Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant?
I wanted to work in a wildlife conservancy in order to see firsthand the workings of both the tourist and conservation industries. I wanted to get a unique perspective into how locals interact with parks and the ecosystem they protect. I felt that this program offered the best opportunity to do that while at the same time teaching me knew skills to use in the future.
How does your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L?
I am interested in pursuing a career in environmental and energy conflict negotiation. This program fit into my studies by giving me practical experience in the field. Just being there, it would have been difficult to not absorb an understanding of the culture and environment of Kenya's parks.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience?
I did not expect that I would gain so much knowledge of the East African bush. From the wildlife to birds to ecosystem and park management, I was fully immersed in the culture (it really is a separate world unto itself) of game management, conservation, and the conflict which arises when these interests intersect with the local population.
Post-Graduation Plans: I would like to spend a year or two overseas again before heading to graduate school and law school.Favorite Class: Professor Casey's Natural Resource Economics
Favorite W&L Activity: Whitewater rafting with the Outing Club
Favorite Campus Landmark: Lee Chapel
The South African instructor is waiting in the mess tent for us when we wake at 5:00am. We grab some coffee and our gear and leave camp at first light. We're walking through the bush this morning, heading out to study the trees and birds. It was not always the "big-five" we were after, but in such a diverse environment, there is always something new to find. We are training to become professional safari guides, and there is much more out there than mammals, such as geology, astronomy, insects, reptiles and birds. Birds are a unique challenge to all of us on the course, particularly because there are 1080 species of birds in Kenya. Over the month, we will positively identify only about 10 percent of these.
This morning Elvis and Mawingu, affectionately named by the local game rangers, are munching just outside our camp fence. They are a black rhino mother-and-son pair whose territory encompasses our campsite. This morning, we stand together along the fence to watch while Elvis comes walking up to within three feet of us.
After the excitement of the rhinos, we are off into the bush. We practice teaching each other as we would guide a tour of our own. There are six students and one instructor, which gives each of us plenty of practice. We identify a few new birds and learn the local herbal remedies of the wild plants we come across.
Following our walk through the bush, we return to camp about 9:00 for breakfast. By 10:30 we are ready for our lecture on anything ranging from animal behavior to botany to the weather patterns of Kenya and South Africa. Today we are studying conservation and natural resource management. We discuss the proper techniques for using fires as tools for brush clearing and the grassland health, erosion prevention methods, road construction and proper management of the wildlife within the preserve. We also learn about the integration of local people into the conservation efforts, something Lewa Conservancy does through education and community development programs.
After the lecture, I take some free time catching up on studying and reading until lunch at 2:00pm. By three, we are back in the field until dark, around 6:30. It is my turn at the helm, so I rig up the truck and we are off to the bush again. It is my job to navigate, but also be an "instructor" for the day. Teaching the material we have learned reinforces it, and furthermore, it improves my ability to use the knowledge in a real guiding environment.
We are about two hours into the drive heading off-road, up a rocky hill (in a stick-shift truck that jams often and has no power steering) when I come across a bull elephant waiting for me at the top of the hill. It takes me by surprise; mostly as it is not something we see every day back home in Virginia. Actually, I don't think this experience is common most anywhere. We had been trained earlier in the month on how to react and deal with dangerous encounters and always have an escape route. The thing that makes this spot tricky is that my escape route is in reverse back down the hill into a gorge. Luckily, the bull is only mildly unimpressed with my driving and our presence on his road. He comes to within five feet of my door at one time, but he decides, at least momentarily, that we aren't worth the effort. So he passes us by and I take us forward on our way. It will become one of my favorite moments of the trip.
We arrive back at camp just in time for dinner at 7, followed by some after-dinner hanging out, then early to bed around 9 or 10 in order to make it up again the following morning for another exciting day of guiding.
Being a politics major, many may wonder my reasons for coming on this trip, besides the obvious enjoyment of living for a month in the African bush. Kenya's economy is grounded in the tourism industry, as are many developing nations. To understand the "insider's perspective" has been hugely beneficial to the way I think about development, conservation and natural resource management. I also had the opportunity to engage with the local population to understand how conservation and land management works at the micro level, how the local people might be benefited by the presence of the conservancy (if they are at all), and how I myself as an outside actor might fit into the development process in Kenya.
What I found at Lewa Conservancy was far more than I intended to find. I discovered a new passion for teaching others about the environment, and a new vigor for properly managing our Earth's natural resources and places. These are passions which I will bring back to Washington and Lee and my education along with the knowledge I have been given. Through the Johnson Opportunity Grant I have been able to supplement my academic education with an experience that changed my opinions and focus, and allowed me to learn in the field that which cannot be obtained in books alone.