19 there were great discussions on different more sustainable models for funding conservation and this led to a flurry of debates on social media that also included at least some examination of more inclusive models of conservation and tourism influenced by global outcries about racism. Some of the conservation organizations that weathered the COVID storm the most effectively were those that were locally managed and staffed, nimble, resilient, and deeply embedded in the communities around their work areas. They were able to respond to the crisis positively because they were in situ and not reliant on expats that were in lock down half a world away. But this does not seem to have resulted in long term changes. Maybe it is too early to tell.

Village inside Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg
Village inside Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg

To me conservation really is one of the last bastions of racism and exclusion on the continent and it is very resistant to change. Some of this reluctance is exacerbated by funding cliques (everyone is on everyone else’s boards) and proposals more designed for short-term research grants than conservation. Some of the grant proposals are complex to fill out, use a lot of jargon, are often short term and for relatively small amounts of money. It is a skill to fill them in and if you don’t have the language skills, patience, jargon and the connections it is hard to get the funds especially for a new idea that doesn’t fit the parameters of the proposal format. Everyone hustles to get the funds every year, often competing against their colleagues doing similarly important work.

I also see the more academic field of conservation biology as substantially different to the on-ground activities of biodiversity conservation and protected area management. The focus on academic degrees and peer reviewed papers to prove your worth as a conservationist, to get the funds, get the position, have a voice, get the permit excludes the best conservation minds and new ideas, which are often locally derived or come from left field. Too often, there is also this arrogance by scientists and consultants trained in global north universities, who have a low opinion of the more national researchers, simple ongoing monitoring programs or the insights of people who live there. This keeps the intellectual and financial power and legitimacy of conservation in the hands of the scientists and elite academic institutions even in conservation programs that profess to be community based. This all perpetuates the elitism and racism in conservation.

Engagement with local communities is central to the Niassa Carnivore Project's work. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.
Engagement with local communities is central to the Niassa Carnivore Project’s work. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.

A lot of the reluctance to change comes from the “white African” conservationists themselves. Many are deeply committed and passionate about conservation and are making substantial contributions but refuse any suggestion that they have substantial privilege. They hang onto their legitimacy with white knuckles, gritted teeth (often with another passport in the back pocket) and a whole lot of fear and defensiveness whenever the topic of racism or privilege is brought up. They often launch into stories of how much they have struggled, how much they have contributed. We need to examine why there has been so little change.

I am a white, fourth generation South African conservationist and I am part of this colonial (apartheid) legacy and racist history and come with all this bias and privilege. You can see the privilege shining through in my answer to the first question. It would be easy to rewrite my story to make it seem like I struggled. I really didn’t.

I know this is a tricky space to navigate authentically and usefully. It is scary to have these conversations. We can be antiracist but still be enormously privileged. I also battle with this feeling of “unbelonging”. I do not have another passport, nor have I studied abroad, yet still I am often not seen as African and it hurts, I get it. But, for me, white conservationists in Africa must learn to lean into this discomfort if we are going to be able to come out the other side with new conservation models that work and are inclusive, sustainable, and effective.

Lugenda River in Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg
Lugenda River in Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg

How do I stop being part of the cancer and become part of the cure if I keep making it all about me and my need to belong and feel appreciated? We cannot change who we are, but we can open ourselves up to criticism and change and we can also start to use our privilege and influence to change how conservation is done. I do think “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice”, but I do not think it bends on its own, we need to help catalyze the change and not sit on the side-lines, quietly murmuring our support whilst still being careful not to put our head too far above the parapet in case we are called out or lose our positions, our salaries, our privilege. Nothing good comes without cost.

I have lived all my life in Southern Africa with 18 years in Mozambique. When I went to Wits University in Johannesburg to do my undergraduate BSc degree in 1987, I was this naive, clueless, 17-year-old who had no idea about anything. I mention this only because I started to learn about fortress conservation at the same time that I was re-examining what I thought I knew about being South African history and racism – in amidst the teargas, police brutality, protesting, and yellow riot trucks that were a regular feature of university life leading up to the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990. Social justice became a very important part of my values and ideals for conservation and it has been a journey to figure out what that really means.

