This is part twelve in my new Expat Interview Series, where I interview interesting expats and nomads from around the world. I’m hoping this series of posts will provide some insight into some of the unique jobs available around the world and might even encourage a few people to pack their bags and make the move!
Meet Emma Hart, an intrepid traveller, researcher and conservationist from Cork, Ireland who has been working on a giraffe research and conservation project in Namibia (southwest Africa) since February 2016. Before this, Emma has sailed across the Atlantic with her father, worked with guachos on horseback in Argentina and rode 400km across the Namib desert!
For more animal and safari holiday inspiration, read my post about National Parks in nearby South Africa.
Cover photo credit: Randal Hinz / Randal Hinz Photography
What made you want to go to Namibia?
What initially drew me to Namibia was the sense of freedom it offers. Namibia is defined by wide-open spaces, distant horizons and landscapes that have yet to be compromised by human interference.
However it is a country on the edge; its desert ecosystems are perpetually on the edge of devastating drought and now many of its last frontiers are also on the edge of human development. It is this combination of wildness and fragility that has kept me in Namibia, offering both the joy of getting out there and researching true wilderness areas and the opportunity to contribute in some small way to helping to conserve these fragile ecosystems for the future.
Tell us about the organization you are working with
I work in partnership with the Laboratory of Wildlife Ecology and Behaviour at University College Dublin (UCD, Ireland) and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF, Namibia). With the support of these organisations I manage a conservation research project aiming to address a number of deficits in our current understanding of giraffe behaviour in the wild.”
Despite being such an iconic species, we actually still know very little about giraffe behaviour, particularly in comparison to what we know about other large mammal species like elephant or lion. What we do know is that giraffe numbers have declined by 35-40% in the wild over the past three decades and that now less than 100,000 giraffe remain in the wild.
The research we are conducting in northwest Namibia aims to deepen our understanding of how giraffe utilise their environment as well as to learn more about their social behaviours and their genetics. This information will inform the future conservation of this species and its habitat. Protecting giraffe habitat also has a wonderful top-down effect as, in protecting the vast tracks of land required by giraffe, we also protect the habitats of a plethora of smaller species of wildlife.
What’s it like working in the field?
The study region is extremely arid, with some areas only seeing a few millimeters of rainfall every few years. It is a stark environment of dunes and dry riverbeds, but for me it is one of the most beautiful and valuable places on the planet. The days start with a cup of coffee brewed on an open fire before heading out in the 4×4 into the 4500km2 research area to track and observe giraffe. Whilst the daily research work remains the same- collecting behavioural and genetic data on each giraffe- rarely a day passes in the field when the desert doesn’t offer up a new and extraordinary sight.
There are often hairy moments: vehicle breakdowns as the sun sets, racing the rising rivers during flash floods or lying awake listening to a herd of elephant feeding around the tent. The most treasured moments however are often the quieter ones, watching giraffe delicately browsing or gently interacting, the timeless desert silently unrolling all around.
Any advice for people that want to work in this area?
Our wild places are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. We desperately need more people to engage with and work in conservation. You don’t need to be an expert in African mammals to do it, and while field research is one aspect, there is also a huge need for those with skills in fund raising, education and data analysis. Working in conservation will never make you rich, but waking up every day knowing that you are involved in a fight that is worth fighting is worth much more than anything money can buy.
What were you doing before this?
Since leaving school in 2006 I have been juggling interests in animals, academia and adventure. Over the past decade I travelled extensively, with some of the highlights including sailing across the Atlantic with my father and working with the guachos on horseback in Argentina. During this time I also completed BA and MSc degrees in Psychology at University College Cork and Durham University respectively. In 2014 my love for Africa was sparked by a 400km ride across the Namib Desert.
While I began a PhD in Psychology at the University of Edinburgh in the same year, I couldn’t get Africa out of my head and so I forewent the PhD for an opportunity to work on a community-based-conservation project in Uganda. From Uganda I travelled back to southern Africa where I gained experience out in the bush guiding and working on horse safaris before taking on the current research project in early 2016.
What sort of difficulties do you encounter?
One of the biggest challenges facing conservationists today is a lack of hope. Faced with the current figures of human population growth it is very difficult to imagine how we can save what wild places are left on the planet. However we have to stop highlighting what is impossible and start looking at what is attainable. The more we can spread awareness about the wonder and intrinsic values of these areas the better chance we have of protecting them. If enough of us take small steps, then together we might just be able to preserve some of the remaining wild places for future generations.
Want to learn more about working on giraffe conservation projects? Feel free to contact Emma on: [email protected]