I always knew I wanted a career in wildlife conservation—one where I could save wild animals and improve community livelihood. I’m sure that my rural background growing up in Zimbabwe, one of Africa’s wildlife hotspots contributed to my love for nature and desire to make an impact at a grassroots level. Reminiscing on my story, it is the works by A.R.E Sinclair and M. Norton-Griffiths that first got me hooked on conservation and solidified my passion for promoting iconic species, saving the places they call home and ensuring communities live in harmony with wildlife. Originally published in 1979, their book Serengeti: Dynamics of an Ecosystem immediately captivated me and ever since I read it when I was 17, the patterns and processes of major ecosystems have fascinated me. The way the authors broke down the dynamic heterogeneity of the Mara–Serengeti Ecosystem and the ecological functionality of protecting wildlife and corridors that sustain the famous wildebeest migrations drew me in.
In retrospect, the lack of exposure and sound career guidance—a challenge most youth growing up in Africa face—is definitely a reason why most young people’s conservation dreams are squashed early, and I was no exception.
Though I graduated first in my class at Bindura University in Zimbabwe, majoring in Wildlife & Rangeland Management with a distinction in Environmental Science, there were no entry point conservation jobs waiting for me due to Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties.
Navigating my career path
I enrolled for a field guides course and had to knock on many doors, (and boy did I knock on doors) until I was taken in by one of the largest tour operators in the country conducting interpretative tours as a trainee guide. A highlight of that short career included hosting the Ambassador of Italy to Zimbabwe on a game drive!
Ambition without guidance however is a dangerous thing and it pushed me to move away from my ambitions for a conservation-based role to a job in the mining sector—a big and lucrative industry where I come from. Attracted by the associated financial gains, I joined a graduate traineeship program offered by Zimbabwe’s largest platinum mine. Sounds fancy, right? It wasn’t as cool as you’d imagine. I did not see a single platinum nugget in my six year stint!
I did wake up one day six years later, having one of those defining moments where you seriously self-reflect. Lucky for me, it came a bit earlier than it does for most other young adults. At that moment I realized that although I was good at my job in the mining sector (awarded a couple of innovation and best employee accolades), mining was not what I wanted to do at all. What I really wanted to achieve in life had never changed. I wanted to work in biodiversity conservation to make a purposeful and impactful contribution to the world, and I had a desire to see community livelihoods and human rights safeguarded on the continent I love so dearly.
It even dawned on me that in all the time I had been employed by the mine, I had never thought about how it shared a boundary border with a Protected Area—the Ngezi Recreational Park. I had been oblivious to the impacts the mining operations had on the biodiversity and wildlife that lived there.
Building a career in wildlife conservation
My journey from the mine to Oxford University where I had the opportunity to study for an MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management wasn’t an easy one. After searching for scholarships for over three years as I did not have the funds required to undertake these studies, I applied for an opportunity I came across on scholarship-positions.com. What made the journey better was having a handful of close people who had faith in me.
We all need such people. People who remind you of your dream, people who take you to task about slacking-off, and above all, people who will push you to do and be better either through moral, financial or emotional support. Surround yourself with such people and the sky is the limit.
Through the Oxford – Keith Lloyd Scholarship (offered to only one Southern African applicant each year), Linacre College became my home and it put me back on track and into mainstream conservation. The rest is a story for another day but a few internships, research assistantships, and even a brief consultancy stint later brought me to IFAW and a job as Program Officer for its global Landscape Conservation Program.
The role requires me to contribute to the strategic development and effective implementation of IFAW’s program strategies priority landscapes in Africa, India, China and Australia. Revolving around exactly what I love (the preservation of habitats and communities, addressing key environmental and social challenges like human and wildlife coexistence and securing critical spaces/wildlife habitat), the program fits well into IFAW’s ambitious Room to Roam Project. In this role, I provide strategic and technical support of landscape conservation projects to ensure the effective roll out of approaches that involve inclusive community engagement, applied innovative research and enhanced partner capacity to promote long term ecosystem sustainability.
Advice for others pursuing their dreams
At the end of the day, I have learned to trust the processes of life and to value the skills and experiences gained from my background that helped shape where I am today. Key to this and for anything in life is that tenacity, no matter what life throws at you, is important if you want to make it! In a world where so many alternatives to your dream can present themselves, choose to do what you love, no matter how long it might take or how hard the journey may be. Hang in there and knock on every door until an opportunity presents itself.
-Nelson Mhlanga, IFAW Landscape Conservation Officer, Programs