In the early 90s I spent a couple of years in the Kruger National Park as a research assistant. There was still very little sign of transformation. This was still a sheltered, racist, sexist place and a supreme example of fortress conservation in Africa. I saw computers draped with right wing “AWB” flags; all the rangers were still white men. As a university graduate I was asked to make tea and make it “white, weak and sweet just how I like my women”. There was little dialogue then about the way conservation needed to transform, what that might look like other than provide some social responsibility benefits to the communities crammed up against the boundaries and fences of the protected areas while inside the privileged played. This was the old colonial model, subsidized by the minority state. Fortunately, I did get to see the first attempts by some rangers and rangers to start engaging with their neighbors along the boundaries, a new start.

Niassa lions. Photo credit: Samuel Alberto
Niassa lions. Photo credit: Samuel Alberto

What is disheartening though, 30 years on from this defining experience is that I still sit in meetings and workshops where these old ideas play out. Sometimes dressed differently and seldom so overtly but still often an “old boys club” and an expat enclave that pretends to be inclusive but is clearly not. Conservation today is still largely about competition, privilege, access, and power. It is no good getting defensive when it is pointed out that the majority of conservation NGOs, consultants, funding organizations and tourism companies (both eco and sport hunting) are still largely led by white middle-aged men with very few women, African or otherwise.

We should get curious and furious about why this is still so. How can we change conservation when we still pull ideas from such a limited pool of minds and experiences and from one dominant cultural framework? How can we find new ways for coexistence and new models to reduce habitat loss, retaliatory killing, illegal wildlife trade and poaching when we seldom include those most affected in any meaningful way? Often management plans are written by middle aged consultants sitting at desks far away from the people, local governments and wildlife that will be the most affected. Sometimes the consultants have never even been to the places they develop these plans for, or they helicopter in for two weeks of “participatory” consultation but really are just rehashing old models and special interests. That sounds and looks a lot like colonialism to me and is as demoralizing, demeaning, unjust and bad for natural resource management as colonialism ever was. What is strange is this is often supported by national governments and conservation organizations. It is the system and systems change is hard.

It is not all bad. There is some good too – we are seeing many more conversations. More diverse panels, more nuance and a growing (but still small) number of conservation organizations that are predominantly nationally staffed and led. Resson Kantai Duff’s recent commentary in Mongabay on “Building a road to recovery for subtle racism in conservation” endorsed by 30 conservationists from across Africa, is such a positive contribution to this conversation as it highlights important very doable ways we can change things within our organizations and teams. It is a place to start and is starting to let the light in.

Mongabay: And what will it take to harness that momentum to lead to sustained meaningful change?

Colleen Begg: I have touched on this earlier. We start by having a good hard look at ourselves, start with Resson’s article. Start by being honest about how much we are perpetuating the system. It is the only way to grow. We harness the momentum by using our influence to create more space for new ideas, and new voices to be heard and new ideas implemented. There are lots of ways to do this – questioning organizers when panel discussions only represent one dominant point of view and suggesting alternative speakers, facilitating discussions better, asking for feedback with honest questions that aren’t manipulated to get a positive response, looking beyond the pool of current consultants for new ideas, examining failures in a transparent way focused on improving not blaming, looking closely at our own organizations, circles and discussion groups for ways to make them safer so criticism can be heard and changing the way terms of reference and job descriptions are written so they don’t perpetuate hiring people with one dominant cultural view.

Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg
Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg

I am 52, and many conservationists of my generation are currently in leadership positions in conservation organizations. There really is an opportunity to use our influence and voices strategically. As a founder, we can set up succession plans that allow us to step out of our roles and allow others to move up into these positions rather than always hiring from outside or even worse, promoting family into these high-level positions. A conservation organization is not a family business. Nepotism is alive and well in conservation.

