Photograph by Amy Dickman, Big Cats Initiative Grantee
Photograph courtesy Amy Dickman
Birthplace: RAF Wegberg, Germany
Current City: Ruaha, Iringa, Tanzania
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I always wanted to work with big cats—I have done for as long as I can remember! I am not sure exactly where that came from, but I was always fascinated with them and knew I wanted to work with them in the future. I did consider being a vet for a while, but ultimately I became more interested in conservation, so decided to train as a zoologist. In fact, when I was at home recently, my sisters and I found a memory box from when we were around 10 years old, and in it we had written what we wanted to be doing when we were the (then unimaginable!) age of 30. I had written that I wanted to be working in Tanzania on big cats, so I am very pleased that it has worked out that way!
How did you get started in your field of work?
I started working at local zoos when I was still at school, and then I did an undergraduate degree in zoology at Liverpool University. During that time, I volunteered at Chester Zoo and did a research project on their cheetahs, which put me in touch with Laurie Marker, who runs the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia. After graduating, I went to work at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) at Oxford University, where Laurie happened to be doing her Ph.D. Through WildCRU, I went out to CCF and spent nearly six years there, gaining great experience in big cat conservation in the wild. That really encouraged me and was the starting point for the rest of my career.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to big cats?
I have always just been fascinated by big cats-well, by all wildlife, but for some reason big cats in particular have always enthralled me. There is something so magnificent about their power, beauty, and sheer wildness, and I think it would be terrible if these animals died out in the wild. I believe that we have a responsibility to make sure that human actions don't wipe them out, not only because they have a right to exist, but because I think that future generations should know and be able to experience the magnificence of these incredible wild animals. I think it is very scary that our generation has the power to make such a huge difference to the future of big cats and other wildlife. If we really want to, we can help secure their future, but if we do nothing, the outlook is very bleak, both for them and for future human generations. It is that urgency that really makes me think that I want to do all I can to help save them, and help ensure that our generation's grandchildren, and beyond, live in a world where big cats still roam out in the wild.
What's a normal day like for you?
There really is no such thing as a normal day! One of the things that surprised me as a big cat conservationist, particularly as a project manager, is how much of your time is taken up by activities where you are not directly working with the cats themselves. I might be out in the park observing lions or cheetahs and trying to identify them, or setting up camera-traps, but equally I may be analyzing data for publications, writing grant applications and reports, giving talks, meeting local villagers to discuss any problems they are having with big cats, following up on reports of lion hunts, or organizing the project finances, which is definitely my least favourite task! At the end of the day, we usually have a dinner of beans and rice, and then I go back to the tent and usually watch a DVD to relax (Grey's Anatomy, 24 and Desperate Housewives are favourites among the team!), try to talk to my husband in the U.K., and get some sleep before doing it all again!
Do you have a hero?
There are so many people who inspire me. David Attenborough, for engaging so many people through amazing natural history films; David Macdonald, who heads the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and has incredible, broad vision in terms of conservation; and Jane Goodall, for how effectively she has raised the awareness of conservation. However, if I had to pick one hero, it would probably be Alan Rabinowitz, who set up the first jaguar reserve in Belize, and has now worked in the field of big cat conservation for over 30 years. He has been incredibly influential. He has worked in very remote and difficult areas, discovering new species of mammals, furthering our understanding of ecology, and helping designate new protected areas to conserve big cats and other wildlife. If my career can be even a fraction as useful as his, I would be extremely happy!
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
There have been many amazing experiences in the field, many of them focused around dealing with the cats themselves. Helping release cheetahs back into the wild in Namibia was always amazing, and I get a huge sense of peace and fulfillment from just watching big cats out in the wild, even if they are just sleeping, which is often the case! I have had wonderful experiences with local people as well, though. My favourite was probably one that happened only a month or two ago. We had been working with a very secretive tribe, the Barabaig, for a couple of years, and it was extremely difficult. They were very suspicious of us and would even run away rather than talk to us! After over a year of living in a Barabaig village, though, they finally called us a month or so ago, and invited us to one of their usually secret meetings in the bush. We got there and they said they wanted to give us a cow—a hugely important symbol for them, as cattle are incredibly valuable in terms of social status. They then said they had watched us for years, had decided we were doing good things, and that now, with this gift, we could truly "work together as one family." It took so much work to get to that point, but has been very valuable as now we can move forward and develop conservation initiatives with them, so I was very pleased with that!
There are also lots of challenges, such as navigating terrible roads in bad vehicles, dealing with snakes, spiders, and charging elephants, and learning how to build trust with communities when you come in as such an outsider. One very challenging incident happened on my very first night in the field, when a big male lion came and slept right against my tiny one-man tent, nearly crushing me and making me very scared indeed! More often, though, it is the more routine things that are challenging—being so far away from my husband, family, and friends, eating beans and rice for 400 meals in a row, and not doing the small fun things like going to the cinema or out for dinner. However, the benefits far outweigh the challenges, and I am always eternally grateful that I am able to have this kind of life and try to make some difference to wild cat conservation.
What are your other passions?
Aside from my animals and wildlife conservation, my other passion is the people I love—my husband, family, and friends are very important to me, even thought I don't get to spend nearly as much time as I would like with them. I get to spend several months a year in the U.K., and I really value that time and the opportunity it gives me to spend time with those people again.
What do you do in your free time?
The one thing I would change about this career is that it leaves very little free time! However, when I get the chance, my favourite thing to do is just to spend some relaxing downtime with my husband, family, and friends. I like doing simple, fun things: reading, horseback-riding, going for a run with our dog, or going out to dinner and the cinema when I am back in the U.K.
If you could have people do one thing to encourage conservation what would it be?
I think it would really help if people just think about all their small, individual choices, and how they can make a difference to wildlife conservation with their own actions. Many people seem to feel disheartened by the scale of the conservation crisis, and feel they can do nothing significant to help, but anything people can do, whether it is recycling, energy conservation, raising awareness or funds for conservation really makes a very important difference. If everyone did something small, it would be huge, so I would encourage people to do whatever they can and know that they are helping long-term wildlife conservation through their everyday actions.
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Amy Dickman provides local education to reduce negative impacts of big cats.
As part of National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative, National Geographic Education is working with our explorers to help teachers educate students about the importance of big cats and conservation efforts to protect these large predators.
In Their Words
There is something so magnificent about their power, beauty, and sheer wildness, and I think it would be terrible if these animals died out in the wild.
Listen to Amy Dickman
Hear an interview with Dickman on National Geographic Weekend.
00:08:00 Amy Dickman
Getting along with your neighbors is difficult, especially when they are lions. National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grantee Amy Dickman is working to mitigate the conflict between lions and humans in an attempt to save the big cats of the world. Dickman joins Boyd in the studio to share some of the strategies of the “Human-Big Cat Conflict in Tanzania” project.
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