Katie Rooke moved from the UK to South Africa in 2006 and now runs the Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme. During her time at Askari she has gained a Masters in Research in Biological Sciences. Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme is based in the Limpopo province, and focuses on conserving and improving the existing habitat, and restoring wilderness to the area. Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme aims to create a benchmark wilderness reserve that is a safe haven for the flora and fauna that live there while accumulating a wealth of knowledge of how to restore damaged land back to natural, wild habitat.
Katie kindly answered some questions for us on what inspired her to be a conservationist and the aims and achievements of Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme.
What made you work in conservation? What was your inspiration?
I always had a fascination with animals; big, small, anything that moved. When I was 11 years old I was lucky enough to travel to Zimbabwe. We stayed, just for 2 nights, on a game reserve not far from Harare. Elephants came to drink at the water hole, bush babies and rhinos visited the restaurant at night and it sparked something inside me that never left. When I was 13, we returned to Zimbabwe and this time went to a different reserve. There they were rearing orphaned rhinos and our guide, Hayden Turner, gave us a real insight into the wildlife of the reserve and the various challenges it faced. Hayden was my inspiration from that moment on, to work with and help the wildlife in Africa, and rhinos will always have a special place in my heart. We stayed in touch and are still in contact to this day! He told me
to strive for what I wanted and to never give up. With that, and the incredible support of my family, I got to where I am today.
What steps led you to where you are today?
I realised, even as a teenager, that getting some qualifications behind me was the most likely way to get to where I wanted. I actually initially applied to vet school because as a child, all the people I saw on TV in Africa were vets. However, I didn’t get into vet school so took a degree in Zoology & Marine Biology instead. Throughout my degree I took every opportunity possible to gain practical work experience and volunteer with animal research projects and wildlife programmes. After finishing university I moved to Africa and started a 1 year course in ‘Field guiding’ with a bush school called Bush Academy. I completed my work placement after the course and was then offered full-time employment in my role as a field guide; I have never looked back and stayed in the industry ever since.
How did you find your current job?
I already worked in the industry on a reserve nearby. When the management position at Askari became available, I was contacted and asked if I would be interested in the role. Needless to say, I didn’t hesitate for a second; Askari is a fantastic programme and Pidwa a very special reserve.
How did Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme start?
Pidwa Wilderness Reserve was created in 2008, when new owners purchased the land and changed the land use from farming and hunting across to conservation. Askari was established a year later to take on various tasks around the reserve, all working towards the main goal of the restoration of wilderness. Old farming and hunting practices have caused plenty of damage and the goal of the reserve is to repair that damage and take the reserve forward, as a benchmark wilderness area for the endemic flora and fauna. Askari took its first volunteers in 2009 and has been contributing to successes on the reserve ever since.
What conservation issues does Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme deal with?
Our work covers a huge variety of aspects associated with the ecology of the reserve. Soil and vegetation management are the very basis of everything we do. It is only once we’ve restored good soils that we can support vegetation. And only once we have vegetation can we support animals. Once we have the animals, they need managing too, whether it be to simply maintain populations or to actively conserve them and increase their numbers. Although we are a large and natural area, we to have boundaries. This means that populations need monitoring and management, another role of the staff and volunteers at Askari.
What is your favourite aspect of your job?
To share the passion I have for wildlife and conservation with others. I get to meet fantastic people from all walks of life and from all over the world. Some even change their direction in life after being at Askari and it’s incredible to be able to be a small part of that.
What was your proudest moment as a conservationist so far?
The brown hyaena research I completed for my Masters was a definite highlight of my career so far. The near threatened species comes into conflict with farmers when they are (incorrectly) blamed for livestock deaths. As a result they suffer persecution and also habitat loss. The study removed 5 brown hyaenas from an area of conflict and translocated them to a conservation area. My research monitored their progress post-release and the move was a great success. The hyaenas survived and established in their new environment and went on to reproduce and start a sustainable population. Brown hyaenas are a fairly unusual species to study so this was a real privilege to have a secret insight into their world. I’m also very happy that it contributed to the conservation of a species rather than some studies which seem to be research just for the sake of research!
What are your future career goals?
I hope to finally publish the work from my brown hyaena study when I find enough minutes in the day! Otherwise to continue doing everything I can to make a difference, no matter how small, towards the conservation and preservation of our wildlife and habitats.
Can you give an insight into what an average day is like on Askari Wilderness Conservation Programme?
Our activities are split between reserve management projects and wildlife monitoring and vary on a daily, weekly and seasonal basis. All projects contribute to the reserve goal; restoring wilderness to this area after years of human use. Work includes the eradication of alien plants, removal of bush encroachment, repair of eroded soils, anti-poaching patrols and removal of old farming fences to name a few. On a daily basis we are responsible for the monitoring of all the wildlife, keeping up with species such as lion, elephant and cheetah and recording numbers, new births and activity patterns. We also do this for all the general game herbivore species too and certain birdlife. In between all of that the most important activity is to learn about the bush, see as much amazing wildlife as we can and marvel at the nature we’re surrounded by every day.
What gives you hope for the future of conservation?
Every single volunteer who comes through Askari. Whether they are already studying or working in the field, whether they move into it after being here or whether they just take a little something with them. Each and every volunteer leaves as an ambassador for conservation and our natural world.
What advice would you give to young conservationists trying to build a career?
Dream big but be patient. The perfect job might not come along straight away, but get involved, work hard and never give up.
Why do you think people should care about conservation and the environment?
The environment is the very basis from which we all come from and on which we survive. It is good for the soul and we can learn a lot from nature about how to live our lives. We are not the masters of our environment, we are simply guests.
To find out more and how to get involved please visit https://www.askariwcp.com/. It is possible to join the programme for a period of between 4 and 12 weeks, with the chance to become hands on members of the reserve team. With such exciting habitats and wildlife, we’re sure that everyone would learn something from a volunteering experience here!