If we have conservation organizations or even meetings that are less toxic there will be greater trust, less turnover, higher productivity, higher resilience and we will attract the best African minds to conservation and will be able to hear their ideas. It will be a viable career option and growth opportunity.

Mongabay: You are actively involved in the leadership of Women for the Environment Africa. What are some of the approaches WE Africa is taking to advance women’s leadership in the conservation space?

Colleen BeggWomen for the Environment, Africa is a focused response to the urgent need for more effective collaboration and more diverse leadership in the African conservation and environmental space and a way to use our influence as leaders to make conservation more inclusive. It is WE Africa that gives me hope and I am so excited about what we can achieve together. I have always firmly believed that we don’t grow by scaling or getting bigger but by improving and insisting on greater collaboration.

We founded WE Africa out of our frustration with the lack of diversity in decision making in African conservation organizations particularly the very low percentage of African women and the urgent need for new inclusive models of conservation that get better conservation outcomes given biodiversity loss and climate change. We believe that African women can be at the heart of transforming the conservation movement through leadership. Musimbi Kanyoro, CEO Global fund for Women says it well here as she talks about the need to trust women of Africa, invest big in them and think big of them because they think big and they have capacity to do good work. We must get away from this culture of competition to one of collaboration and support and we know that more diverse teams are more productive, resilient and innovative. Men are already there so we need to bring more women into these spaces, make sure they are connected, supported and safe so they don’t feel alone, and can share ideas and be role models for others. So many conservationists across the continent are feeling overwhelmed and burnt out! We need to safeguard their mental and physical wellbeing. We need to move away from this idea that we need to sacrifice ourselves for the cause at the expense of our health, families, and joy. 

WE Africa 2021 Fellows
Women for the Environment Africa (WE Africa) 2021 Fellows

WE Africa focuses specifically on African women that are already top leaders in the environmental space that can almost immediately make a difference. We don’t have any time to waste. Through connecting 100 women over the next five years and using their influence we can seed a movement. Each year 20 extraordinary African women environmental leaders from across the continent come together for a year-long transformational leadership experience. The immersive experience focuses on our five pillars of personal leadership growth, wellbeing, relationships (collaboration, peace-building and conflict resolution), strategic influence and visibility and innovation and inspiration. We launched in January 2021 after 3 years of preparation and research and the first 20 WE Africa fellows are from 12 different countries in public and private spaces with a wide variety of experiences and skills. We will be calling for 2022 applications in mid-July for the second cohort so please share the word. As leaders, once we understand ourselves, our values, our purpose and our leadership styles better, and once we have boundaries in place and our wellbeing front and centre, we will have the energy and resilience to lead well through difficult conversations and complex challenges.

Simply by bringing these leaders together, from a diversity of countries, organizations, ages and disciplines and conservation backgrounds we create change. Difficult issues and different approaches to conservation can be talked about in a safe space with clear boundaries, even topics like race, sustainable use, animal rights, shame and the risks of being visible. Just getting this bit right already creates change. There is so much diversity, inspiration, knowledge, courage and kindness in the room. A very strong part of WE Africa is that the fellows co create their own experience through constant feedback and dialogue. We call this “the round room” and it is where all the content is made relevant to the African context. We want to avoid being just another western styled leadership course which teaches African conservation leaders how to lead and ends up perpetuating one system. WE Africa has a support team of a leadership council (eight African women conservation leaders), professional coaches, facilitators and guides to help on the journey. A work always in progress on purpose.

Kushirika artisan group. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.
Kushirika artisan group. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.

For me personally WE Africa is a way for me to pay it forward, a bright spark in a rather overwhelming space. I do not want to just rant about the system and not do anything about it – this is my contribution to learning and doing.

Mongabay: In an interview you did with Mongabay eight years ago, you said: “I think we should never forget or minimize the high costs that local communities have to bear when living in close proximity to dangerous animals like lions and elephants,”. Do you think that sentiment — and more broadly, the interests of local peoples — is becoming better understood in conservation circles?

