‘It’s life-changing’ One woman’s journey to leading wildlife conservation expeditions

 

Malika (left) at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve office
by Chris Zacharia

‘Back then, there were no paved roads; just sand tracks.’

‘So there was a high risk of getting stuck all the time. Driving was a much bigger challenge. There was less vegetation, more bare sand. More like the desert outside the reserve.’

For a decade, Malika Fettak has led citizen scientist to the depths of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR), 225sq km of dunes, ghaf trees, and intense heat. Earlier this year, in January, I was one of them, spending a week in the DDCR as part of a Biosphere Expeditions’ citizen scientist project.

In partnership with the reserve’s dedicated scientists, Malika’s science helpers have surveyed birds, set camera traps and monitored the ecosystem – and, after ten years, the work has borne fruit.

‘But the biggest change is that now, you see herds of oryx and Arabian gazelle wherever you go.’

It’s true. By the second day, I’d seen more oryx than people. But without Biosphere Expeditions, the experiment with oryx might not have turned out very differently.
‘When we began working together in 2012, the DDCR had just reintroduced oryx to the reserve – a herd of just 70. They didn’t, couldn’t know how the animals would fare in the DDCR,’ Malika explains. ‘Was there enough vegetation to support those animals? Should they supplement their diet with feed, or just let them roam? And how many oryx could the DDCR actually support?’
It’s a reminder that conservation is a science and science proceeds through experiments. It’s not handed to you on a plate. In the DDCR, the experiment worked. 
‘Our work helped to find the right places for feeding stations, protecting the vegetation from collapsing again. It was so very gratifying to see our work having an impact.’
Yet Malika’s twenty years at Biosphere Expeditions began almost by accident. 

‘I was looking for a worthwhile holiday, as a single travelling woman, to do more adventurous things,’ Malika begins.
Already, Malika’s story sounds like the kind of transformation every nine-to-fiver dreams of.
‘It sounded perfect: you’re in a group, you’re safe, and you get to do adventurous things out in nature that you can’t do on your own: not as tourists, but as a team on a mission, working together in nature.’ 
Malika’s description conjures memories of my own two expeditions, tracking brown bear hibernation dens in Sweden and conducting wildlife surveys in Dubai. But while all this is true, it’s only one side of the story. Malika continues.
‘But it’s also exploring beyond your comfort zone: something you haven’t done before. You don’t know what people you’ll be with, what the work will be like,’ she says.
From wading waist-high into a swamp in search of a missing tracker chip, to climbing a rockface in search of Pharaoh Eagle Owls, I’m inclined to agree: Biosphere Expeditions does indeed push you out of your comfort zone. Malika started as a citizen scientist, then applied for a job after two expeditions. Nowadays, as an expedition leader, the challenges she faces are on a different level.
‘On expedition, you get into all sorts of unforeseen situations. You’re responsible for a dozen people out in the wild, their safety, logistics. You’re solving problems without knowing the solution, figuring it out as you go, finding yourself in tricky situations and getting out of them. 
‘And this experience is the most valuable I’ve ever gained.’
So: How on earth do you go about becoming an expedition leader in wildlife conservation?
‘I met Dr. Matthias Hammer (the executive director of Biosphere Expeditions) on my second expedition. My first was with Arabian leopards in Oman, the second in the Altai mountains for snow leopards.’
‘I’d been thinking about changing my career without knowing where to go next,’ Malika explains, ‘and while in the Altai, I opened up about it to Matthias. He just said: ‘Why don’t you work for us?’’
At first, though, Malika’s role was very much indoors. 
‘This was 2006, seven years after Biosphere Expeditions was founded. I kind of created my own job by writing an essay about what I could contribute to the organisation, being experienced with marketing and communications, there was a lot to do.’
But it wasn’t long before Malika was out in the field. 
‘Once I started leading expeditions, that was it – I knew I’d found my place,’ Malika says. It was a huge challenge at first, especially in a foreign language (all expeditions are run in English and Malika is a native German speaker). But also extremely fun. I learned a lot.’ 
Even after just two expeditions, I know how deep an impression they can make. 
Working in the wild, coping with the elements, depending on one another, with a common goal for the good of the planet: everything that’s missing in contemporary city life, Biosphere Expeditions brings to you.
‘Out in nature, you actually need less,’ Malika argues. ‘You think you will need all these things, but you need less to be happy and fulfilled. If you’re warm, dry, fed and have a place to sleep: that’s enough. And it calms your mind. You don’t have to worry about material luxuries, because in nature, on a fundamental level, it’s not important.’
Of course, Biosphere Expeditions’ work does more than benefit its citizen scientists. It’s actively changing the world for the better.
Since 1999, the NGO’s efforts have directly led to the creation of protected wildlife areas in countries as diverse as Ukraine, Australia and the Maldives. They’ve saved animals from culling, proven the presence of endangered species, and contributed to a world-record in wildlife observation, a 34 year span of continuous whale spotting in the Azores. 
Yet as the global population grows, and materialist expansion gathers pace, there’s still so much to be done. Even in a resounding success story like the DDCR, the threat of encroachment is increasing. 
‘The biggest challenge is to protect the protected areas from all sorts of outside influences,’ Malika explains. 
‘There are things that can’t be changed – such as the ownership of the land – so you have to adapt to changing outside influences. The water project is an example of land being taken from conservation.’
So what can Biosphere Expeditions and its citizen scientists actually do? Malika is defiant. 
‘The DDCR has been sliced up as outside influences threaten its integrity,’ she says. ‘We need to keep at least parts of the reserve sacrosanct. Balancing it with income. Using that income to maintain the DDCR’s long-term health’ 
I think back to the glamping-style yurts in the Reserve’s north, outposts of luxury, nature-based tour operators licensed to bring tourists into the DDCR.
‘To safeguard the Reserve, you need a holistic approach. One change can influence another. It’s all connected: constructing the new water aquifer in the north of the DDCR, because – for better or for worse – the government thinks this is a good idea, pushes the tourist camps to the previously quiet south, which in turn impacts the wildlife.’
The only defence, Malika maintains, is proving impact to prevent seizure – and that can only happen by collecting data.
‘That’s what we’re here to do,’ she says. ‘Create valuable data and scientific reports, through proven methodologies. It happens slowly over many years for it to make progress visible, but the end result gives the Reserve what they need to combat encroachment: hard facts.’
After all, a statistic shouldn’t be just another number; it has to act as proof. 
Malika smiles, nods, and then says something that could be the mission statement for Biosphere Expeditions itself: ‘Create facts that can’t be ignored.’
And yet sometimes it is not enough. In the DDCR the forces of profit and other interests are too strong. The DDCR management team is replaced by more acquiescent people. Biologists are replaced by businessmen. Sometimes, money wins. 
‘And when that happens, when a park exists just on paper, we stop’, explains Malika. This has happened a few times in Biosphere Expeditions’ 25-year history. ‘But that’s life’, says Malika, ‘you win some and you lose some. But there are plenty of other projects on this beleaguered planet that need our help. We’ll move on and keep fighting, as we have done for a generation now.’

Biosphere Expeditions celebrates its 25th anniversary this year – discover their achievements and get involved here

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