Thursday, June 30, 2011

SNRAS professor to study conservation in Namibia

SNRAS Associate Professor Susan Todd (pictured at left) will spend the next year researching wildlife conservation in Namibia as a Fulbright scholar. At UAF since 1990, Todd will leave behind the comforts of home and venture to the place noted for being the second least densely populated country in the world (after Mongolia).

Todd helped analyze forestry projects in the South Pacific in the early 1980s but then settled in Fairbanks to concentrate on her academic career and raise a son and daughter. Now that the children are grown, Todd decided to pursue this longtime dream.

While she is less than thrilled at the prospect of snakes and scorpions, Todd is looking forward to researching the Community Based Wildlife Management program in which indigenous people are granted some ownership rights over wildlife on their communal land. Although the conservancies do not set the harvest quotas, they are allowed to retain revenues from trophy hunts. They also run wildlife viewing safaris and some own tourist lodges. “Instead of wildlife being a problem and marauding their crops and attacking their kids, the people can see the animals as an asset,” Todd said.

During colonial times, black people could not own animals. “Hunting and wildlife became synonymous with colonialism,” Todd said. Today, Namibia has 59 tribal-based conservancies; 14 are financially self-sufficient.

Todd will study what makes some conservancies successful while others lag behind. The role of women will also be emphasized. Women are now working as game guards, conservancy officers, and two are CEOs of their conservancies. This is a drastic change to the traditional order in Namibia. As the work progresses, Todd will publish journal articles about her research. She will teach at the Polytechnic of Namibia starting in January.

She will be based in Windhoek, a city perched on a mile-high plateau. When she arrives there in July it will be winter. The area is known for its extremely dry climate. Todd expects to travel throughout the country, visiting as many conservancies as possible. Because 28 languages are spoken in the area she will be accompanied by a student translator.

“I hope to learn a lot about how this system works and maybe in the long run try it on Native lands in Alaska,” Todd said. “There are a lot of details to it. How exactly does it work and how could we apply it here?”

What energizes Todd about the project is the concept of conservation and poverty alleviation going hand in hand. Unlike the American model of fortress conservation, where the local people were forced to leave when parks were created, the community-based system in Namibia offers a whole new model, Todd said.

Todd, who endured several immunization shots prior to the trip, as well as a plethora of paperwork, isn’t fazed facing the long flight (16 hours from Atlanta to Johannesburg), but there is one concern on her mind. “I’m almost a vegetarian,” Todd said. From what she understands, the diet in Namibia is almost entirely based on meat. “It’s going to be different,” she said.

While she is on sabbatical, Todd’s courses will continue, with other faculty and graduate students substituting for her, and she will advise students using e-mail and Skype. She will write updates and post pictures on a blog while she is gone.

As Todd works extensively with SNRAS’s Master’s International program, she expects her year abroad will help her empathize better with the MI students.

“This will open a whole new world and should be very energizing,”she summed up.

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