Saving a species living in a landscape of tears

The Persian leopard is a rare subspecies of Panthera pardus living across warzones and areas of civil unrest in the Middle East. Conserving this big cat in a troubled geographic region comes with a high degree of risk, uncertainty and challenge. Here, Tatjana Rosen discusses the groundbreaking work being done to help protect this subspecies from extinction – and the heroes who have put their own lives on the line to do so.

This talk was brought to you by Be in the Change’s Global Huddle. During the first Global Huddle, an online festival of ideas and stories, we invited a dozen changemakers from across the globe to share with us their journeys of how they helped to make a positive difference in society.

Tatjana Rosen is the UNEP Vanishing Treasures Technical Adviser for Kyrgystan and Lead of Team Bars Turkmenistan. You can connect with her on Twitter here.

Why we need a values-based approach to sustainability

Enabling people to become more sustainable is a tough but critical way to ensure a future where both people and our planet thrive. Here, Dr Rae Ritchie discusses why we need a values-based approach to encouraging people to choose more sustainable behaviours and shares the science behind why this is effective.

This talk was brought to you by Be in the Change’s Global Huddle. During the first Global Huddle, an online festival of ideas and stories, we invited a dozen changemakers from across the globe to share with us their journeys of how they helped to make a positive difference in society.

Dr Rae Ritchie is a writer, editor, speaker and researcher focusing on sustainability and ethical issues. Find her on Twitter here.

How can we address racism in wildlife conservation?

Wildlife conservation has been built on colonial foundations, which continues to marr the discipline today. In this captivating talk, Dr Moreangels Mbizah shares her insights of being a Black woman working in conservation and the racism she has endurred. She highlights some avenues to help rebalance the situation to pave the way for a more socially just environmental sector.

This talk was brought to you by Be in the Change’s Global Huddle. During the first Global Huddle, an online festival of ideas and stories, we invited a dozen changemakers from across the globe to share with us their journeys of how they helped to make a positive difference in society.

Dr Moreangels Mbizah is the Founding Director of Wildlife Conservation Action. You can connect with her on Twitter here.

What can we learn from Indigenous communities about living with Nature?

What can the Indigenous communties of the world teach humanity about how to live in better harmony with Nature? In this video, Eli Enns interrogates this question by telling a story of his Indigenous roots and how this has helped him better understand how humans can interact more positively with our environment.

This talk was brought to you by Be in the Change’s Global Huddle. During the first Global Huddle, an online festival of ideas and stories, we invited a dozen changemakers from across the globe to share with us their journeys of how they helped to make a positive difference in society.

Eli Enns is the co-founder, President and Chief Problem Solver of the Iisak Olam Foundation. You can reach out to Eli on his Twitter.

How I helped make an app that helps refugees

Ever wondered what gave someone the inspiration to create something that helps change the world? Here, Tanja Burke Jensen talks about how she got the idea to develop an app that helps refugees and migrants help themselves.

This talk was brought to you by Be in the Change’s Global Huddle. During the first Global Huddle, an online festival of ideas and stories, we invited a dozen changemakers from across the globe to share with us their journeys of how they helped to make a positive difference in society.

Tanja is a social entrepreneur who founded Fair Integration. You can connect with her on Twitter here.

Tackling systemic drivers to empower communities to help themselves

Here, Elizabeth Gowing, co-founder of The Ideas Partnership, talks about her fascinating journey into Kosovo, first helping to get shoes to kids so that they can attend school. She then realised that she needed to help these local communities help themselves and then finally went onto empowering people to help others. Check out her talk below.

This talk was brought to you by Be in the Change’s Global Huddle. During the first Global Huddle, an online festival of ideas and stories, we invited a dozen changemakers from across the globe to share with us their journeys of how they helped to make a positive difference in society.

To find out more about The Ideas Partnership, go here and to connect with Elizabeth Gowing on Twitter, you can find her here.

Why snow leopards represent a species of hope

During the first Global Huddle, an online festival of ideas and stories, we invited a dozen changemakers from across the globe to share with us their journeys of how they helped to make a positive difference in society. Here, Justine Shanti Alexander of the Snow Leopard Trust talks about why this big cat species represents a glimmer of hope for wildlife conservation in a landscape of doom and gloom.

You can find out more about the Snow Leopard Trust here and hear more from Justine via her Twitter page here.

How struggles for survival create strength

A story from Be in the Change’s founder, Niki Rust, on how struggling can reveal who we really are and what is important to us. Warning: this post contains content that some may find disturbing.

