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My Durham Story - Melissa Dawson

Melissa Dawson with rhinos

By:  Melissa Dawson  Class of: 2014 and 2018 College: Hatfield College  Subject: Biology with Industrial Placement (BSc) and Conservation Management of Savanna Grasslands (MSc Res)Test

Your Durham Inspiration

Choosing Durham University was mostly to do with the subject and course offering, but obviously the collegiate system played a big part in it being my first choice. At high school I enjoyed biology and conservation, and have always thrived on field work. When it came to choosing a university to study with it was therefore important that there were options for me to work in the field. The Durham biology course gave a broad study breadth including lab based cell biology through to whole organism botany and zoology, which was important for me to ensure I had a well rounded biological knowledge. What drew me specifically to the Durham course was the South African field course and the ability to do a placement year. Durham itself always held a place in my heart as my extended family are from the area and I have always loved the city, and the community feel that the university creates.

While doing my undergraduate degree I was captain of the college netball team for a year, co-leader of Hatfield DUCK for a year, and I was a member of Hatfield College Boat Club. DUCK took a lot of my time during my second year, organising events and supporting other DUCK university events, but it was worth it we raised an incredible amount for charity, and the family created around DUCK was so important for me during University.

The friends I have made at Durham have stuck with me, and so most of my fondest memories are within my college. But a memory that sticks out for me is the numerous meetings with Dr Phil Gates in my first year. He was my supervisor and he was kind and supportive and met with me whenever requested to help me with work or advice. It is down to him that I am now doing a PhD for the right reason and why I waited to find the right project title for me. He inspired me to continue to study in biology and conservation but make sure that you are passionate about the subject you are studying. Studying with a reason not just for the sake of it.

Hatfield college always tried to instil in us that that we should pursue our goals and always strive for the best. During my fourth year I got the opportunity to go to South Africa as a field course. This is when I first came to Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, where I now work, and see the incredible work the staff here do. This trip inspired me to fight for endangered species and to continue my education and improve my knowledge so that science can shape policy to protect species. From this field course I was offered at masters with Dr Stephen Willis, with field work based at Mankwe. This further pushed me to pursue a research career in African Wildlife, and the more I worked with the staff at Mankwe the more passionate I became about conserving the species on site.

My Career Path

While writing up my masters I was offered a research position at Mankwe Wildlife Reserve in South Africa. The job role initially was intended to run the Nkombi Volunteer Programme alongside Luke Levitt to support young and early career conservationists and ecologists by giving them field based experience not only in research data collection, but also in reserve management. After a few years in this role, managing the volunteers and improving their skill set on research techniques, I was promoted to Research Co-Ordinator. This role entails over seeing the research done on site, working with lectures from a range of universities that come to the site for field courses, as well as working as part of the Earthwatch Institute managing the field based data collection for their onsite research. I am currently also doing my PhD based on site with the University of Brighton into the habitat utilisation of the Southern White Rhino.

Working as a research co-ordinator at Mankwe Wildlife Reserve is not just a research position, collecting data and writing papers. It is so much more than that, I work everyday on the front line with anti-poaching teams protecting our Rhino from poachers and help manage the reserve to ensure that all the wildlife that reside within the boundaries have the resources they need to survive and thrive. I work with an incredible team of trackers who work tirelessly to manage firebreaks, control bush encroachment, manage soil erosion, do foot and driven patrols and this is just the tip of the iceberg for there job role. The management team are on call 24/7 and even when offsite are reporting to crisis or issues on site. I am so proud to work as part of such a dedicated team, who’s main aim is to conserve the endangered species we have on site.

In 2014, while at Mankwe as a masters student the reserve was hit by rhino poachers and in one incident a total of five white rhino were lost. Two rhino were directly shot that night so the rhino poaching stats will only show their loss. But one of the rhino poached was a month off giving birth, another male rhino was injured and died a few weeks later due to internal bleeding during our now necessary horn trimming to protect the rest of the rhino on site. Finally, the other female poached in 2014 left behind a 6 month old calf, who sadly passed away around 8 months later. One poaching incident shook this reserve to its core, and has changed everything here on site. We are constantly at threat from poachers, and have to patrol 24/7. Not only are we fighting to protect our rhino, but we work with rhino organisation such as Rhino 911 to try and conserve the species by spread the message of the rhino crisis and undertaking vital research that can support policy change in conserving this species. Dr Lynne Mactavish who is operation manager on site has worked with numerous researchers and journalists to try and show the world the rhino crisis, but ensure that the science is behind all the measures taken to protect these rhino.

Covid 19 has created a major crisis for us here, as our main source of income comes through hosting university field courses from the UK, and with no international travel we have no form of income. Running a reserve does not come cheap, even without guests we still have to burn our fire breaks to prevent wild fires, horn trim our rhino to keep them safe from poachers, patrol the fence day and night, pay our trackers and anti-poaching scouts, which total 15 people but who support 131 people at home. These costs are not something we can just ignore or not pay, they have to be done to keep the animals safe. So where do we find that money?
You ask what I am doing now that is so meaningful to me. That’s easy, I am over 6000 miles away from my family and friends to help protect a reserve, animals and my South African family get through one of the most dangerous and financially challenging times the reserve has ever faced. With the economy falling, poaching is increasing; and with no money coming in, protecting the reserve and the animals is becoming harder than ever.

Durham always inspired me to work hard, and keep pushing no matter how difficult it gets, which is invaluable in the current scenario we are faced with. The passion and determination of all my lecturers has shown me that if you work hard and educate yourself you can achieve whatever goal you are aiming for. I am so proud of my Durham education, the skills it has given me academically and practically.

Pass It On

My advice to current students and recent graduates would be, you have had a fantastic education and you have learnt so much but remember to be humble and that you can always learn more. People working on the front line and in the field have probably been through most scenarios that you have read about so take their advice. Remember that you may have academic knowledge but those on the ground are seeing and experiencing the issues every day, take on what they know and work with them when dealing with research or your field of work. When you work with people, projects develop and progress much quicker. Work in conservation doesn’t come easily, it takes a lot of hard work and networking. Sadly it is a lot of who you know, but without the right knowledge behind you will never progress. So hold on to the knowledge and keep learning so that when the opportunity comes around you will be ready. Be passionate and hard-working and find a research focus that really interests you.