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Gap Interview: Conservation Projects

shark project

Q, What have the last 6 months been like for you at Projects Abroad? Have you got any amazing stories to tell us about your conservation projects?

We launched our Shark Conservation project in Fiji at the beginning of the year and we are pleased to say it has been a huge success.

The project has gained international recognition with Ian Campbell, Programme Manager for the WWF Global Shark Programme, referring to it as “possibly the most important shark project in the world." In Cambodia, our volunteers have studied the waters in and around Koh Rong Samleom for 6 years now, and we have played a leading role in the creation of the marine protected areas. Following on from our success in Koh Rong Samloem, the Royal Government of Cambodia has invited us to set up the first marine conservation operation in the province of Kep, based on the island of Koh Seh.

This is extremely exciting for conservation! Our new study area comprises sites with pristine sea grass, and will allow us to compare our data from the past 6 years, in a polluted and over-fished site, to one that is relatively untouched. Volunteers will continue to focus on seahorses and spend much of their time diving.

In Peru, we have been focussing our efforts on the rehabilitation and release of the Peruvian Spider Monkey, an endangered species. Loss of habitat, hunting for meat and the illegal pet trade have all contributed to the decrease in wild populations.

Our aim is to re-establish a viable population in an area where they once existed and our research has proven that this is both viable and achievable. To date we have released 15 spider monkeys, one of which has since given birth to a baby! We currently have 17 Spider Monkeys at Taricaya, our centre in the Amazon Rainforest. We hope to release all of these over the coming years, with 6 due for release this month!

Q, We know you do a wide range of conservation projects around the world. Are there any that you have a particular fondness for and why?

I personally have a soft spot for our African Bushveld conservation project in Southern Africa. Our camp is based on the Botswana side of the Limpopo River in an incredibly wild and beautiful area, teeming with wildlife.

Drought, poaching, desertification and land degradation are major environmental problems in Sub-Saharan Africa. All over Southern Africa, animals still roam the plains, but the human population has pushed most of the elephants, lions, rhinos, buffaloes and leopards out to the frontiers. Our goal is to protect the resident wildlife and allow the land to return to its natural state by creating a protected reserve consisting of conservation blocks from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Those who, like me, have a great respect for and love of elephants will be in their element here. With populations declining across Africa as a result of poaching and conflict with local farmers, this project focuses heavily on population dynamics and movement across the Kwa Tuli reserve.

Volunteers on this project can take part in a wide variety of activities, such as studying elephant populations, baobab tree surveys, patrolling for snares, predator tracking, developing elephant identikits, constructing natural water holes, anti-poaching patrols, community education, removing old fencing wire and building viewing hides.

All of this takes place in an incredible location with skilled and experienced supervision from local staff.

Where are your favourite paid Gap Year locations that you offer?

The number 1 paid work location for us is Whistler, Canada and it's easy to see why. On our programme, not only do you get a qualification as a ski instructor, you also get to work as a paid children's ski instructor during your first season. For this programme we really do have to encourage people to apply early to ensure that they can get one of a limited number of work permits. Ideally look to book with us more than 12 months in advance, or, come to us with a work permit already.

Q, It can be hard for people to choose what to do or where to go on their Gap Year. What advice can you give to someone looking at all the options you have?

Think about what matters to you and what issues you feel passionately about. Our Sea Turtle & Coastal Ecology project in Mexico is ideal for those wanting to protect turtles, crocodiles and birds. Whereas our conservation project in Kenya would appeal to those keen to work with giraffes.

Many of the volunteers I speak to already have a destination in mind but, rather than just visit on holiday, are eager to give something back. The Galapagos Islands are a great example. Many of the species found here are found nowhere else on the planet, the Galapagos Giant Tortoise and Marine Iguana being two of the more famous. Volunteers on our Galapagos conservation project not only get to view these species, but to study and conserve them through our partnership with the Galapagos National Park.

It's also worth considering the climate. If you feel the cold easily, then our Himalayan project might not be the one for you. Similarly, if you melt just at the thought of sun, then you might want to think carefully about the time of year you visit our African projects.

Give some thought to the sort of activities involved in the various conservation projects as well. If you love to dive, then our Marine Conservation projects in Thailand and Cambodia may be right up your street.

Q, Some people think that Gap Years are just a bit of time off for students who want to take a break, but you guys are doing some phenomenal work abroad. Can you give us an insight into any projects that you are helping?

To tie in with our Shark Conservation project, we launched a Global Shark Campaign last year in 18 countries across 4 continents. The aim of this campaign is to change attitudes towards sharks and raise awareness of their plight across the globe through workshops with fishing communities and schools.

We are already seeing the results! Only yesterday we received a phone call from a local fisherman in Fiji who had accidentally hooked a large, male bull shark whilst fishing. Our conservation team rushed to the scene, took measurements and DNA and tagged the shark, before freeing him from the fishing line. In Nepal, we have continued our partnership with the world famous Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP).

ACAP focuses on a new type of conservation. Many traditional methods seek to keep people out of the conservation area. Instead ACAP seeks to reduce the local population's reliance on natural resources, by focusing on sustainable social development within the area.

Projects Abroad have been conducting wildlife studies to act as a method of testing ACAP's programs. Our volunteers take part in bird, butterfly and mammal surveys. With no active research being carried out in the area other than that of Projects Abroad, our ongoing wildlife inventories provide a much-needed insight to the health of the eco-system, its wildlife populations, and therefore the impact of ACAP's work. These will also act as a solid platform for further studies and demonstrate where to focus conservation efforts.

Camera traps set up by Projects Abroad to study wildlife in the local area also appear to be acting as a deterrent to poachers.

Q, What do you have coming up in the next 6 months? Are there any new projects you are working on?

We are launching a new Shark Conservation project in South Africa! Volunteers will be based in the coastal town of Hermanus and will assist the local scientists with a wide range of on-going and long-term research projects. This will include conducting lab-based shark behavior experiments and boat-based shark surveys.

Volunteers will also get the chance to go cage-diving with Great White sharks and participate in an individual shark identification project.

Q, That sounds fantastic and scary all at the same time and from what I understand something really unique too. How can people find out more about this project?

Yes sharks do have something of an image problem but, when you bear in mind that more people are killed falling out of bed than by sharks, it really puts things into perspective.

You can read more about the project on the Projects Abroad website. Alternatively, you can give us a call on 01903 708300 or email at info@projects-abroad.co.uk.

Q, Thanks very much for your time. Have you any final messages for the Gap Year travellers out there?

With the recent news that global wildlife populations have halved over the last 40 years, it's more important than ever that people become aware of and more involved in conservation efforts.

When I travel, I travel for the people, the scenery, the wildlife and the experience. For many, a visit to South Africa would not be complete without catching sight of a wild African elephant. A trip to Peru would be pointless without experiencing the mighty Amazon Rainforest. If poaching and deforestation continue, then both will disappear within our lifetime.

Volunteering on a conservation project is extremely rewarding. It gives you the opportunity to throw yourself into a completely different environment and at the same time reduce your ecological footprint.

Not all travellers will volunteer whilst on their gap year, but that doesn't mean that you can't make an impact. Think carefully before doing things such as riding an elephant in Thailand, buying a shark tooth necklace in Australia or attending any show that forces animals, including marine mammals, to perform.



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