Mentoring a Generation of Conservationists
Regional Capacity is Key for Success
Building, training, and developing a support infrastructure for a new generation of conservationists is becoming urgent in Central Africa. Sustainable conservation will only be achieved through buy-in by regional governments and populations, and a key component of this is a critical mass of committed local conservationists with the skills to do good science and to communicate their enthusiasm for biodiversity conservation to their communities.
In this century, major conservation focus by international organizations has been on countries in equatorial regions, often with extensive rainforest habitat, where local governments have shown little interest in conservation, and often have few institutions and essentially no infrastructure to support conservation. (This lack of institutional support for conservation contrasts with a sometimes long-established, socially integrated conservation ethic held by rural communities.) But conservation of wildlands requires a long-term commitment and depending solely on expertise and financing from foreign NGOs is not a sustainable model. An increasingly important focus for international funders is to nurture capacity where it already exists, and help grow it where it is lacking. Often this can be done by giving a foot up to researchers and students who have already shown an interest and already have the basic skills.
The Elephant Listening Project has been shifting energy and seeking funding to train researchers in all aspects of acoustic monitoring, providing the platform to hone broadly applicable skills like project management, logistics, and hypothesis-based scientific thinking. In Central Africa we have trained such teams in Gabon, Cameroon, and Republic of Congo. The combination of three very bright Congolese researchers and a series of hands-on workshops has resulted in an expert acoustic team capable of independently running a 50-site acoustic grid in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, Congo—from deployment to analysis!
Our hope is that some of these teams will act like the expanding rings when a pebble is thrown into a pond—demonstrating an ability and enthusiasm for conservation that can be a role model for others. A challenge for NGOs is to nurture these new conservationists over time, looking for new opportunities where their skills can be utilized, their self-confidence reinforced, and their training enhanced.
Introducing new conservation methods and reinforcing the importance of fact-based decision-making to a wide audience of potential stake-holders should pay dividends far into the future. Along with colleagues, ELP has co-conducted workshops about passive acoustic monitoring in Gabon, Cameroon, Congo, Tanzania, and Guatemala, bringing together not only researchers, but protected area managers and representatives of wildlife ministries. Large group workshops work well to provide an overview of techniques and examples of how these might be used in real-world situations, but generally more intensive one-on-one workshops are needed to transfer the critical skills to actually run an acoustic monitoring study. We have also found that it is important to follow up with refreshers and ways to field specific problems that come up with new practitioners of these methods.
A new concept that ELP is working on aims to reduce the training barriers for protected areas and extractive industries to incorporate acoustic monitoring tools into their programs. Completely trained teams, such as our current team in northern Congo, need to know not only the mechanics and logistics of working with the recording devices (and all the skills associated with deploying recording units (or ARUs) in remote forests), but a rich skill-set associated with managing “big data”, running detection algorithms and validating the output, analysis methods, statistics, and visualization skills (e.g. GIS mapping). Particularly for smaller protected areas, the cost and time input to train such a team and provide the computing resources might be prohibitive.
Analysis Hubs will be established in at least two countries in Central Africa where power infrastructure exists to support intensive computing. These hubs will have the high-performance computers that speed up the processing of big data and the staff with expertise in how to run algorithms, analyze the output, and produce the visualizations that help with reporting. The concept is that dispersed protected areas using acoustic tools would require teams familiar with the operation and maintenance of ARUs, and the forest skills to deploy them, but could send the raw sound data to the nearest hub for major processing. In some cases perhaps all of the detecting and data analysis would be done at the hub, but in other cases the detection output could be sent back to the source protected area for validation, review, and action.
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