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Pearson McGovern, African Chelonian Institute

After growing up in Poland and then moving to the UnitedStates, Pearson McGovern has always had a passion for herpetology. Obtaining an undergraduate degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences in Texas, Pearson was able to gain valuable experience in the field. One of Pearson’s first projects was researching and implementing a recovery plan for the threatened Mojave Desert Tortoise in Southern California. Pearson has since found himself as a research biologist for the African Chelonian Institute in Senegal, West Africa. ACI’s big focus for 2021 is to document and study the elusive African soft shell turtle in order to conserve this magical species.

Pearson has answered some of our questions to give us an insight into his conservation journey and the work ACI are undertaking to protect Africa’s Chelonian species.

How did you end up in your current job?

Nearing the end of my Masters I had to decide how to best satisfy my desire to continue in the field of chelonian conservation while also continuing to travel, experience, and learn from new places, cultures, and techniques. These criteria led me to reach out to ACI’s director Tomas Diagne, and after several emails and guarantees that I was willing to work off self-acquired grants, I was given the opportunity to join his team in Senegal. While I started on a probationary basis, we all quickly realised it was a seamless partnership and I decided to join ACI long-term.

What is your favourite aspect of your job?

I really enjoy the various communities our work allows us to interact with. Children, especially, show you how teaching sustainable ideals can be effective if implemented at an early age. While implementing conservation practices can make strides in the present, the greatest effects will be seen in the long-term if the effort is continued!

What was your proudest moment in conservation so far?

Though it is far from solved, just last year we uncovered a large-scale sea turtle poaching operation on the Senegalese coast. Through our efforts and partnerships with local wildlife authorities, we have brought increased attention to the plight of these animals and have begun to educate and hold accountable those committing these illegal acts.

What gives you hope for the future of conservation?

Whenever I am feeling disheartened by the latest news of increased deforestation, raging fires, unsustainable poaching of wildlife, I always try to remember the countless conservationists, scientists, teachers, lobbyists, and citizen scientists who are dedicated to conserving what remains. It’s the continued fight of dedicated conservationists the world over that leaves me hopeful that conservation can be a success and make a difference in creating a liveable planet at all levels.

What are your future career goals?

Since I can remember my life goal has been to conserve the un-conserved. This early commitment, alongside my fascination for reptiles and amphibians, steered me towards a life of ensuring a future for these species and their threatened habitats. While I will always educate about the importance of a complete ecosystem, supported by its total biodiversity, I am drawn towards conserving the imminently threatened pieces of that biodiversity.

Why do you think people should care about conservation and the environment?

When I first joined Reserva: The Youth Land Trust, I was asked to write a letter to world leaders on exactly this prompt: here was my letter.

Dear World,

There is one thing in this world that connects every single one of us, nature. It does not take into account our relationships, our appointments, or our transactions, yet it allows each of us to keep on living our individual lives, THAT is a privilege. I think we have taken this for granted and that it is time to recognise the importance of the role that nature plays in our existence. We have demanded so much from nature, yet, more often than not, we don’t stop to return the favor. This is why I have chosen to write this plea for action on the side of our planets’ last wild places.

It is a universal truth that people care about the things that affect them. However, the problem with our mindset towards nature is that we only seem to recognise it when something bad happens. The hurricanes and typhoons pummelling our coastlines, the droughts or floods that decimate landscapes, and of course, the worldwide pandemics sourced from nature. But, this is a fundamental flaw in our understanding of what nature really is. Nature is the source of our ability to continue living on this earth and not just a limitless item for consumption on which we can also blame our failures.

Nature deserves so much more than just me writing this letter, not just because of its’ undeniable benefits to both wildlife and humans, but because of what it represents. Undoubtedly, each of us pictures a different place when we think of nature, but to me, that is the best example of our planets diversity, the fact that we each have a different vision of what nature represents based on our experiences in our separate, yet connected corners of this planet.

To me, nature represents a place to reconnect, a place to escape the hustle and bustle of daily life and to feel like you are part of something greater. Nature represents a limitless knowledge, constantly revealing to us unknowns that have evaded our discovery. Nature represents a freedom for curiosity that has captivated humans since our existence and continues to do so to this day. Nature represents a life-saving pharmacy where many of the worlds’ cutting-edge remedies are sourced. Nature represents inspiration, providing those who take the time to appreciate it with the spark they need to create the first airplane or glide under the oceans in a submarine. Nature represents a reason to never be bored. Most importantly, nature represents our life on earth.

Let us not make the mistake of continuing to take what is left of the earths’ wild places for granted, it is those very places that represent more to us than we could ever imagine.

What does nature mean to you?


Pearson A. McGovern

Can you give a brief introduction to ACI’s conservation work?

Through focused research, conservation, and education, the African Chelonian Institute, and our umbrella organisation the African Aquatic Conservation Fund, are dedicated to the preservation of African manatees, turtles, and other aquatic wildlife and their habitats throughout the African continent. We work in close partnership with local people, scientists, governments, and other stakeholders for the benefit of both wildlife and humans. We accomplish our goals through realising that local communities must be at the center of everything we do to ensure long-term success.

Can you give us a brief history of your organisation, how did it start?

The African Chelonian Institute was founded by Tomas Diagne in 2009. After nearly 15 years of working to conserve turtles and tortoises in his home country of Senegal, particularly through the formation of the Village des Tortues as a sanctuary for the third largest tortoise species in the world - the Sulcata Tortoise - Tomas decided to broaden the scope of his work and target the conservation of endangered chelonians throughout Africa. Since then, ACI has been involved in projects ranging from South Sudan to Senegal, all in an effort to improve the status of chelonians in Africa.

How does your organisation interact

with the local community?

In Northern Senegal we have created the Tocc-Tocc Community Reserve, a community conservation area monitored by local communities and a critical habitat for the lone population of Adanson’s Mud Terrapin in Senegal. By working with the national government to set aside a part of Lac de Guier, we have not only ensured a protected area for countless species but we have also allowed the local fishery to rebound and become more sustainable for surrounding communities. This is one example of similar, community orientated conservation we install.

What are the organisations biggest achievements?

Bringing increased attention and recognition to conservation, and specifically conservation of turtles and tortoises. Our director, Tomas Diagne, has recently been recognised as a leader in African conservation by receiving both the National Geographic Society’s Buffet Award and the Tusk Conservation Award, bringing significant global attention to the need for increased conservation efforts for these overlooked species.

What are the long-term goals for the organisation?

To continue to research and conserve Africa’s chelonians and their habitats while expanding our education programs in the local communities. We are also focused on completing our facility which we envision will serve as a learning and research centre for those interested in herpetofaunal conservation, a breeding and rearing facility for Africa’s endangered chelonians that may one day be reintroduced to their native ranges, and an institution for public education where school groups and enthusiasts may be hosted to learn about and gain appreciation for their local wildlife.

To find out more about this amazing project then please visit ACI also offer some incredible internships where you can get involved and help their work as well as virtual volunteer opportunities. If you would like to support this awesome program, then go on to the website to donate.


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