I quite often get asked what exactly it is I do as a Finance Director in a National Park. Once I’ve explained that we have a budget of around 4 million US dollars, from 23 different donors (ranging from the US Government, to the EU, to private individuals, conservation foundations and zoos) then it becomes a little more obvious that all this takes a fair bit of coordination. I don’t do it alone, of course, and we have 3 Congolese accountants based here in the forest, and a team of expats in Brazzaville in New York who do most of the accounting work. Out here in the field it is about more than just the numbers. There is a lot of “on the ground decision making” that needs to be done. When the Director of the Park is not here, I’ll step in to run many aspects of day-to-day functioning. Then there is the general management and human resources for the 150 people we permanently employ here, with another 100 temporary workers hired every month. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, contracts still need to signed, holidays programmed and everyone needs to get paid.
We’re doing all this with very limited resources, relatively basic supplies, with pretty poor internet, 2 days journey from the capital, 4 days journey from a developed country. We’re in one of the more isolated places on the planet, in the middle of a hot and humid, tropical rainforest.
Overcoming the challenges and the hardships is undoubtedly satisfying. And indeed the cause that we are working towards: to protect the wild animals and wild places of this planet, is certainly very motivating. But above all, I think, it is the diversity and sheer unpredictability of the job which makes it both the hardest job I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.
These challenges come in many forms. On the darker end, we regularly deal with people who are seriously ill (and die) from preventable diseases, (I’ve dealt with more deaths in the last two years than I ever thought I would), we have to cope occasionally with aggressive, drunk Congolese soldiers who start randomly shooting at people (only happened once, fortunately) and on a weekly basis with pernicious levels of corruption. On a less serious and more day-to-day level, the internet is often terrible, the generator will stop working (so we have no electricity), cars will break down, there are no telephones to help organise anything etc. And then on the lighter side, my whole morning is often delayed because an elephant decides to waltz into the camp and start munching away on the fruiting bushes, trapping me in my house, allowing me to spend a pleasant couple of hours “on safari” instead of working.
All of this teaches you to be incredibly patient (never a strong point for me, I think I’m finally learning) and to take everything in your stride and see the positives in every situation.
The mantra “what CAN I do?” becomes a daily touchstone – because no matter how badly things go wrong, there is always something positive that can be done.
Yesterday was a small and wonderful example of the unpredictability of the job. Certainly a situation where we just had to laugh, rather than get upset or stressed. I was making the “cash run” up the river from the nearest town. Very few of our employees have access to a bank (as they all live in the village a few miles from the HQ, and so they are as isolated as we are), so we pay all 250 of them in cash every month. I don’t think I’ll be creating a huge security risk for the Park if I reveal that this totals up to tens of thousands of US dollars every month that we have to handle in cash: and that is just for salaries.
So the “cash run” is an important part of our regular operations. It involves a two day round trip to the nearest urban settlement with a bank, down, and then back up, the Sangha River. We’d counted the money, secured it away in anonymous looking boxes and cases, and were heading back up the river. We left at 09:30 in the morning. The journey, on a good day with a fast boat, can be as quick as 4 hours; but to save fuel, were were in a big boat LOADED up with food supplies for the camps. When we hit the halfway mark 3 and a half hours in, I knew that it was going to be a long day; but at that point I didn’t realise quite how long!
8 miles from our HQ, the boat driver tells us that were are running low on fuel. This is not the first time this I’d heard this so I told him to push on and that we were quite close. But 2 minutes later he told me again we were low on fuel, this time with quite a bit more urgency in his voice. Sure enough, 3 minutes later the outboard motor had spluttered to a stop. At this point we had two choices, one of which was to float back down to the nearest village and stay the night, I didn’t like the idea of this (partly because I’m quite stubborn and hate turning round!) but also because it would have taken us all night; the second choice was to moor the boat on the river bank and starting walking. Bearing in mind that the river bank consists of some of the most dense tropical rainforest on the planet, for as far into the distance as you can imagine, this wasn’t the easy option.
However, walking through the forest isn’t has hard as it sounds. Elephant trails provide highways, and navigation was easy enough, we just had to keep the river on our left.
So there I am, walking through the rainforest, carrying thousands of US dollars in a (heavy) briefcase to make sure that our staff get paid that month, battling with jungle vines and all the other things the forest throws at you, and all that I can think is that: this isn’t half bad for an office job!
For a couple of seconds, the option of getting frustrated about the fact we didn’t have enough fuel does cross your mind. But when your faced with the sheer enormity of nature, complaints and little problems like that seem to shrink in comparison. What can you do?
Anyway, a number of kilometres along, we reach a camp where there are a couple of Pygmy fisherman. After some friendly chat, we persuade them to paddle up to our HQ and tell our team. Long story short, we made it back. The whole journey took 11 hours and involved negotiating with fisherman, forest hiking with 80 thousand bucks and a good 7 hours in a wooden boat!
Every day is different. I had no idea when I got out of bed that morning that I’d be doing all of that. I’m coming up to two years in the role and I’m still learning things all the time. I’m still being thrown into new situations and being tested non-stop. Working in wildlife conservation in the field is certainly not the glamorous BBC wildlife documentary some people think it might be (well sometimes it is…), but it is certainly always an adventure!