The life of a wildlife biologist

Did you know that Botswana and Namibia have over half of the world’s population of cheetahs? Ms. Rebecca Klein is one of the custodians of this endangered species in Botswana. She is the Executive Director of Cheetah Conservation Botswana, a charity organization whose mandate is to preserve this threatened species. She is also an experienced wildlife biologist with 19 years of experience.

Question: What led to your choice to work with wildlife?
Rebecca: I have always wanted to work in wildlife conservation since I was a child. I was born in England but we lived all over the world from Portugal, Carribean, East Africa and South East Asia, because of my father’s work in the British Navy. When he started working sugar producing company, we lived in sugar plantations which were quite remote. For example, in Somalia, we lived 8 hours away from any town! Through living in these wild places, and going back to England to a human dominated land, I was aware of environmental challenges quite early. I was very concerned about what was happening in the world and the way the natural world was disappearing. When I got to university in the UK, I knew I wanted to study something in an environmental discipline. Since I had always wanted to work with endangered species, I chose wildlife biology as a means of getting a foot into the wildlife conservation field.

Question: What projects have you worked on since graduation?
Rebecca: I first worked on a woodland conservation project in England, where an area of woodland was being converted into a reserve. I helped manage the tree species, lay footpaths and develop it into an educational area. In Malaysia, I spent a year working on a project collaboration between British Millennium Commission and Malaysian Nature Fund where I did biodiversity surveys in three different reserve areas.

Question: How did you start working with endangered species?
Rebecca: I worked on the Gibbon rehabilitation project in Thailand. Gibbons are an endangered species and live in the canopy of the rain forest. They are taken from the wild and sold into the black market. The rescued gibbons were brought to the centre, put in family groups and rehabilitated. Family groups that were cohesive and developed the right behaviors were released onto islands, for eventual release to protected areas. I monitored the family groups on the island and made the call of when they were ready to be released properly. After some time working on this project, I felt called to come to Africa. I enjoyed the tropical rain forest environment but I missed Africa, the wildlife, the people and the landscapes. Since I had not visited Southern Africa, I sent applications to different places in the region. That is how I got the opportunity to come to Botswana. I joined the team at Mokolodi Nature Reserve in 2001, where I worked with the veterinarian running the rehabilitation centre, Dr. Kyle Good.

Question: What led you to cheetahs?
Rebecca: At Mokolodi Nature Reserve, we had two cheetah brothers recovered by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks after their mother was killed by a livestock farmer. These cheetahs were hand-raised and became tame. Part of my job was to feed and care for them. So I was around them every day and I loved them. Looking around at what was happening, I realized there was no targeted program for the conservation of cheetahs in Botswana. Farmers viewed cheetahs as a threat to their livestock and retaliatory killings in the wake of perceived livestock loses were fairly common. Around the same time, I was sent to represent the Mokolodi Nature Reserve at a cheetah conservation conference. I realized that these conservation efforts were on-going throughout Southern Africa except Botswana. And yet, Botswana is in the middle of the cheetahs’ remaining range. I realized there was a gap. That is how the idea to start Cheetah Conservation (Botswana CCB) took root.

Question: What is the status of cheetahs worldwide?
Rebecca: They are the fastest land animal on earth and yet, their populations are severely threatened. In the past 116 years, cheetah estimates have declined by 90% because of habitat loss, poaching, hunting and increasing encroachment into wildlife areas which means resulting in increasing human-wildlife conflict. Between Botswana and Namibia, we have 50% of the world’s cheetahs today. Botswana and Namibia have relatively small human populations and there are a lot of wild areas, but the big challenge is the focus on livestock farming as the main form of income generation for rural communities. Being strategically located in the middle of the Southern African cheetah population, Botswana has an important responsibility to conserve this species.


Question: Once you decided to take up the project, how did you bring it to life?
Rebecca: Mokolodi Nature Reserve was very supportive. They allowed me to fundraise through Mokolodi Wildlife Foundation as an umbrella organization. I was joined by two people, Dr Kyle Good, the veterinarian that I had been working with in 2001 and Ann-Marie Houser from Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia. We started working on the project in 2003 and became an official registered charity in February 2004.

Question: What does Cheetah Conservation Botswana do?
Rebecca: We have 3 main programs focused in the Ghanzi region: Scientific programs to find out about the status, distribution and population of cheetahs; community outreach with the farmers; and education of the youth. With the community outreach program, we do farmer training through workshops. We provide farmers with information on the behaviour of predators and livestock management practices that could be useful to reduce livestock losses to carnivores. We have mobile workshops where we go out to settlements as well as residential centres for different farming communities in conjunction with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. We also have a demonstration farm which has cattle, a few wild animals and livestock guarding dogs. The purpose of the farm is to demonstrate sustainable grazing management practices so that the farmers can see all the techniques that we promote in operation. Apart from that, we also have focused interventions where we have improved people’s kraals and placed livestock guarding dogs. Then we monitor over time, the effect of these better management practices on human-carnivore conflict. Education programs for the youth involve visiting schools and providing information on all different carnivore species and their behaviour. We also give the schools the information resources such as books and posters.

