Saturday, February 27, 2010

An interview with Dr. Philip Muruthi, chief scientist for the African Wildlife Foundation

One of the organizations we’ve worked with for this week’s focus on wildlife extinction is the African Wildlife Foundation They provided us the opportunity to conduct an email interview with their chief scientist at the Foundation, Dr. Philip Muruthi. See below to read the interview and special thanks for Dr. Muruthi for taking the time to speak with us!

1. What does a typical day look like for you as African Wildlife Foundation’s chief scientist?

My day usually and naturally will involve some aspect of conservation science. If I am spending my day in the office, I may be helping design AWF’s species conservation strategy or revising it, adapting it to a species, site or landscape. Some of my days are dominated by providing support to existing species conservation projects: helping design, implement, monitor actions and adapt / fit to our landscape approach in the area. As a scientist, I also strive to write papers and articles to communicate our work and share our results with colleagues and other audiences. I support conservation planning such as of protected areas which maintain species and this allows me to interact with protected area authorities and their neighbors – not a purely scientific endeavor but one that needs science. On other days I get to the field and help with research although this aspect of my work dwindles with time as our science team grows and my pillar supportive role grows. I also mentor young biologists which is fun. My job involves quite some travel supporting landscape (and species imbedded within) in eastern, central, southern and western Africa. I guess every conservation scientist “worries” whether or not they will have conserved what they said they would – and that is typical of my 8-10 hour day.

2. African Wildlife Foundation seems to work a lot with the communities that surround endangered wildlife, how does this help the wildlife?

AWF’s approach is beneficial as it ensures that community support to wildlife conservation is enhanced. Community lands are left favorable / friendly to wildlife and the species themselves are not persecuted – the local communities become custodians. Where you have community support and participation, endangered species populations recover and thrive – as in the case of the mountain gorilla. The human communities living with wildlife benefit from its presence on their land – such as through conservation enterprises we help build. Some communities are benefiting from ecotourism projects and many from employment – such as our Grevy’s zebra scouts in Kenya. Working with communities ensures that threats are mitigated in a sustainable manner using the local human resource and institutions we help support.

3. What has surprised you most in your work with the African Wildlife Foundation?

Good question. This has to be the integrated nature of our approach seeking explicitly not only ecological but also livelihood improving results – species imbedded in large landscapes – working with partners, (and especially local communities) and over long-enough periods to achieve these results. AWF’s is a science-based but also pragmatic approach. It is focused on saving habitats / land, species, building capacity and leadership, conservation enterprise development and helping build an enabling policy environment – such as to support not only species but also potential for communities and landowners with wildlife to benefit – creating lasting conservation results.

4. What, if any, misconceptions do you think people have regarding endangered species?

Some people think that endangered species will always be there; they fail to see that extinction is forever. Others think that humans have nothing to do with species’ level of threat and life can continue as usual even as numbers of particular wildlife species become fewer and fewer with time. Others feel that all is lost for endangered species.
But endangered species can be recovered and indeed there are good examples of species recovery stories. And yes, humans have a lot to do with the reason species become endangered. Many species are dependent on conservation intervention (i.e., specific conservation actions) for their continued survival.

5. In light of the horrifying statistics regarding endangered wildlife, do you believe that the damage is reversible?

Yes – but the action must be now not tomorrow for many species. We have to be careful that populations do not go below certain levels because, below certain numbers, the vulnerability to extinction increases and reversing the situation may be impossible.

6. Do you have a favorite species that you work with?

Can we say the rhino? But still I like working with many species including large carnivores, Grevy’s zebra, elephants and others. In my role, I may not do the actual research in the field but provide support to a team of species conservation staff and partners working to save species and their habitats in Africa.


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