Wildlife research and monitoring is a critical part of our mission to save wildlife, campaign for conservation justice and inspire people to value and protect nature in Malawi.
Olivia first joined us back in 2014 as a Rehabilitation Assistant during a busy orphan season at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre. Since then she worked in a variety of roles, including Programmes Assistant for LWT’s Wildlife Emergency Response Unit and Research Assistant. In 2016 Olivia joined African Parks and the Endangered Wildlife Trust as the Special Species Monitor for Liwonde National Park. This role placed special focus on an historic cheetah reintroduction which later became the focus of her Masters’ research.
Tell us a bit about yourself – how long have you been working in conservation in Malawi?
I’m Canadian but have been working in Malawi since 2014, in a variety of conservation jobs. I have an Honours degree in Marine Biology and Animal Behaviour and a Masters in Conservation Ecology.
What does your job entail?
A lot of it is actually pretty underwhelming desk work! LWT’s biodiversity monitoring is carried out in collaboration with park management partners and government agencies, so a lot of my job involves building partnerships, writing things like MoUs and data sharing agreements, and working with different departments to plan the monitoring of wildlife releases. I talk to our partners like African Parks to understand their needs and figure out how our monitoring work can be of value to them. Sometimes I get to help out LWT’s Head Vet on wildlife captures for things like collaring, which is exciting.
Tell us about a particularly memorable experience you’ve had during your career.
We were asked to remove a collar from a hyena in Liwonde National Park as it had got too tight and was causing irritation. Locating hyenas is always tricky as they can be elusive and skittish around people. We spent weeks and weeks searching for her – she outsmarted us at almost every turn! Then one day I was able to go up in the helicopter to try and locate her from the air using telemetry. Amazingly we got a hit, so we returned to base quickly, picked up our vet Amanda and returned to the location. By this point it was getting dark but I managed to chase her out of a crevice in a river bed while Amanda darted her. It was such a relief to finally catch her and remove the collar, after months of hard work. And the best part was it was my birthday – the best gift I could have asked for and a nice reminder that conservation work requires a lot of patience!
Tell us a bit about where you work.
At the moment most of my work is based in Liwonde National Park, which is managed by African Parks. It’s absolutely beautiful – right on the Shire River. It’s one of the best parks in Malawi for carnivore and elephant sightings because it has vast open floodplains. I’ve never seen anything like it in Malawi. Liwonde is also home to some of Malawi’s most exciting wildlife stories, thanks to the amazing African Parks has done in the last five years. In their first two years they removed 27,000 wire snares from the park and re-introduced lions and cheetahs. They also re-fenced it to reduce human-wildlife conflict in the communities bordering the park. It’s been such an amazing turnaround.
What kind of work will people doing our monitoring placements get to do?
It’s a cliche but every single day in the bush is different! One day you might be out tracking cheetahs or lions, learning about telemetry and checking camera traps, the next you might be driving vulture transects or conducting elephant behavioural observations. Other activities might involve creating ID kits for cheetah cubs, recording new scars on lions so you can tell who is who or telling park management when collars are running low on battery. The great thing about our monitoring placements is that you get to work on lots of different projects with different species so you learn a huge amount.
What kind of skills and techniques will people get to learn about during their placement?
There are two kinds of things people will learn on a monitoring placement with us. First is all about techniques and technologies – things like camera trapping, VHF radio tracking, transects and sound data collection. These are really useful skills to have, especially if you want to pursue a career in conservation monitoring or research.
But the other side is about knowledge. Working on our projects will give you a really deep understanding of the importance of monitoring in wildlife management and species protection. We are basically trying to create what’s called a ‘feedback loop’ so that every time there is a management action, we capture data so that we can understand the impact of that action. This kind of work is absolutely critical to effective conservation.
Why are these placements so important?
The feedback loop I’ve just described allows for what we call an ‘adaptive management approach’. This means that you’re constantly changing what you’re doing. To do that you need information coming in all the time – and that’s what we provide through our monitoring work. What this means is that volunteers are effectively part of a much bigger conservation picture, because they are ultimately providing information which park management uses to make decisions on things like species translocations or collaring individuals. The impact of the monitoring work has value for the whole of Malawi too, as – for example – translocations boost wildlife populations in other parks. In the past there hasn’t always been funding for monitoring. So it’s great that LWT is supporting parks to provide these vital services.
Describe a typical day for someone coming out to work on our wildlife monitoring work in Liwonde?
Every day is different – that’s what’s awesome! You can spend three weeks in Liwonde National Park and probably won’t have a day that feels repetitive. Generally we wake up early as this is when animals are active so we’re more likely to see them and see interactions like hunts and kills. After grabbing a coffee and a snack we’ll jump in a vehicle and go out to collect data on targets for the day. For example, park management may ask us to look for some specific lions because they haven’t been seen for a while and they want to know what’s going on with them. When it starts to warm up we’ll head back to camp to relax, enter data, charge things and get refreshed. As the day starts to cool down again later in the afternoon we’ll head back out for more work. Things can be a little unpredictable but we try and work to schedules so we can get the work done.
What are your hopes for the future of wildlife in Malawi?
I’ve been here for 5-6 years and during this time conservation has come a long way. It’s been an absolute honour to be a small part of that by working for organisations that have undertaken big projects, whether it’s LWT helping to refine Malawi’s wildlife crime legislation or African Parks re-introducing cheetahs and moving 500 elephants. It’s amazing to see the support conservation has gained in Malawi and the passion that people have. I hope things continue on this trajectory – if it does Malawi will be an absolutely amazing place for conservation for years to come.