Thinking back, I believe I’ve always been a fighter. From the moment I entered this world, I was met with adversity. Arriving nearly four weeks early, attached a non-functioning placenta, I was a hair’s width short of being a stillborn. My father recalled the first time he laid eyes on me: a tiny, bluish-white mass, barely breathing. At 4 lb 2 ounces (1.8 kg), I was severely underweight and had not been receiving enough food or oxygen through my umbilical cord. The doctors presumed me to be a lost cause.

But against the odds, I miraculously began to breathe. I was then swiftly connected up to an oxygen tube and placed in an incubator, remaining in the hospital’s premature baby unit for a fortnight until I was strong enough to go home with my parents.

The day of my birth

That was the start of many times in which I had to fight to survive.

On the first day of my PhD at Reading University, approximately 22.5 years after being in an incubator, my world changed.

It was a gloomy, overcast early morning in late September – typical weather for south-east England at that time of year. Sleepily, I began a nervous journey along the residential back streets of Reading, heading over to the university campus for my first day of inductions. It was a big day: I was about to begin a three-year joint PhD in psychology and pharmacology to understand more about our appetite. In some ironic twist of fate, my own innards had other ideas about how this journey would pan out.

Part-way along the walk, I began to notice a pain in my side. At first, it started as dull ache radiating from my left lower ribcage though, as I got closer to campus, the pain slowly became more and more intense, creeping towards my stomach and around my back. Initially, I thought perhaps I had not let my breakfast go down properly before heading out for the day and I ignored it. But as the minutes ticked by, the pain got worse. As I arrived to the building that housed my first university induction event, the realisation dawned on me that I couldn’t make it into the room. Collapsing under a stairwell, I began to hyperventilate in agony. Not knowing what was wrong, I phoned my PhD supervisor who speedily came to the rescue. Thinking I might be suffering from a severe panic attack, he swiftly called an ambulance.

I don’t really remember much of what happened next. My next memory is of me propped up in a hospital bed at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. I felt sleepy – very, very sleepy. My pain had mostly subsided. “Great,” I thought, “maybe it was just bad indigestion after all. But goodness, do I feel tired”.

Then, a young, friendly nurse hurried to my bedside, smiled, and explained that my test results had come back. I thought to myself “When did they take my blood?” I had no recollection of this. The nurse told me there was bad news – I was having a pancreatitis attack. At the time, I had never heard of pancreatitis. I knew what my pancreas was – a vital organ to the side of my intestines and just behind my stomach, having a critical role in digestion and regulating blood sugar. However, I mistakenly thought pancreatitis was perhaps similar in its seriousness to tonsillitus so, armed with some good medicine, I would be able to go home now.

I was wrong. Very wrong. Severe acute pancreatitis has a mortality rate of 20%, meaning for every ten patients who succumb to the disease, two of them generally die. The disease occurs because the chemicals that are produced by the pancreas to break down food – known as enzymes – do not exit the organ and instead stay inside the pancreas. Unfortunately for those suffering from this affliction, your body’s enzymes do not know the difference between food and you. So the enzymes begin to break down your pancreas. This is what causes the crippling pain in your side – you are, in effect, eating yourself.

Entirely ignorant to the seriousness of the situation, I naively asked the nurse “So when can I go home? Later today?” Shocked, the nurse replied “Oh no, you are going nowhere, young lady. You are very ill. You will be here for some days.” I replied “But I feel alright now!” confused as to why they would hold me captive when I didn’t feel too bad anymore. The nurse glanced down to my arm, pointing at cannula sticking out of my arm connected to a drip – objects that I had only just in that moment noticed were attached to me. “That might be because of all the morphine we’ve been giving you,” she retorted. “Ah,” I thought, “maybe this disease is a little more serious than tonsillitus”.

Connected up to a cannula in hospital

I texted my parents and my PhD supervisor to let them know the diagnosis. Not having the energy to use my phone to look into what pancreatitis actually was, I was still at that point relatively unaware of the danger of the disease. The drugs kicked in again and I drifted back to sleep.

After an unknown amount of time (the concept of time seems to diminish when you’re given heavy doses of morphine), my phone rang. It was my PhD supervisor. Apparently he had been reading up about the disease and wanted to ask how I was. I was still relatively clueless about the gravity of the situation, being heavily sedated and on another level of consciousness. Ben, my supervisor, explained what he’d read about pancreatitis:

  • Acute pancreatitis is rare, affecting roughly 30 of every 100,000 people per year
  • Eight out of ten patients get pancreatitis either from gallstones or alcohol
  • There are numerous dangerous complications, which can increase the death rate

It dawned on me that I might have to remain in hospital a while longer.

