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Conservation research teaches leadership skills


For three weeks, nine students from Erasmus University College in the Netherlands  visited the Southern African Wildlife College, taking part in an intercultural exchange programme. They were joined by four South African students from Kruger National Park and the Kruger to Canyon Biosphere Reserve. The course was designed to use conservation research as a way to teach leadership skills. In order to conduct research successfully the students needed to make use of a suite of leadership skills, they had to quickly assimilate information, plan, teach, analyse, adapt and communicate.

The group was divided into four “lead groups, and each group was given a research project;

  • Using Butterflies as Indicator Species of Rangeland Health,
  • Assessing Rangeland Health from Vegetation,
  • Using Aquatic Invertebrates as Indicators of Water Quality, and
  • Predicting Mosquito Presence and Abundance from Water Quality Measures.

The students came from a variety of subject matter and cultural backgrounds and so had to assess each other’s strengths and divide up their time and skills to best get to grips with their projects. After some time reviewing relevant literature, the groups were able to learn and test field skills with specialist mentors before planning their data collection.

Each lead group then taught the students from the other lead groups, how to collect data for their project. Staff members were present to supervise, but the actual running of the fieldwork was the responsibility of each lead group in turn. This way, each student was presented with the challenges of working within the lead groups to come up with a method to collect, having to teach and supervise the larger group, and solve the inevitable additional challenges that arose during the data collection sessions.

The mosquitoes sampling lead group demonstrating their collection method to the rest of the students.

The group members were able to appreciate the different skills that the two groups of students brought with them. The students from the Netherlands possessed skills in academic writing and research design, which was complemented by the practical experience of the South African students, particularly in aspects such as plant identification and field safety.

Identifying grass species.

The course was enjoyed by all participants as can be seen by the statements made by the students themselves;

 “The course has sparked the knowledge into my brain through the mutual relationship I had with all students and mentors. Spending so much time with undiscriminating students having different cultures and beliefs was beneficial since it has adjusted a kind of “adaptive mechanism” in me, because I’ve lived in harmony with all the SAWC students and their superiors. I recommend this course to individuals with inferiority complex and low self-esteem kind of personalities,” Motsamai, South African, Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Reserve.  

“The Conservation Leadership Programme was a thought-provoking experience that offered a sense of conservation empowerment. I was truly inspired by the impressive qualities of the African students and SAWC staff, and the way of conducting research (i.e. fieldwork, with which I was unfamiliar). The programme challenged us to use and evaluate leadership skills in the intercultural working environment. Additionally, leisure and work were balanced perfectly well; leisure activities (game drives, bush walks, and touristic sites) stressed the importance of protecting the flora and fauna in the K2C biosphere,” Merlijn, Dutch, business studies major. 

  “This hands-on experience enriched me from both an individual and an academic point of view. Firstly, I enjoyed realizing that conservation is not about preserving nature from humans but rather about managing systems so that they accommodate both. Secondly, the program proved to me the importance of cultural diversity and gave me the will to work on my leadership skills to put individual differences to use when tackling environmental challenges. Thank you SAWC and see you soon, hopefully,” Laetitia, Belgian, life science, humanities and philosophy major. 

“The course was an eye opener, wonderful experience working with European students, I have learned a lot. I wish I could get other exposure like this,” Julius, South African, Trails ranger, Kruger National Park

“It was the first time for me to learn about nature (conservation) not by reading a book but through observation and teamwork,” Linxi, German, Erasmus University, life sciences major  

“What is leadership? A question we were asked many times during our project. Surprisingly, the answer to that question was not as straightforward as we thought. After three weeks of spending many hours with one another and many hours of self-reflection, I realized that leadership consists of so many components. It is the ability to work with people that you might not initially would prefer to work with. People with different backgrounds, cultures and ideas. It is finding your place and taking up that space within the environment and your surroundings. It is critically and constructively reflecting upon others and in that process realizing your own strengths and weaknesses. It is about seeing beautiful qualities in one another that you can appreciate and admire. But most of all it is taking a step back at times and realizing what it is that you want to achieve as well as enjoying the journey towards your final end goal. Thank you both EUC and SAWC for creating a project in which all these components came together while at the same time learning about conservation and African culture in the beautiful Kruger National Park,” Deissa, Dutch, international relations and politics major.

“The best part about this course was its intercontinental approach. Being able to work in a team with people from all over the world is an experience not quickly forgotten. Also, the College is a warm place, the people welcomed us with open arms from the start,” Casper, Dutch, business studies major.

We look forward to repeating the course next year with the next diverse group of future leaders!

We’d like to thank Bakho Babalwa and Vincent Khosa (Conservation South Africa) for assisting the groups with their specialist plant knowledge, to Prof. Alan Gardiner for mentoring the butterfly group, Dr. Cleo Graf for mentoring the Vegetation group, to Peter Hamming for mentoring the two water groups and to Eric Norton for keeping everything running smoothly throughout.

Measuring grass abundance

Teamwork while collecting butterflies

Thinking time while planning project work. Cell phones are great tools!

Final presentations on findings

Processing samples collected.