Grant Recipients Conference, Belize 2017
The field of conservation draws a great number of strong, passionate, and talented people, all willing to give what they can for their chosen cause. Many conservation researchers and practitioners work in difficult conditions and under immense pressure, both from within and without, raising challenges and risks that people in other professions may find hard to comprehend. These same conservationists often work in isolation, distanced from those whose experiences could inform, uplift and help forge new ideas. The main objective of this conference, therefore, was to bring together Rufford grant recipients from across Belize and Mexico to discuss challenges, learn from experiences and celebrate successes in conservation.
Louise Gardner from Blue Ventures facilitated the conference, opening the first day with a short welcome and introductory talk, laying out the objectives and schedule of the two and a half day event
Presentations by grant recipients
There were presentations by grant recipients, which mainly summarised the results of their projects, highlighting the conservation impact of their work, the successes and challenges they experienced, and the role Rufford had played in supporting their research. The majority of talks were from early career conservationists who were completing or who had just finished their first Rufford-funded project, though there were four talks from established conservationists who had received their grant more than five years ago, two of which had obtained RSG booster grants. Two participants received news that they had been awarded their second RSG grant shortly before or after the conference.
The studies covered a wide range of subjects, from population and distribution status of key species, environmental impacts of human activities and behavioural and ecological studies, to capacity building, education and outreach programmes. See presentation abstracts in the appendices.
Group session I
The first group session took place on day one, following the first round of presentations. It focussed on the opportunities that grant recipients identified and acted upon as a result of their RSG grants, and the successes and challenges they encountered during their project. Grantees divided into four groups, loosely based on research area (bats, coral and marine, forests, community and capacity building) and spent an hour discussing the three topics before presenting the results to the group.
In several cases, the RSG funded early career conservationists to carry out independent projects that may never have otherwise happened, whether due to lack of a track record in their field, lack of funding to buy essential equipment or difficulty raising funds for research in certain fields. For many, their RSG grant was their first successful funding application, enabling them to gain credibility and valuable experience, making them more attractive to other funders, and helping to kick-start their careers in conservation.
RSG funds have also allowed research freedom for several recipients, enabling them to develop their own ideas and projects rather than being bound to the research priorities of governments or university supervisors. This included enabling research into basic science and non-charismatic animals (e.g. bats and dung beetles, which nonetheless have a disproportionate impact on their environment).
Rufford has also provided support for students and assistants of grant recipients to obtain their qualifications, degrees, or achieve vital field experience, helping to train the next generation of conservationists.
The fact that the RSG grant is paid direct to the grant recipient (rather than a university) was seen to facilitate fieldwork and reduce bureaucracy.
In addition, all participants valued the opportunity to meet other Rufford grantees at the conference who are working across a broad range of fields from the region, providing a wider range of perspectives, experiences and ideas, and allowing new collaborations to be made.
During the completion of their project, the grant recipients displayed a wide variety of successes stemming from their RSG-funded work, demonstrating their drive, creativity and resourcefulness. Some of the highlights are summarised below.
Communities: Several grantees had provided training for local communities in plant- or wildlife-friendly practices. For example, Juana Garcia Flores has strengthened the capacity of a community group in ecological restoration techniques and native tree nursery management. Kristen Lear developed community engagement guidelines for implementing conservation measures for an endangered bat. She shared these recommendations with Bat Conservation International at their annual board meeting and they are interested in implementing community bat conservation programmes.
Antonio Ruiz-Sakamoto managed to change the way fishermen move around in their boats, so that they now always have someone checking the water to avoid collision with marine life. Minerva Uribe has trained staff on wind farms in Mexico to help reduce bat mortality due to collisions with wind turbines, and to monitor bat mortality. She has also involved the local authorities in mitigation measures. Alfonsina Arriaga-Jiminez has worked closely with local communities to gain their trust in order to complete her studies on dung beetles in traditionally sensitive locales.
Identifying environmental threats: Cherie Chenot-Rose’s work on American crocodiles identified high levels of heavy metal pollution in the island’s waterways, a previously unknown and potentially severe risk to the health of this species on Ambergris Caye.