During my stay, I underwent a number of diagnostic tests to determine the cause of my affliction. I was young, otherwise healthy, a moderate drinker and not having any other symptoms of gallstones. My x-rays, blood tests and ultrasounds came back fine. After days and days being connected up to a drip delivering morphine, strong antibiotics, and fluids, I was finally released. Fingers crossed it was just a one-off and life would return to normal.

About 5 weeks later, the same pain in my abdomen returned. “Oh no, not this again,” I thought. Heading back into A&E, the pain became increasingly intense and I vomited numerous times, crippled over in agony. I was having another pancreatitis attack. My stay in hospital was similar to the last – nil by mouth, connected up to tubes, laying dormant for another week. Again I was finally released after doctors ran more tests and still couldn’t find the cause.

Drugged up on morphine during another pancreatitis attack

This process repeated another four times over the next year, interjected with further trips to the hospital for x-rays, blood tests, CT scans and consultant visits. I was so sick that I had to quit my PhD. More and more tests were taken with no better understanding of what was causing my body to internally digest myself. I became thinner and thinner, less able to digest food as time progressed. It got to the sobering point where I wrote a will and planned my funeral arrangements, devising a list of who would inherit my belongings and what charities would inherit my meagre savings. I had not even had my 23rd birthday.

It was during an endoscopy that the doctors finally found the culprit. A tumour. Approximately 2 inches long, found in my duodenum, the upper part of the intestine, at the entrance to my pancreatic duct. The doctors explained that the tumour sometimes covered the pancreatic duct, meaning that the pancreatic enzymes couldn’t escape, which was what was causing the disease. Whilst I felt some degree of relief knowing what the cause was – finally – a new wave of anxiety crept over me as the doctors explained that the tumour could be cancerous. They had to send it off for tests before they could tell, leaving me in a terrifying wait until we knew the results.

To the overwhelming relief for my family and I, the tumour was not cancerous. It was, however, a very rare type of growth never documented before in the scientific literature. So rare, in fact, that my medical team were planning on writing a journal article about my condition (if you’re interested, you can read it here, complete with rather gory photos). I never was one to follow trends.

Now we knew the cause, my doctors could now go about planning how to cure me. I would be booked in for surgery, where they would slice me open down the centre of my chest, creating a 25 cm incision. My abdominal muscles would be pulled aside, my intestines brought out and the growth cut with a scalpel. Thanks to the expertise of my medical team, everything went according to plan and the operation did indeed cure me.

The scar running down my abdomen

The experience of staring death in the face at such a young age profoundly changed me. Witnessing the precious fragility of life is a deeply philosophical endeavour; you cannot help but come out of it a stronger, more resilient person. Since then, I’ve overcome numerous other challenges – some related to my health and some entirely unrelated. But the process of slowly dying over the course of a year has helped me overcome these struggles.

Struggling is tough – extremely tough – at the time, but it makes you tougher for it. I’ve witnessed people shy away from struggles, give up or try to find an easier road. But when there is no easier road – there is no choice but having to climb that insurmountable mountain in front of you – it is empowering to see just how strong you are deep down and how you can overcome the odds if you put your mind to it and have a supportive network around you.

It can be easy to look at a successful person and assume they must have had a free ride in life, where doors were continually opened for them. Whilst that might be the case for some, I think some of the most powerful leaders in the world are those who have sustained deep levels of adversity and survived, becoming a better person for it.

What has this struggle taught me? Life is short – desperately short for some. Don’t waste it. Follow your dreams, focus on what makes you happy and healthy. Don’t shy away from a tough challenge if that is really what you want. Embrace the adversity. Life is a gift – don’t abuse it. Look after yourself – and others around you. Surround yourself with people who lift you up rather than drag you down. And remember, the human body is a miraculous thing capable of doing things far greater than we usually expect possible. Push yourself because only then will you truly see what you can achieve.

How passion and perseverance can lead to a profession in pangolins

An interview with Dr Dan Challender, a Researcher in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford and Chair of the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group.

Did you have a career in mind when you were young of what you wanted to be when you grew up?

I used to want to be a farmer for most of my childhood because I wanted to work with animals and be outside. I spent most of my early teenage years volunteering on farms in Yorkshire, England, before eventually getting my own smallholding where I reared different breeds of chickens, geese, and ducks.