Colleen Begg: The people who live with wildlife are bearing most of the costs of conservation, not just the conflict but also limits placed on land available for farming or development and lack of employment options and infrastructure.

It is more than “representing their interests” though, but having them front and centre in decision making.

Recently, I have seen this crazy competition on social media, where both sides of a conservation debate, whether it be about sport hunting, animal rights, land acquisition for conservancies, elephant conflict, or anything else, try to bolster their position by showing that they have the support of the local communities and are representing their interests. Sometimes this even involves showing pictures of “community members” with placards of supporting messages.

The words we use also seem to be losing their meaning inside a whole lot of jargon – What is “community engagement”, “participatory conservation” and who are these “communities”?

We often say we do grassroots conservation, meaning we include people who live here. I looked up the meaning of “grassroots” recently after being called out about using this word. She was right, I was using it in the wrong way. For something to be a “grassroots movement” it must be a political, economic, or conservation movement created by the people living in the area. It is not who you include, but who drives the process of change.

Safe shelters in Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg
Safe shelters in Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg

I have been reflecting on this recently, as when I am not in the field, I spend a few months a year in a small “boutique” country village in South Africa. It sits on the boundary of a nature reserve. We have baboons coming into the town to raid fruit trees and vegetable gardens and a few years ago the problem was escalating, and emotions were running high.

The local conservation society did a survey to gauge opinions of the community and find solutions. In this small town, of relatively wealthy, privileged residents there was a huge range of opinions that ranged from “kill the baboons” to “feed the baboons” and everything in between. The range of answers, the emotion, the resistance to take any responsibility for the conflict was similar to a village of similar size made up of primarily subsistence farmers that we partner with in northern Mozambique. Yet no one in this South African village was going to starve because of the baboons destroying their vegetables, no-one was going to be killed by an elephant or have their livelihoods destroyed by bushpigs. And no-one ever suggested that the conservation society “represented” the interests of all the village residents. It was acknowledged right from the start that everyone had a right to voice an opinion, and everyone should have a stake in the outcome as it affected property prices, lifestyle and affected wellbeing. In this case the conservationists leading the discussion process and looking for solutions were actually part of the community, they were landowners. Consensus and compromise were reached through a lot of listening and facilitation and a way forward agreed on with baboon monitors that has been successful, adaptive and ongoing.

Villager with a dead crocodile. Photo credit: Colleen Begg
Villager with a dead crocodile. Photo credit: Colleen Begg

My point is that we need to acknowledge similarly that no village living near a protected area or in a protected area is a uniform entity with only one opinion. No external conservationists should speak for them to represent their interests no matter how well meaning. We (I) need to stop framing our conversations as if there are communities on the one side and conservationists on the other. People can be and often are both.

When a conservation organization has 85% of its staff from the closest community and when people from the area are properly involved in the decision making and actually hold some power over how funds are spent, then at some level the conservationists are the community and it becomes about stewardship not tolerance. That is something to strive for.

I am not suggesting it is easy – it is complex and invariably messy – but at least we know where we are going. There are also as many differing opinions within this amorphous group who call themselves “conservationists” as there are within the group we call “local communities”. Simplifying a complex group by using a word like “local communities” sounds a lot like colonialism and racism. It makes it easier to dismiss people. 

Village inside Niassa Special Reserve with elephant trench around it. Photo credit: Colleen Begg
Village inside Niassa Special Reserve with elephant trench around it. Photo credit: Colleen Begg

I am not sure if I am making sense. Just a growing unease I have that much of the “community engagement” I see is not real. It either doesn’t happen at all in any meaningful way or it is often one step up from social responsibility and paternalism where outside conservationists hold all the power.

The more I work in conservation, the more conflicted and less confident I am that I know where things are going and what is right, but I hope that is a good thing. I hope that being curious about why something does not work and feeling uncomfortable will inoculate me against being a cynic. To me there is nothing more irritating and counter productive than middle-aged white conservationists who dismiss all new ideas and routinely state “it won’t work”. I have been told this countless times in the past 30 years. It smothers innovation.

