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Conservation, communities and what they've taught me

Sarah Cheetham

Posted on February 11 2021

Conservation, communities and what they've taught me


The past year...crazy, the current year...yet to be decided! I've been doing a lot reflection recently and thought it was time to share a few snippets. 

Tidying up my Bristol flat I came across some of my old photos. Jungles filled with exotic plants, isolated field camps and communities full of incredible people. During my career in conservation I can't help but think of how these experiences have filled and shaped my life into what it is today.

The last few weeks I've been dreaming of going back to that gorgeous Costa Rican beach under the palm trees. I spent hours watching Green Sea Turtles and Olive Ridley's mount the beach to lay their eggs, with the sole aim of securing the future of their species. A few months would pass and I had the joy of witnessing the hatchlings push and fight their way up to the sandy surface and scuttle as fast as they could to the sea, to the sea. Desperately paddling their way across the sand, avoiding birds of prey, crabs and any other animal looking for a tasty meal. As the lucky ones entered the sea I hoped that one day they would return to this very same beach to make a family of their own. 

Alongside the incredible things I've seen and people I've met and worked with, for which I will be eternally grateful of, there are some painful memories too. This is why I do not often talk about or share many of these experiences. But for some reason I feel like now is the time to share the positive lessons I've taken from my past.  

It's very hard to put eight years of conservation work into words. I'm getting a little headache just thinking about it. But I'm going to share a few short stories of how it opened up my mind to new ways of thinking...

Believe it or not I was working in an estate agents in London before opting to work in conservation across the other side of the world. It was a way to earn money after university and save up for my plans ahead. I always knew since school that I wanted to do something to do with nature and when I realised I wasn't going to become a vet (getting the grades for that is crazy!) I opted for conservation work. All I knew is that I didn't want to be office based. I like working with my hands, face to face with people and dropping myself in challenging situations to see how I would react. 


Take a different perspective

Working with people in different countries from different cultures opens your eyes to so many things. I'm an empath so I seem to automatically put myself in the other persons shoes, whether good or bad. Living within Cambodian communities, working alongside Bangombe pygmies in Congo and learning to dance Papua New Guinean style were all incredible experiences that I'm extremely grateful of.

Living in a small community in the depths of the forest, wrapped up in nature makes you realise how small you really are. Surrounded by towering rainforest trees, mighty rivers and incredible animals like the forests elephants and gorillas in northern Congo. It not only shows you your connection to the earth but also how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things - a very welcome refreshing perspective! One that I try to reflect on regularly when I go into nature today.

It's so easy in these times to get caught up in whats happening with you. 2020 with all it's challenges and hurdles and 2021 looking like there is still a lot of uncertainty. Well I try my hardest to remember to step back, sit a little, and try to focus on what I'm grateful for - my health, the plants around me, and amazing support from family and friends. It's easy to get swept up but I find it helps to step back and take a different perspective sometimes.   


Plan A never works out - and that's ok.

This is not said as a negative. It prepares you to always keep thinking however tiring or challenging it is. Makes you more resilient to change and loss of a plan that you may of thought was foolproof. The amount of on-the-fly thinking I’ve done has really prepared me for multiple life challenges. Not saying that change gets easier, as it doesn’t, not for me anyway. But in a way the practice enables you to detach easier from your original plan and change the way you approach it the more you practice it.

Here's an example of a time this has happened to me in the field...

I'm a planner, I like things organised and some may even call me a bit of a perfectionist. There are many occasions plans you've made have had to change, I'm sure you could all name a few. This is one of the more extreme examples I've experienced. A simple fruit and vegetable delivery. 

When living in an isolated rainforest camp I was reliant on some of the team boating down to the nearest town, 4 hours down stream and 6 hours back, to stock up on fresh fruit and veg. Ideally this would happen once every two weeks but if there wasn't a boat going or the weather was bad it got cancelled. Eating healthy when isolated and due to be job being so physically challenging was pretty essential for me to keep my balance. When I heard there was no veg coming, or even when they'd got down to the town but the market was empty my heart sank. Believe it or not in that situation food was my luxury, especially fresh food. We easily take it for granted and it definitely gave me a new perspective on that for sure. 


We all feel that sinking when something we've planned and hoped for doesn't happen. Whether it be seeing a loved one on their birthday, taking part in a local market, that abroad summer holiday we're all dreaming of. Mourning the death and failure of a plan, any plan, can really sap your energy. I'm trying to practice detaching myself from it as much as possible so it doesn't hit as hard. Be more adaptable and learn that plan B and plan C aren't that bad after all. 


Keep your eyes open there are always things to learn

Strange things can happen when you least expect it...

It started as any other normal day of work. I had been to collect some equipment from Bomassa base camp and now canoeing myself back down river to Mombongo where I lived in the Congo rainforest. Tied the canoe up and climbed up the bank to camp. Before getting to the top, Abeya, my team lead and a great friend, greeted me at the top with a worried voice. He explained that my house had been broken into. My little brick and metal grillage house broken into in the middle of the forest - I was confused! By who, what? When I got to the top of the bank I remember turning to the right to look at my house and reality hit. I saw two sides of my little house ripped open and all my belongings now outside and all over the floor.  

I wandered over, glanced at all my clothes, belongings, books all over the floor outside the house half chewed or ripped up.  Is was a young teenage bull forest elephant. He has got bored when I was away and interested in the house. Literally swinging his weight around! 

I can imagine all your faces are now smiling and laughing which is how I feel now. However at the time and moment of realisation I felt shocked, terrified and upset. These were the only things I had brought from home, the kit I needed to be in the forest. I couldn't just get an Amazon delivery or pop to the shops. My whole world had been turned upside down. 

Elephants are amazing gorgeous and majestic creatures. But wow in the forest, when you're in their wild, they are huge, strong and scary. Lying in bed that night knowing an elephant could get in if he wanted to made me feel vulnerable. I was in their world, their forest.

This experience made me reframe how I thought about the wildlife around me. I had discovered a new found respect and balance with the forest and all it's inhabitants. He did come and visit again, and yes I was a little scared, but soon realised he was just an interested teenage elephant, he meant no harm. He was learning and discovering what was new in his forest, fair enough. That's ok. I knew looking at him that he wouldn't hurt me, not intentionally anyway. 


Well there you are, a few stories and lessons I've pickup up. Hope you enjoyed reading them. It's surprising how relatable the feelings and situations I found myself in then repeat themselves now living in Bristol. I mean, minus the elephants breaking in your house! But the themes of uncertainty, fear, change, that crop up in everyday life are there. Remembering when this happens to be kind to myself and manage my expectations. Trying my best to take the positives out of difficult situations and not judging myself for my bad days. And through all of this being ever grateful for the amazing support of my family and friends. Those are the things we hold on to. 




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