You now work on illegal wildlife trade and pangolins. What first got you interested in pangolins?

Despite my interesting in farming, I actually studied Business Management at undergraduate level, mainly because I excelled in it at school and college, but realised part way through that I wanted to work in wildlife conservation. Having saved up some money, I decided to do some volunteering – which I had heard was good for my CV – in Scotland, Russia and South Africa. In preparation for my month in South Africa, I bought a copy of Jonathan Kingdon’s Field Guide to African Mammals. I was looking through the guide thinking about which species I would like to see and came across pangolins.

Dan with a Sunda pangolin
© Dan Challender

They seemed unlike anything else, so extraordinary and otherworldly that I set my heart on seeing one. And, I nearly did! The one day I left the bush to go and get supplies from the nearest town, my new-found friends on the game reserve did see one. My enthusiasm was in no way curbed though and I returned to the UK and followed up my Business degree with a Masters degree in Conservation Biology, including a project on pangolins, and I have remained interested in the species ever since.

How did you end up working as a researcher at one of the best universities in the world?

Following my Masters, I worked as an Ecologist in the UK for a few years before completing a PhD in Biodiversity Management on wildlife trade (including a focus on pangolins!). While I was completing my PhD, I re-formed the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group with Jonathan Baillie (then at the Zoological Society of London). We were introduced through IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) because we both had a keen interest in pangolins and wanted to do more for pangolin conservation. I was a PhD student at the time and I am thankful to IUCN for placing their faith in me as co-Chair of the group.

On completion of my studies, I went to work for IUCN focusing on sustainable use and wildlife trade issues, prior to joining the University Oxford, which was possible because we raised the funds for my job and I had a solid research and publication record for someone at my career stage. From my MSc onwards, I think I was always mindful that I was more of an academic than anything else, but all the work experience I have gained in this time has been invaluable to understanding how the world works, which is essential to achieving any success in biodiversity conservation today.

What were the biggest hurdles you had along the road to getting to where you are now?

The biggest hurdle has probably been financial, but I have been fortunate to receive my fair share of good fortune in my career. I received a competitive scholarship from Research Councils UK, which provided me with the means to complete my PhD that helped kick-start my career. University degrees – both undergraduate and postgraduate – are not cheap, and may involve loans, but they are worth it in my opinion. I am now in a position to pursue research I am interested in and passionate about and I very much enjoy my work and research.

What were the things that contributed to your success in your career?

Whilst my qualifications have helped provide me with most of the skills I need to do my job, two of the biggest things that have contributed to my success have been self-initiative and learning from others. Jonathan Baillie and I re-formed the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group in 2012 because we wanted to do some good for pangolins. It was possible because there was no such group at the time and IUCN were supportive, but crucially, it was our appetite to just get on with it, to set up the group, start initiatives to raise awareness of pangolins, and catalyse conservation action for the species. Having an idea and persisting with it can take you a long way.

Second, learning from others. I have been fortunate to have a strong personal and professional network around me throughout my career, which is the result of relationship building with friends and colleagues, and some outright networking. I also try to learn from people wherever I can, which is usually possible in any given room. You can learn from anybody and I have certainly done so, which extends to my PhD supervisors, Jonathan Baillie, my current and former colleagues, and applies to all aspects of work and research from good decision-making to data analysis, event organisation, networking and publishing.   

Is there anything you know now about your career journey that you wish you knew when you were younger?

You can achieve what you want in your career if you are persistent, determined, and are prepared to work for it.

Measuring Chinese pangolin burrows in southern China

For a young person looking to work in conservation or research, what’s the best advice you think you can give them to help them along the way?

My main pieces of advice are (1) use your initiative and (2) just do it. If you want to start in biodiversity conservation practice or research, you can do this without money or huge resources. For instance, you could start by seeking to understand what wildlife occurs in your neighbourhood or local green space, or perhaps set up a local wildlife club to watch wildlife or to research it. You could start collecting data on wildlife in your local area.

During the lockdown in the UK, I have taken daily walks to a local meadow in Oxford to observe the Greylag geese population (I still like geese!) and I am considering starting to collect data on them and record my observations because I am interested and may able to improve our understanding of their behaviour and ecology. 

Who or what inspires you to get out of bed every day and continue doing what you do?

