Working as a conservation researcher in the field is tough for anyone, but it’s especially challenging if you’re a female conservationist in West Africa. There are inherent prejudices and several difficulties to deal with, not to mention few colleagues with similar experiences.
Yet Rachel Ashegbofe Ikemeh has been doing conservation in the forests of Nigeria for the past 10 years, most recently as coordinator of the SW/Niger Delta Forest Project. AWF has supported Ikemeh and the SW/Niger Delta Forest Project with a couple of grants through our African Apes Initiative. We asked her about her experiences as a female conservation trailblazer in Nigeria.
Q: What is it like for you, being a female conservationist and researcher in Nigeria?
A: Being a conservationist anywhere in the world today deserves mention, and I would give credit to anyone—male or female—who has managed to persist in this profession. Then, if you include the circumstances of promoting conservation in Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, it certainly means one is confronted with a monstrous challenge.
The challenges of being a female conservationist and researcher in Nigeria often depends on the task at hand, but can range from being treated with contempt to not being taken seriously to, sometimes, being on the receiving end of admiration. It is, however, predominantly a case of not being taken seriously. If conducting field research, such as leading a field team, traversing vast areas of wild lands, applying unconventional techniques or initiating new methods, it can often be demoralizing and counterproductive to be a female. I have found that being dogged and highly focused helps to overcome these challenges. And, thankfully, the passion for what I do is what drives me—rather than my motivation coming from those around me or from my environment—so that has perhaps made it easier for me to continue in my work compared to other women.
Q: Do you see many people, women in particular, going into conservation in Nigeria?
A: The number of people going into conservation in Nigeria has certainly increased since I started out 10 years ago, but I fear that only a small percentage of those who start out in conservation actually continue—especially with regard to field or research activities, which in some cases can be the core of conservation endeavors. Certainly, very few women go into conservation in Nigeria. In the past 10 years, I have known only about three Nigerian women who are active in conservation. I think this reflects the situation in other African countries.
Nigeria has only very recently started seeing women take on occupations perceived as being male specific. More women are defying the status quo in the workplace, and it has become more accepting in our society to see females do what is perceived as hard or physically challenging tasks. That said, even some men have admitted to me that they cannot bring themselves to do conservation research. Spending several days, even months, in remote wilderness, surveying landscapes for endangered species and working with remote communities, is not appealing to anyone—whether male or female. So the perception (and reality) of the risks involved is a major barrier to many.
Q: What can we do to empower women in Africa in the realm of conservation or natural resource management?
A: Educate, educate, educate. A lot will change if there is the right level and quality of awareness across Africa. Knowledge is the ultimate empowerment you can give to any individual. More so, women living in rural communities have a central role to play in conservation and natural resource management, but their willingness to act is governed by their sense of the risks posed by biodiversity loss. Conservation issues must be presented to them in the context of exactly how it impacts their daily livelihoods and their children’s future.
As for women working as conservationists, especially researchers: They should be encouraged whenever possible and in as many ways as possible. This could be in the form of recognition, monetary incentives or support for the work they do. Most importantly, there is no greater satisfaction for work done than to see it be successful, and I believe women—like their male counterparts—get more gratification from that than from anything else… so as much as possible, efforts should be made to provide a level of support that ensures their endeavors are successful.
Q: As you see how development takes shape in Nigeria, what are your thoughts on how Africans at all levels can ensure sustainable development on the rest of the continent?
A: I actually do not think development is the real issue in Nigeria. Countries such as South Africa have proven that it is possible to develop without compromising on conservation needs. In my opinion, the real issue to address is the sincerity of purpose on the part of African leaders. Corruption, plus a lack of awareness, determination and commitment of African policymakers to conservation, are some of the reasons why the prospect of sustainable development in Africa is under threat. These issues must be addressed in all sectors of African society.
Policymakers must first be willing to seek the right information to adequately and objectively assess the situation and make informed decisions. Secondly, they must be willing to appoint the right people to advise them at the interface of development and conservation. These people must be sourced from dedicated conservationists and passionate nation builders rather than politicians per se. Thirdly, they must be willing to take action even when it is not popular.
One consistent theme here is the issue of willingness. I am afraid the best intentions of conservationists and of those who fund conservation efforts will mean nothing in the end without political will. This has been elusive, but I have hope that the electorate will eventually begin to insist on their right to sustainable development.
The 25th African Union Summit kicked off last week in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the theme, "Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa’s Agenda 2063." Since the 1980’s, women's empowerment has been integrated in every aspect of African development strategies including but not limited to education, business and employment. However, conservation and environment management is the critical area that has not been given the necessary attention for women involvement.
The above blog post is one of a series that underscores the important role of women in conservation matters, and how women every day across Africa are already empowered to make decisions that have critical impact on their own future, the future of their families and the future of Africa’s natural resources. Discover more blogs in this series.