Networking and recognition: Several grantees had presented their research findings at various conferences, gaining opportunities to spread knowledge and make valuable contacts in their field. For example, Justin Baumann and Adam Suchley attended the International Congress for Conservation Biology in 2017, and Kristen Lear attended the North American Symposium on Bat Research in 2017.
Pioneering research: Abigail Martinez Serena has established the first study using acoustic monitoring with bats in Mexico. Maripaula Valdés-Bérriz has obtained the first data on the benefits of dispersal by tent-roosting bats (post-dispersal) in one of the few carried out under natural conditions. Stephanie Rousso has launched the Sea Turtle Spotter program and app to collect data from private boats sailing the waters of Pacific Mexico to help scientists better understand changes in populations, movements, foraging locations and habitat conditions.
Starting with his RSG funding, Rafael Reyna-Hurtado developed a long-term monitoring programme of wildlife associated with ponds, and which is still going eight years later. Antonio Ruiz-Sakamoto has succeeded in recording the first 48-hour track of a Manta birostris. Justin Baumann developed new science-based, data-driven and non-invasive approaches to habitat description which can be scaled up and used elsewhere.
Publications: Several participants had published their findings in peer-reviewed journals, and the majority had written popular media articles (both online and in print) raising awareness of the issues and their work. For some, their research is still on-going or has only recently been completed, so the publications are still in progress.
Training: Many grantees had engaged in training students or carrying out awareness raising activities amongst students. For example, Dánae Cabrera-Toledo trained a group of farmers in the propagation of endangered cycads; Rafael Reyna-Hurtado used his RSG funds to help his student achieve his master’s degree and publish a paper; Stephanie Rousso created an NGO, through which she trained around 20 university students in Mexico, and provided basic training in citizen science data collection for over 100 people; and Abigail Martinez Serena has given talks to students about the issues threatening bats.
Challenges and recommendations
The participants had all experienced difficulties during the planning and execution of their project, and they shared thoughts on how they had dealt with these situations.
Communities: Challenges encountered when working with communities was a recurring theme throughout the session. Recommendations for how to improve the sustainability and success of an intervention when working with local communities are discussed in more detail in Group Session II.
Women researchers and ‘outsiders’: Take care when approaching communities for the first time. Take advice from colleagues or other researchers familiar with working with people in your target region, learn the local dialect if possible, and try to find an ally in the community who can help you to build further relationships.
Applications: Follow-up funding applications are often due when you are still analysing or writing up your first year of data. Be aware of these deadlines, and try to factor in time to your schedule to complete these in good time. Be clear with funders of the status of your current project.
Permissions: Before you embark on a project, ensure that you obtain official permits or local permission to work in your target area or with your target species to avoid embarrassing and expensive delays or conflicts.
Equipment: Underwater equipment is expensive and can be easily lost during storms or accidents. Gather information from experienced researchers in your field before investing in expensive equipment, and build in extra funding to your budget in case of unavoidable losses.
Flexibility: Try to build in flexibility and contingency plans into your methods so that you can adapt to unexpected situations in the field. Always have a plan B.
Security: If you are working in a region at risk from kidnapping or attack by bandits, ensure you have a contingency plan in case the worst happens.
Group Session II
Working with Communities
The following recommendations were given for working with local communities:
• Approach communities with respect. Ask community leaders for permission to work in their area. Consult them about their needs and concerns. Put down your notebook and really listen!
• Where possible, make alliances with local NGOs and community groups – they have experience of working in the area and can give you valuable advice on how to approach the community.
• Take time to understand the community structure to help you judge who should be approached and how best to do so.
• Make bonds and allies – Before you broach your research, talk about their families, bring offerings of fruit, vegetables and milk, (or other appropriate gifts), moan about the government etc.
• Value local ecological knowledge (LEK) - make it clear that their knowledge is valuable and useful, you are there to learn from them.
• Make them feel proud of their knowledge, their resources, and their community.
• Try to avoid direct questions and interviews about what really interests you, especially at first. Observe, share meals, go to events, talk to people naturally, you will get a truer picture.
• Ensure that communities have ownership over a project right from the start.