Question: Tell us about how cheetahs and the community tie in.
Rebecca: Cheetahs are the flagship for our organization. The cheetah effectively defines the challenge of coexistence between people and wildlife, and can our approaches to utilizing land be harmonious to the existence of wildlife. They are the fastest animal in the world so during evolution they sacrificed strength for speed and evolved to be wild ranging, low density animal, to avoid stronger animals. So they have large home ranges and are quite mobile and are not confined to protected areas. They are not very aggressive at all. If we cannot coexist with them, their future is bleak. We can find ways in which people’s methods of utilizing land are not in conflict with the wildlife which exists there. It is possible to farm livestock and live with cheetahs if you have good management practices. All the techniques we promote such as better monitoring of livestock, disease management, record keeping, breeding seasons, livestock herding, livestock guarding dogs and using strong night enclosures, don’t only help to reduce losses to predators but also help to improve knowledge of your herd, which animals are livestock health and productivity, reduce theft and incidence of disease, so that you have a more productive operation overall.

Question: What impact do you think Cheetah Conservation Botswana has had, both on the cheetah population and the communities?
Rebecca: I am happy to say in Botswana, the population of cheetahs is stable and not declining which means we are managing to conserve what we have. We should all be really proud of Botswana for that and hope that some of the work we have been doing over the past 10 years has helped to contribute towards this. In terms of the community, we have been welcomed into the Botswana communities. They have been quite open and engaging. Farmers that have improved their livestock management practices have seen reductions in their livestock losses. With the placement of livestock guarding dogs, for example, 48 dogs placed have grown into effective livestock guardians and reduced the owners’ livestock losses to nearly zero in most cases. So it really does work.

Question: How has fundraising for CCB been, has it been easy or challenging?
Rebecca: It has been challenging, particularly in the beginning. We started with a grant of $2000 and a battered vehicle that had been donated. We were on a shoe-string budget for 2 – 3 years. Then we were engaged by the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN) based in San Francisco, USA who have a network of individual donors and foundations throughout the USA, particularly Northern California, focusing on community based projects for conservation of endangered species. We started attending their annual conservation expo and managed to secure funding. They visit funded projects once every year, to assure the donors of the effectiveness of the project and impact towards conservation. Nationally, we have also received funding from the Global Environment Facility Small Grants program, Debswana, the US Embassy and Empowerment of Non-State Actors Fund. Fundraising is a full time job. I do most of the fund raising as well as overseeing the management of the project. We are doing well in terms of how difficult it can be to get environmental conservation related funding. I think having WCN and the Government of Botswana as partners has made us aware of many funding opportunities. I think the key really is having an iconic species, like cheetahs. Endangered species can act as a flagship for habitat conservation.

Question: What is the best thing about what you do?
Rebecca: The knowledge that I am working towards conserving the earth’s natural resources and treasures. I am honoured to dedicate my life to working to conserve the cheetah and other carnivores and the habitat on which they depend. When farmers come up to you and say, through the support we received from CCB, we have now seen that it is possible to coexist with cheetahs without losing livestock, that is a great feeling.

Question: What do you like least about what you do?
Rebecca: When community members think you only care about the conflict species only or when you hear “I just killed seven cheetahs on my land last year!”. You can get aggressive people who think you are only interested in the problem from a wildlife side which is difficult but then this is also an opportunity for dialogue. Another thing is the fluctuating nature of fundraising. It can be quite stressful, not knowing whether you will be able to run from year to year, since we rest on shifting paradigms, even political.

Question: How have you partnered with the Government of Botswana since you are tackling a national cause?
Rebecca: We partner with Department of Wildlife and National Parks on all our programs and worked directly with them on the Reducing Human Wildlife Conflict in Northern Botswana project from 2012-2015. We also share information nationally on our findings and recommendations annually. In 2017, we plan to partner with the Drylands Ecosystem Project working in Ghanzi and Kgalagadi. The project is to create demonstration landscapes so that the farming communities can be supported towards best practices.

Question: Have you been mentoring anyone into wildlife conservation?
Rebecca: We have an internship program at CCB and we have had great interns. One of our previous interns has gone on to work for Elephants for Africa, another one has been employed at CCB. We are always looking for opportunities to train people and move them up in the organization.

Question: How do you handle the busy nature of your job and your family life?
Rebecca: It is challenging to run the organization and play an active role as mother to your 3 year old daughter. There is also a bit of travelling, to the camps and meetings in Botswana and regionally. I find that what has decreased is my hours of sleep. I get less sleep because if I need to get work done, I shift it to late evening. But for the most part, I work 4 days a week, that is 2 days in office and 2 days from home. So I have been able to manage with support from the great CCB team.

Question: What is your best quote?
Rebecca: Be the change you seek in the world – Gandhi – That resonated with me. If you want things to change, make that happen, in small ways or large ways, follow that every day. If you want the world to be friendlier to wildlife, do that. Get something done, raise money for conservation. If we all had that mind to achieve, it would go a long way to addressing challenges that we have.

Question: What do you do to relax?
Rebecca: I love music. I play the violin, especially folk music. I enjoy travelling, learning about other cultures and environments. I love art, painting and drawing. I have a very arty side, even though my work is science related. I love yoga and I try to find a way to fit it into the day even in small ways!



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