Meet The Woman Standing Up To Protect Our Planet
Conservationists, don't choose the career for the money, it’s for the love of nature and the environment. Fiona Alexandra Dyrhauge talks about her journey.
My journey to becoming a conservation biologist was, and remains, a path of uncertainty, self-doubt, hard work, flexibility, pride, and joy.
I like many others at the age of 19 felt very uncertain of which path to take after leaving school. My instinct had always been to go to art school, as it was the one subject I excelled in, loved doing and was relatively easy for me (so perhaps a bit of a cop-out).
My ever-wise mother advised me to do an academic degree, as it would stand me in good stead for the future, showing the ability to work to deadlines, write papers, collaborate with others and to commit to something that challenged me. All good advice and given from the perspective of someone who was told upon leaving school that the only thing a woman could realistically be was a secretary or a school teacher, and university was only an option for the "exceptional".
I had always loved wildlife but due to having ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) I struggled with school, and when chemistry and biology became involved at AS-Level. I found it hard to get the same marks in my exams as I was getting in class. Having been so confident that I was going to go to art school, I didn't think it necessary to continue with biology.
This meant I could not apply to study zoology or biology for my undergraduate degree. So, I decided to study archaeology at Bristol University. I loved archaeology, having studied it at school, and always having had an interest in the past, it seemed a good choice. I had a wonderful three years living and studying in Bristol and learnt some valuable life lessons along the way. However, approaching the end of my third year, I realised I couldn't see myself continuing in the profession. I now realised I had some potential to work in a more academic field, so made it my goal to get into wildlife conservation of any kind.
After graduation in 2014, I applied for all kinds of jobs and internships and decided to do my Divemaster. Many marine conservation field positions require this as a minimum qualification for carrying out fieldwork and having dived from the age of 15 it made sense for me to take the next step and become a dive professional.
In early 2015 I was offered the post of Marine Research Assistant with Frontier in Madagascar. I can say now without a doubt that this year was a pivotal moment in my life. I fell in love with everything. The job, the people and the country. The project in Nosy Bé, Madagascar had three elements: marine, forest and community. The forest and marine team lived on a camp one hour away by boat from the nearest town with no electricity.
Together with up to 25 volunteers, we cooked on an open fire and lived in bamboo huts. It was hard, tiring work, and it was wonderful and magical all at the same time. Roy, the lemur, lived in our compressor hut (god knows why it was so noisy!), there were jam-eating geckos who always seemed to show up when we were preparing food, chameleons and snakes made regular appearances, as well as the occasional centipedes and oh so sneaky spiders.
After six months on the project, our principal investigator returned to Australia, and I was asked to run the marine project until a permanent replacement could be found. Of course, I accepted, and alongside the forest Project leader Georgia, we were determined to work our hardest to make the project as good as it could be. Many a late night was spent drinking cups of very precious Yorkshire tea on the beach brainstorming the next big thing. We have become firm friends, with a long-term goal of one day working together again.
My brilliant colleagues convinced me to apply to do a Master's degree, and to my amazement, I was accepted onto the course within four days of sending the application.
Exeter campus in Cornwall. (UK) This was a fantastic course, and once again I was lucky enough to be surrounded by people who were all equally passionate and just a little bit crazy about nature, the environment and the planet we live on. So much experience was gained in this year.
I spent two weeks in Kenya on safari, studying its incredibly diverse wildlife and meeting inspiring local conservationists, talking to people of all different backgrounds who had dedicated their lives to protecting the amazing flora and fauna that they grew up with. We even met Sudan, the last male Northern White rhino who sadly passed away. Upon returning to the UK we embarked on our own personal research projects, where I ended up researching the impacts of habitat on the behaviour of river otters in Dartmoor National Park.
Three months spent clambering over rocks, navigating around rivers and through thickets and thorns finding otter poo was wonderful, and it was incredibly liberating to be in such an untouched part of nature with just a backpack and some camera traps. Those wily otters evaded all the camera traps I so carefully laid out, and one even managed to come back and finish a meal it had left behind without being caught on camera.
After graduation, I spent several months looking for jobs, preferably ones that paid any kind of salary (the curse of the conservationist) and in May 2018 was offered the post of field scientist with a community based marine conservation organisation in the Philippines.
I have spent the last six months living on the island of Malapascua, working on a coral habitat monitoring program where I train volunteers to identify and survey corals, invertebrates, fish and coral impacts like bleaching and damage from both natural and human-induced causes. In comparison to where I worked in Madagascar this part of the Philippines is so much more densely populated and there is a much higher level of commercial fishing, tourism, and shipping, and sadly the impact is considerable.
Now more than ever we must work hard to collaborate with local communities who bear the brunt of these mostly uncontrolled activities. By monitoring the fluctuations and changes over time of these habitats we can look at the different variables that influence these changes, and in the long term can help inform local government management plans to protect these beautiful environments.
Coastal communities rely on the marine environment as their main source of food, as well as their income. Tourism is a massive contributor to the plastic problem faced by islands such as Malapascua and as people who come here, whether it be for work or pleasure, we need to be much more conscious of the impact we have.
Many places here on the island are doing as much as they can to reduce plastic waste, such as no longer using plastic straws (at present I am sitting in Villa Sandra, a locally owned vegetarian restaurant/hostel, drinking a delicious mango shake from a repurposed coconut shell with a metal straw). People and the Sea (the organisation I have been working for) has, among many other initiatives, implemented a composting program across the island, as well as helping to build gardens with local families to allow a more sustainable way of living. The local business association has also provided money each month to help pay for the salaries of our waste educators, who spend eight hours a day, four days a week, walking around the island helping to raise awareness about waste segregation, which is a huge issue present in many countries.
Recently People and the Sea has launched a new program called Adopt a Pathway, which means local businesses, shops, and families can take responsibility for the pathway nearest to their house or business and pledge to keep it clean and waste-free.
I am now coming to the end of my time here on Malapascua and am looking forward to the next step in my career. Once again this is a time filled with uncertainty and doubt, however, if it is half as exciting as the past few years, I am sure it will be filled with many wonderful experiences, adventure and discovery. I think in life we all have moments of insecurity, and at the risk of sounding a bit cheesy, I think we have to do our best to do something we believe in. It's never going to be perfect, but by doing something you love, at least you'll have a hell of a good time doing it.