Finding Community Among Oxford’s Wildlife Conservationists

To kickstart my LiA, I spent 10 days with the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. Presenting my research, meeting leading conservationists, and learning from graduate students and faculty was a formative experience in my trajectory as an environmental writer and researcher.
Finding Community Among Oxford’s Wildlife Conservationists
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Imagine departing the bus in a new city only for your eyes to begin to burn. Your eyes rapidly water as you force them shut due to something in the air that has just lit them ablaze. At that very moment, your professor arrives at the bus stop to meet you, and you’re forced to greet him quite literally with tears streaming down your face. My time at the University of Oxford started this way: a slightly embarrassing beginning, to say the least. 

Several antihistamines and eye-washes later, I am grateful to say that my 10 days at Oxford formed one of the most remarkable experiences of my lifetime. As a visiting student at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) based in Oxford’s Department of Biology, I had the opportunity to engage with faculty and graduate students whose passion for human-wildlife interaction research inspires my own. With my Tanzania trip only days away, their mentorship and advice about conducting fieldwork responsibly enabled me to feel better prepared and well-supported for international travel.

I especially benefited from speaking with researchers who alerted me to things that I wouldn’t have been prepared for otherwise. Who would have thought that a multi-purpose knife and UV-resistant pants should be at the top of a fieldworker’s packing list? Or that water purification and hydration tablets are necessary when access to clean water or bottled water is limited? Or even that trousers are in some places discouraged as an article of clothing for women — something I learned only after packing three pairs? As most of my mentors are male, I was grateful to meet several female graduate students who shared strategies to maintain menstrual hygiene, dress comfortably, and stay safe while spending long days in rural areas. Despite being vastly outnumbered and facing formidable challenges as a result of their gender, each of these women is driven to pursue wildlife conservation with full force, and I hope to bring the same energy to my work as well. 

My most challenging yet rewarding experiences at Oxford involved those in which my faculty mentor, Dr. Darragh Hare, pushed me beyond my comfort zone. The week I arrived, Darragh gave me the opportunity to present my summer 2023 Laidlaw research findings to around 20 Oxford faculty, postdoctoral research fellows, and graduate students whose conservation background far exceeds my own. My freshman year self would have fainted at the thought! My growing anxiety and self-consciousness almost kept me from presenting altogether, but words of encouragement from Darragh and graduate students led me to take the plunge — and I am so glad that I did. Most attendees graciously gave me suggestions for how to build on my findings moving forward, and a conversation emerged among the group about the need for additional research on understudied species. 

Likewise, I was excited to finally engage with other members of the Morally Contested Conservation project in person! Jess Tacey, an Australian graduate student, treated me like a younger sibling while at Oxford, showing me around and introducing me to new friends with similar research interests. Both Darragh and Dr. Lovemore Sibanda were instrumental in helping me refine my questionnaire for fieldwork and addressing my (many) questions and hesitations. Some examples: How do I properly translate a survey into Swahili and then back into English to ensure I’m asking the questions I want to ask? How do I randomly select households to survey? What is the most appropriate way for me to introduce myself to a village chairman? Once I thought of my first question, I couldn’t stop, but Darragh and Lovemore were always ready to guide me through this often-complicated work.

My time at Oxford, while academically enriching, was not solely marked by preparations for fieldwork. Some of my most memorable experiences involved exploring the city of Oxford on my own. As a violinist, I was thrilled to visit the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments one Tuesday evening and learn to (rather poorly) play a theremin for the first time. I read about Arabian ostrich hunting at the Oxford Natural History Museum, viewed a rather detailed live-action rendition of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis at the Weston Library, and admired the intricacies of bird bone flutes and whale rib knives at the Pitt Rivers Museum while challenging the colonialist language behind them. One of my favorite days involved going to Blackwell’s Bookshop with Darragh and completely losing myself in the thousands of books there, and later sitting on a bench at the Oxford Botanic Gardens while continuing my read of Beyond Guilt Trips. This was my first time exploring a city entirely on my own, and I wanted to make the most of it!

Finally, I will never forget the generosity of the people at Oxford. My heart goes out to the woman who paid for my bus ticket to the WildCRU office because my credit card was rejected, the Italian couple who excitedly told me about their family heritage while I tasted a panuozzi at their small cafe, and the new mother who kindly told me at a falafel shop that one of the zippers of my backpack was open. A huge thanks to Jess, Emily, Jasmin, Jenny, Sandra, Tom, and all of the other graduate students and postdocs who made my time here so memorable. I will cherish the friendships I’ve developed with them, from eating packed lunches on picnic tables outside the WildCRU offices to having furious debates about the best flavor of British crisps (I’m partial to Curry Sauce). Thank you to Lovemore for always cracking a joke at the perfect time, and to Dr. Amy Dickman for putting me at ease with her hilarious stories from her days studying lions in Tanzania. And finally, I’m very, very grateful to Darragh for driving me to and from the WildCRU office early in the morning and late in the evening, accompanying me to buy some essential items, making me feel welcome, and encouraging me to embrace everything that Oxford has to offer. My 10 days in Oxford went by far too quickly – and I hope I can return someday!

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Go to the profile of Kristin Ramsay
29 days ago

Thrilled to see how this is all coming together and that you are making the most of this amazing, challenging opportunity!

Go to the profile of Trisha Bhujle
29 days ago

Thank you Kristin! It means a lot to hear that from you!

Go to the profile of Claire Wu
3 days ago

Love this so much!!!