In this podcast, we get to know the Whitley Award-winning conservationist, Rachel Ashegbofeh Ikemeh, Project Director at the Southwest Niger Delta Forest Project. Rachel won the award in 2020 for her work on chimpanzee populations in Nigeria. And is aiming to secure 20% of chimpanzee habitat in Southwest Nigeria.
Here she shares her experiences of being a woman in ‘field conservation.’
A non-traditional journey
Rachel began her career in conservation in 2005, but her career did not take a conventional path. As she explains, when she grew up, she didn’t watch National Geographic or know about David Attenborough.
Instead, she initially studied public administration in university. As a fresh graduate, she started looking for job opportunities, and “stumbled upon” an advert for interns with the Nigerian Conservation Foundation.
This, as she explains was “the beginning of it all” because a week or so later she was told that she passed the interviewee test and had secured a role as an intern with the foundation. This was her first step into conservation.
Reflecting on her career in conservation, Rachel highlights how her “can do” mindset has helped her in this sector. As she describes, “I’m still that person who felt like oh, there’s a problem, let me just try and get it fixed.” This positive mindset of trying to fix things led her to “plunge” herself into conservation.
A woman in the field
As a woman in field-based conservation, Rachel faced many challenges, particularly when she was young and new to the sector. For instance, she found people would not share issues or information with her.
In addition, she knew that in order to prove herself, she couldn’t show any sign of vulnerability, or she would risk being seen as “weak” and unable to keep up because of her being “a girl” in a team mostly composed of men.
Similarly, at the community level, people would challenge her career choice, asking her direct questions like: “Is it that you don’t have a family? You aren’t married? Who let you come out here to do something like this, looking for monkeys?” This was an issue her male counterparts didn’t encounter.
These days, she says the behaviours are less common, and she is no longer shocked or surprised. Instead, she “continues on like nothing has happened.” And her persistence has paid off as local communities do listen to her.
As well as experiencing challenges in the field, Rachel mentions the lack of role models as an issue, because so few people (particularly women) worked in conservation. She explains, “I didn’t see anybody becoming a field-based conservationist. That’s even male without them being male or female. I had to develop my own interests in conservation and had to build myself up.”
But Rachel did find inspiration early in her career in the form of Professor John Oates who eventually became a mentor. She describes how she has been inspired by him over the years: by his “work ethic, by his passion for conservation, and by his passion for building African leaders in conservation.”
Looking to the future, what makes Rachel most optimistic is the positive impact of people. While she acknowledges that she has a “thousand reasons to be pessimistic” she is also positive about the situation as she has seen first-hand how people can “totally change.”
She is also driven by seeing a growing number of young people “advocating for nature.” This she says gives her the most optimism. As she describes “I would say, the greatest optimism I’ve seen really is in people, and I think people really have the capacity to be the biggest champions for conservation.”
To learn more about Rachel and her inspiring career, listen to our podcast.
Please note, the podcast discusses sexual harassment. This comes up between minute 18.30 and minute 20. You can skip this section if you wish.