Mongabay: You recently called out the use of the term “conservation heroes” as applied to individuals, arguing that it downplays the collective contributions of a wide range of people. Could you expand on your thoughts on this issue?

Colleen Begg: No one I know pulls off a conservation project on their own. You can pull out one snare, save one turtle by putting it back into the sea, and rear one bird. But that is not conservation. You can study honey badgers for 4 years by following and recording their every move and get a PhD but that is not conservation. Conservation to me requires reducing threats to populations of animals and wild places so they thrive into the future. To be successful requires multiple inputs at various levels over a very long time from a society not a person.

Nor do I think that most of the work is heroic. It is often a vocation, and sometimes requires significant sacrifice, and some of us have very little balance in our lives but still this is not in any meaningful sense of the word, heroic. It is a choice and a job that one can be very devoted and passionate about. I have been working in conservation for 30 years. I have never done anything remotely heroic. There are certainly activists that are heroic and put their lives on the line, but that is not usually what people mean when they call someone a “conservation hero”. It creates a whole “myth” of conservation where others are inspired by the western media driven “conservation hero” narrative and want to do what the heroes do, but there is no such thing, no such job.

Lions have a strong cultural value in Niassa area villages. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.
Lions have a strong cultural value in Niassa area villages. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.

There are of course people on our team that should be recognized as heroes for singular acts. One of our construction workers was building a scout base in the middle of nowhere, he heard shots, raced out unarmed, ran into the elephant poachers, single handed tackled a poacher and recovered a bag with seven elephant tusks while being shot at before running away to call in the scouts. It was heroic, over and beyond his work and incredibly dangerous. This should be recognized and honored.

Being good at public speaking and representing our team’s work or living in a tent does not make me or anyone else a conservation hero. It is a learned skill and a life choice.

The most visible faces of conservation are seldom the heroes, they are simply the celebrities. To create meaningful conservation we need big collaborative teams, not individual heroes.

Mongabay: You’ve also said poor communication is at the root of a lot of the conflict within conservation. What’s your advice for improving communication between various stakeholders?

Colleen Begg: Listen more, be curious, ask more questions.

I am not particularly good at listening because as people speak my mind is being sparked with new ideas and I get bored in a conversation. I am also not particularly good at conflict so when someone is aggressive, negative, downright rude or threatening I find it difficult not to get defensive and then I stop communicating and stop listening. But listening, facilitation and conflict resolution are all learned skills.

The Niassa Carnivore Project undertakes environmental education projects to explore the cultural value of lions in local communities. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.
The Niassa Carnivore Project undertakes environmental education projects to explore the cultural value of lions in local communities. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.

For our team we are often translating 3 ways in meetings and a lot is lost especially when translators paraphrase. This leads to confusion and loss of nuance. But more than the obvious difficulties with communicating using different languages, there is also the issue of words and actions being influenced by our dominant culture and worldview. It goes back to the need to have diversity in the team to understand what you are missing, the subtle cues and cultural context. When we build a diverse team (diverse in culture, race, age, socioeconomics, education) the way we communicate to reduce conflict is even more important.

I feel like more of us need to learn peace-building and dialoguing skills for conservation. It is an art and a skill.

Mongabay: I read that you contracted COVID-19 in January How has the pandemic impacted your work? And how has it impacted local communities?

Colleen Begg: It has been a challenging year for me and so many. However, our work was not impacted a lot by COVID-19 in 2020.

While Keith and I were stuck in South Africa in lock down, our work does not require us to be in the field. Our team is mainly local and all Mozambican, so they continued as normal. Many of our programs are deeply embedded in the villages like our community guardian program where we have guardians in 42 different villages that collect information on mortality, presence, fishing and conflict as citizen scientists. We connected with them on WhatsApp so there was very little change.