• Ensure that your work is beneficial or useful for the local people – hire local people whenever possible, design your management activity in collaboration with the community to make sure it is relevant to them.
• Empower communities to replicate the monitoring/management/technique. Train people how to train other people.
• Give people opportunities to see, understand and interact with your research. For example, show videos or pictures of your work or species, invite people to witness what you are doing, show people hard to see species (such as bats or crocodiles) whilst providing education to explain why you are handling them.
Maximising impact and managing expectations
• Consider developing incentives that can motivate people to change behaviours, and/or identify allies in the community who are naturally enthusiastic in the subject who can help motivate others.
• Don’t rush: building trust and relationships with communities takes time.
• Manage expectations with the community: be very clear what you are aiming to achieve and in what time frame. Avoid making promises you may not be able to keep.
• Maintain a regular presence, and provide feedback about the results of your research, especially the findings that can benefit the community.
• Remain open to information from your local guides, you never know what you might learn.
Safety and social issues
• Women researchers should be aware of the social norms that may influence their ability to conduct their project safely and effectively. Make allies in the community who can introduce you and give your credibility and security.
• Eco-tourism, especially bringing people into close proximity with wild animals, can lead to exploitation of species (e.g. feeding monkeys, crocodiles for tourists). Make sure you educate wherever possible to prevent bad practices developing as a result of your activities.
4. Recommendations for Rufford
Maximise opportunities for information exchange
Participants took great advantage of every opportunity to ask questions and explore ideas with each other at the conference, hoping to enhance their own research and help others do the same. There was much enthusiasm for strengthening and expanding networks within the conservation community in Belize and Mexico and beyond, so that grantees who do not have the time or means to attend these conferences can also benefit. Three proposals were made:
Rufford forum (moderated by grantee volunteers):
• Non-member area – an open access forum for applicants wishing to consult existing grantees on technical questions of methodology or procedure. This would particularly help grassroots conservationists who may not have the academic background so useful in preparing applications.
• Existing grantees – a password-protected forum for existing grantees to discuss a range of matters including challenges and opportunities relating to their projects, and to exchange ideas and news that may be of interest to other researchers in their field.
Rufford social networks (moderated by grantee volunteers):
Participants expressed great interest in setting up Facebook groups of RSG grantees in order to share ideas and experiences, make new connections and collaborations with other conservationists, and have a space to potentially share resources and skills. These could be within country or region (e.g. Mexico or Central America), or by research area (e.g. climate research, forest ecology). Volunteer grantee administrators would manage the groups, they would just need lists of grantee names for region or research area, and to discuss permission to use the Rufford logo.
It was also suggested that Rufford explicitly asks for personal email address as well as institutional email address, as the latter expires as soon as the grantee moves on and can make them hard to trace. Facebook names should also be gathered in addition to Twitter handles.
This conference allowed a useful interchange of ideas and experience between grant recipients, especially from those who had been awarded booster grants to those on their first. All participants strongly supported the creation of a mentorship scheme that could be offered to new grantees working on their first project.
Rufford would hold a list of volunteer mentors who have achieved two or more RSG grants (or perhaps one RSG grant and several grants from other sources) and who would agree to guide one or more grantees through the challenges of their first project. Willingness to participate in the mentor scheme could be gathered during the application process for the booster grants. Services could include email discussions, video calls, critique of applications and sharing of successful proposals.
Grantee support and feedback
Extend applications for masters students:
Several grantees expressed interest in Rufford extending application deadlines for masters students, who are often still in the process of analysing and writing up results when the time to apply for a follow-up funding comes around.
Evaluation for post-project feedback:
Several grantees expressed interest in hearing feedback from Rufford upon completion of a project. This could include what Rufford particularly liked about their work, and what they could have done better. Rufford could also give advice about how grantees could better represent the organisation on its behalf.
The conference achieved the overarching goal of enabling Rufford grantees from Belize and Mexico to exchange experiences and ideas, and to build new relationships which are likely to lead to future collaborations, as well as improving the sharing of information, ideas and resources in the region and beyond. Going forward, grantees are highly motivated to maintain the flow of ideas and information with a greater pool of Rufford grantees via a Rufford forum, social networks and a grantee mentoring programme.
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