Six months ago, in October 2015, Eeva and I arrived here in the Central African Republic to volunteer for the WWF.
Giving up a successful career in your thirties is risky. We both did it because working to protect the world’s animals and wild places is something we believe in. But we did not do it blindly, or on a whim. We took this calculated risk because we wanted to put ourselves in a position to learn as much as we possibly could about the world of conservation. Yes, we wanted to make a difference, but we did it to gather information to enable us to change the direction of our lives and build new careers. Even if we only made a small difference this year, it would be worth it if we could stick to our simple objective: to keep learning.
The experience has at different times been everything from depressing, demoralising and down right boring, to exhilarating, fascinating and full of hope.
And while on balance I would say that I am enjoying this experience (and I know for certain that when I look back I will be very glad I did this), it became apparent to me quite quickly that I was not achieving the simple objective that we had set out for ourselves. As a volunteer for the WWF, I was learning very little.
Sadly, there are some really serious problems with the WWF’s operation out here (which I will go into another time) but as a result of these problems I started looking for a new source of inspiration.
Those of you who have read the post I wrote in December about Sangha Lodge (What is Conservation?), will know how taken I was by the idea that private enterprise could be an important part of conservation efforts. I started spending more time at Sangha Lodge. I asked questions, had discussions and proposed new ideas.
One thing led to another and to cut a potentially long story short, I have stopped volunteering for the WWF and have now started volunteering for Sangha Lodge.
Plenty of things stay the same. I will still live in a forest camp (I’ve just moved to a different one, across the forest a bit), I still get to go to the Gorillas regularly (guiding tourists) and life is still as unpredictable, basic and difficult as it was before.
What changes is that rather than being sat around all day at the WWF with barely anything to do, I now have a team of people to manage, a business to help run and (most importantly) through the people I will now meet, countless more opportunities to learn about the world of conservation than I had before.
Sangha Lodge is not just a eco-tourist business. It does a lot of work with the local communities: supporting orphaned children, teaching local people English and helping villagers set up vegetable growing businesses of their own. It also does a lot of conservation work itself, protecting a large area of forest, rescuing animals from the bushmeat trade and, of course, enthusing visitors about the importance of places like this. So my hope is that not only will I achieve my objective of learning about conservation, but I will also feel that am not just “working for a lodge” but that I am making a difference to the things that I care about, in a small way.
Eeva’s position at the WWF is quite different from mine. She is working on wildlife health, looking at the transmission of disease between humans and wildlife and vice versa. In quite an opposite situation to how I felt, she is happy, productive and making a real difference to the conservation effort. She will continue to volunteer for WWF.
I will continue to write this blog. In fact, I think that I will probably have even more stories to tell because I am so much more exposed to new ideas here than I was at WWF. But one thing which I can promise to my readers is that this blog will not become a “marketing tool” for Sangha Lodge. I will not be using it to promote the business and in fact will probably rarely mention my new “employers”.
I will continue to tell stories of life in this strange corner of Africa and hopefully you will continue to enjoying reading them.