Most affected was our bush visits program as we could not host children at the Mariri Environmental centre but instead our team switched to outreach programs where they visited families in their fields maintaining social distancing and wearing masks – one by one. It was good to do this as actually we reached people we don’t normally see and could have a conversation with them on their terms.

The Mariri Environmental Centre. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.
The Mariri Environmental Centre. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.

We don’t rely on tourism for our conservation activities and our donors were remarkably loyal during 2020, with only a 20% decrease in funding, so we were able to maintain all of our Mozambican salaries and staff. But the collapse in tourism did hurt Mbamba Village significantly. They are our partners in the Mpopo Trails Camp and receive a significant bed night conservation levy (20%) from visitors that goes into their community conservation fund for development projects of their own. Visitors also support the school lunch program for 350 children and the camp is rebuilt each year from grass that is collected by women, earning them around $10,000 a year. This impacted the Mbamba village.

Hopefully, tourism will recover but we also have the war in Cabo Delgado to the east which is increasing anxiety and insecurity.

Mongabay: At a macro level, wildlife populations and the extent of good habitat is trending downward in much of the world. What’s the situation like for Niassa? And what’s your outlook? 

Colleen Begg: To be a conservationist you have to be innately optimistic. After 18 years working in Niassa Special Reserve, I care deeply about this wilderness and its people but am more aware than ever how complex it is. I don’t think we can save Niassa and its wildlife with old models of conservation and I don’t think any one organization can do this alone. It is going to require excellent collaboration, a joint vision, open and frank dialogue, extraordinary leadership and definitely new models. It is possible but best we all speed up our pace.

Wild dog. Photo credit: Niassa Carnivore Project
Wild dog. Photo credit: Niassa Carnivore Project

There is so much potential on such a grand scale. We still have 800 to 1,000 lions, 3,000-4,000 spotted hyenas and around 350 African wild dogs. Lions and hyenas are declining in Niassa and have been since 2015 and threats like bushmeat snaring, logging, illegal mining, lion parts trade and poisoning are all major concerns. There are an estimated 60,000 people living inside the protected area. We need to examine what conservation success might look like. Do we really want these carnivores to increase with so many people living alongside? I think we need to stabilize the populations of lions and hyenas at levels where they have long term viability but are not causing too much conflict. 

There have been a lot of challenges, failures, and many moments when I have cried and raged and a few moments when I have almost walked away. But it has also been an incredible learning experience. Much of how I feel about conservation at the moment comes from my experiences in Niassa, good and bad. My frustrations with conservation right now, both here and more broadly lie not with a lack of money or expertise but with the lack of imagination, compassion and courage to speak up. I see the crisis here as a leadership crisis.

Lions have a strong cultural value in Niassa area villages. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.
Lions have a strong cultural value in Niassa area villages. Photo credit: Colleen Begg.

For us as a team, when I lose hope, someone else in our team feels hopeful and picks me up and carries me for a while. We have a lot of different programs so there is always good news somewhere that is cause for celebration. At this point we just need to continue to show up and speak up.

Mongabay: What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in conservation? 

Colleen Begg: First decide whether you are wanting a career in conservation biology or conservation. They are different things. One is science. The other is advocacy, sociology, politics, economics, biology, awareness, peace-building, fundraising, administration, logistics, agriculture, development, protected area management and more.

Where do you imagine yourself in 5 years? If you want to get involved in conservation, think carefully about what you do well and bring that to conservation as a diversity of skills are needed. But recognize you do not have to be in the field to contribute. Is it really conservation you want to do or research?

If you are not national, then recognize that there are many local and national people clamoring for these jobs in-country. Why you? What do you offer that is unique and useful that justifies hiring you over them? For national conservationists we look for commitment, openness to learn and an ability to work under difficult and stressful conditions in a diverse team. More than 50% of our conservation team are functionally non literate but bring incredible indigenous knowledge, leadership, bush skills and more to our team. How can you contribute?

Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg
Niassa Special Reserve. Photo credit: Colleen Begg