I wish I had been in the forest.
I knew it was going to be a unique opportunity to experience something magical in a place that I’ve spent almost a year. To watch the metallic, blue-grey that seems to glow from the trees when the light levels drop at dawn and dusk; to listen to the birds roost and silence for the night and then start their morning songs, all within fifteen minutes; to feel the drop in temperature and the stillness that I was sure would descend on the normally frenetic rainforest environment. I wanted to be there too because it was a special moment for me personally. It was exactly a year to the day that our lives had changed forever and we had jumped around our kitchen in rural Southern England in excitement. A year ago exactly we got the email confirming that we had been offered volunteer positions with WWF at the Bai Hokou research site in the Central African Republic: that our dream to work in nature conservation was another step closer. Being in the rainforest to experience all this would have been a wonderful physical punctuation mark to what has been a rollercoaster of emotions and opportunities.
However, it was not to be. Instead, I got to experience the annular solar eclipse that passed over equatorial Africa on Thursday morning in a hot, dusty provincial capital. The sun itself was obscured by towering storm clouds at the time, and the event went largely unnoticed by the city’s residents. In some ways a perfect metaphor for living out here: incredible natural beauty, but with a resident human culture, many of whom don’t quite seem to get it.
Ouesso, the main urban area in the Sangha region of Northern Congo, is our closest city and the place where we base much of our administrative support. I was there to train one of the accountants that I manage and who we (WCS) employ to support the Park’s financial functions. Noubalé-Ndoki National Park, the Congolese part of the multinational, tri-boundary protected area known as the TNS Landscape (Tri-National Sangha), deserves an article all of its own to properly introduce it. It has been my home for the last two months and the site of my new job with WCS, as Director of Finance and Administration. The Park certainly takes some supporting. We run hundreds of ecoguard patrol missions every year, covering 4000 square kilometres (an area around three times the size of Greater London), protecting species like the critically endangered Forest Elephant and the enigmatic forest antelope, the Bongo; we maintain half a dozen world-leading research sites with habituated groups of Lowland Gorillas and Chimpanzees; we run law enforcement, community development and educational outreach programmes; all the while juggling 14 different donors, employing 300 people and processing thousands of cash transactions every month to keep the whole thing moving.
All of this is to say that it has been an intense start to my employment career in conservation. In my previous life I ran multi-million pound businesses, helped launch startup companies and even ran a political campaign for Parliament. None of this compares to the workload I’ve been faced with in this role. I always knew that going in at this level, in my first conservation job, was going to be jumping in the deep end, but even so I’ve been shocked at the sheer magnitude of how much there is to do. From what I can tell, many NGOs face similar problems of understaffing, and in truth I am very lucky, the Wildlife Conservation Society is well-organised, well-resourced and well-managed.
Nonetheless, it has been a frenetic first two months. I have learnt an incredible amount, but I still think will take a month or more before I can put those lessons into words. This post is maybe just to reopen the dialogue and get my brain whirring again. One thing that is obvious and that I can say straight away, is that it very easy to sit around and write blog posts about conservation policy as a volunteer (as I did for months in Central Africa) and a very much more difficult thing to be actually working in a position to implement some of them! But then I probably could have told you that before.
I’ve certainly had revelations and I have changed a few of my views: softened on some things, hardened on others. But I suppose that the overwhelming sensation is just a feeling of “things lining up” a perfect match of challenge and skills. I am absolutely loving the job and I am completely in my element. It reminds what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined as “flow”, the perfect matching of ability and task.
This also feels like a critical juncture in nature conservation, a do-or-die moment where the actions we take will determine the future of many species and habitats. I’m sure that to a point all generations of conservationists have felt this way (it is a classic example of Shifting Baseline Syndrome), but what does feel new right now is a kind of wave of professionalisation of the way these conservation NGOs are being run. There feels like there is a new ethos gradually taking hold: one which recognises that management of these projects is a skill that cannot be taken for granted; that the more efficient our administration, the better we can achieve our goals for the wildlife and wild places we are here to protect; that we must take a more hard-nosed approach with governments, big business and organised crime, but a softer “winning hearts and minds” approach with local communities.
With the hard-won lessons in finance and management that I gained from my time in business, I can’t help feeling that, in a small way, I have something to offer this moment in conservation history. Time will tell, but I have a strong sense of being in the right place at the right time.