The world is a fascinating place, from biological systems, to what is happening around the world socially, culturally, and dare I say it, politically. I am fortunate to be in a position where my job involves understanding elements of all these factors, which is critical when planning research projects or conservation activities and to achieving success, both in research and in biodiversity conservation. I hope to achieve some conservation success in my career and understanding how the world works in order to achieve that continues to motivate me.

You can find out more about Dan Challender and his research here.

Header image: A Sunda pangolin. © Dan Challender/Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

The journey of a high-flying lawyer who became a conservationist

Tatjana Rosen, UNEP Vanishing Treasures Technical Adviser for Kyrgyzstan and Lead of Team Bars Turkmenistan.

Like countless others, as a child, I loved nature and animals and longed to be either a veterinarian or study the behavior of wildlife. I was an introverted kid and found joy in rescuing all sorts of animals, from stray dogs to birds and bats, or spending hours watching wildlife.

However, when I was 17, the war in the former Yugoslavia — a home to me and my family — erupted, causing a period of uncertainty, loss, and grief. Although nature remained my escape and passion, my priorities changed: I wanted to become a UN peace negotiator. And therefore I thought I should become an international lawyer first.

From dreams to reality

I breezed through law school in Italy: I studied with this sense of greater purpose and exams came easy. I finished in half time with top grades and literally every top law firm in Milano wanted to hire me.  I accepted the offer from one of them. It was a great place, but I was one of the very few women and for sure the only one with a “humble” background.

I had the opportunity in the meantime to do an internship in New York, at the Office of Legal Affairs at the UN. To me, New York represented the place that – no matter your background – you would be treated equally. I sent about 100 letters to law firms, banks, companies, and a ship classification society. The American Bureau of Shipping offered me a short-term paid position that led to a position in a mid-sized Wall Street law firm.

Meanwhile I wrote to professors at New York, Yale and Columbia Universities that I admired and asked them if I could audit their classes in my free time. They all welcomed me. I then applied to Yale, Harvard, Columbia and NYU and was accepted in all, so I chose Harvard because of their negotiation programme.  Finally, in 2000, I started working for a law firm that I viewed as a stepping stone towards working in my dream job as a UN negotiator. That was, at least, until the sunny morning of September 11, 2001, when my life could have simply just ended.

The moment things changed forever

As the twin towers across from my office went crashing down, so did my life as I knew it. I developed serious post-traumatic stress disorder and only time in nature seemed to provide relief. And it was during that time that I questioned my life trajectory. The great outdoors of Yellowstone National Park and the wilderness of Montana, in the aftermath of September 11, seemed to offer me the answers: become a wildlife biologist. It was not easy as I also just had a child and I had no idea where to start. I also questioned my ability to start down this whole new path. But I did slowly.

I wrote to Chuck Schwartz, head of the USGS Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team and asked to allow me to join a project on bears in Grand Teton National Park. I did not know Chuck at all and was sure he would not even reply. But he did, and he later told me that he was struck by my honesty and resolve.  I will always be grateful to Chuck for giving me the chance to learn.

A fresh start

That first year, I worked as a volunteer and was paid 17$/day. I learned about bears and that in order to save bears, I had to still draw on the skills from my past career – such as negotiation, patience, compromise and listening – to work with people. And that is how my wildlife research and conservation life took off. I also went back to school – first at night at Columbia University for a Certificate Program in Conservation Biology so that my baby girl would not notice I would be gone; and then a Masters in Science at Yale done while managing part-time jobs and an almost daily commute from New York to New Haven (a gruelling four hours on the train). Bears led to wolves. Wolves led to snow leopards. Snow leopards led to Persian leopards. From Montana I ended in Central Asia.

Tanya and her team on a mission to go camera trapping for snow leopards in Kyrgyzstan

None of this came without loss and making difficult choices: being increasingly away from my daughter from the time she was 7 years old (for months at a time), and this work being hard on my relationships.  But to know that you are part of making a difference for a species that gives purpose to your life and your happiness – as well as that of others – is incredible and makes everything worth it.

In 2018, nine of my Iranian colleagues were jailed, accused of being spies; one died. Seven are still in jail. Once again, my life as I knew it changed and yet has given an even greater meaning to what I do.

Tanya and colleauges reviewing camera trap images while in the field in Turkmenistan

What my journey has taught me is: you are never too old or young to change, to make a difference. Create your own job description. Don’t be afraid of change and challenges – there are lessons in them and opportunities. Embrace uncertainty, follow your heart and be yourself. Lastly, surround yourself with a community of people who are there to celebrate your good days and hold your hand when things are bad.