Community. That’s the word you’ll hear National Geographic Explorers emphasize when explaining what they love most about their work as Explorers. That’s because this community of scientists, conservationists, storytellers, and innovators is pushing boundaries—showcasing threatened ecosystems, building local support for wildlife, discovering ancient societies, and capturing life in remote locations. Through their important work, these Explorers inspire one another, and the rest of us.
As the challenges threatening our planet and its communities change, so, too, must the generation working to find solutions. These six National Geographic Explorers are just some of that new generation, each one championing the world their own way.
Hans Cosmas Ngoteya
For conservationist Hans Cosmas Ngoteya, there’s nothing like leading field trips to Katavi National Park in Western Tanzania. The 28-year-old says that his groups—local community members living near the park whose ages range from 12 to 35—get particularly “excited and smiley” when they see a hippo.
“They are always surprised to see how big they are,” he says, adding that it’s the first time many of them are seeing hippos up-close. More than that, though, the students are fascinated to learn that hippos and crocodiles can live together without harming each other.
Promoting peace between animals and humans is at the core of Ngoteya’s mission as a National Geographic Explorer. Ngoteya, who is based in Tanzania, is co-founder of the Landscape and Conservation Mentors Organization, which focuses on promoting, supporting, and improving community livelihoods through sustainable environmental practices.
He also created “Vijana na Mazingira,” or VIMA, a youth-focused project that provides conservation education and alternative livelihood options in an effort to reduce pressure on natural resources. As the leaders of tomorrow, young people are an important aspect of taking on future conservation challenges, Ngoteya says.
His message for hopeful Explorers? “Work hard to fulfill your dreams and visions, and the exploration will come to you.”
Erina Pauline Molina
It all started with a snorkeling trip when she was 15 years old. Erina Pauline Molina, currently pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science at the University of the Philippines, says she was amazed at the diverse undersea ecosystems she saw. That experience inspired her to pursue her scuba certification, a decision that would further reveal her life’s true calling.
“I wanted to preserve [our marine ecosystems] for future generations,” Molina says. Now, 25-year-old Molina is a National Geographic Explorer. Much of her work involves spending time with fishermen in different areas in the Philippines with the aim of using their knowledge to identify vulnerable or locally extinct reef fish species. Molina’s research also focuses on conservation of dugongs—a critically endangered marine mammal in the Philippines—through building a strong partnership with local communities.
“For me, being an Explorer means that you are continuously fueled with curiosity and that you are willing to go on an adventure: getting your hands dirty, diving to greater depths, and even climbing the highest mountain, just to get answers to the little questions inside your head,” Molina says.
As he looked through his camera trap photos, Tashi Dhendup came across an image he wasn’t expecting to see: a tiger walking through the snow and staring directly into the lens. “I was awed,” Dhendup says. It was summer when he first deployed his camera traps through Eastern Bhutan, but after three months, the traps didn’t record a single tiger picture. He decided to leave the cameras up through the winter, and the result left him speechless.
“It felt great to be [in the tiger’s] territory,” he says. “Being in their habitat made me realize how we share space, and how important harmony has become for the benefit of both people and tigers.”
Dhendup is a 29-year-old conservation biologist in Bhutan who uses non-invasive camera traps and genetic sampling to educate local communities, reduce human-wildlife conflict, and strategize local conservation initiatives, with particular focus on tigers. Studying tigers has been a valuable life lesson in perseverance and dedication, he says.
“Believe in yourself, and strive to make a difference,” Dhendup says. “Push boundaries, meet people, travel, and understand the world around you. Immerse yourself in the good and the terrible things happening around the world. Contemplate issues that need change and look for solutions.”
Photographer and ecologist Jen Guyton has three words of advice: Be an octopus.
“Always have your tentacles out, searching for new adventures and new opportunities,” the 29-year-old Explorer says.
Guyton’s adventures unfold on land in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, where she studies mammal ecology. The park lost almost all of its wildlife to poachers during the country’s 15-year civil war, but conservation and restoration efforts are returning it to its pre-war state. Guyton’s research focuses on how mammals—specifically bats and antelopes—are responding to the restoration, and she uses her camera to change the way people think about wildlife imagery.
“Photographs are one of our most powerful tools for communicating across socio-cultural borders,” Guyton says. “By harnessing that power, we can teach science to the whole world and make it fun and engaging in the process.”
Of all the moments in the field, her first time collecting a fecal sample from a Cape buffalo remains the most surreal, Guyton says. After a team safely darted and sedated the buffalo from a helicopter, Guyton outfitted it with a crittercam—and collected its feces for a dietary analysis. “I put on a glove and went for it, [because] you actually have to put your entire hand in there,” Guyton says. “Those animals can kill you, and there I was with my hand up its butt... wondering what would happen if it woke up.”
Guyton hopes that through her work she can inspire others to pursue their dreams. “Find the one thing that you love so much that you can't imagine doing anything else,” she says. “Figure out how you can push the boundaries and make a difference in that field.”
If you want to hear Ella Al-Shamahi’s favorite jokes, you’ll have to go to one of her shows. The London-based National Geographic Explorer is both a comedian and a paleoanthropologist. She specializes in Neanderthals, searching for fossils in palaeolithic caves in the world’s most hostile areas.
“Places that are unstable have had less scientific work conducted in them and so have more potential for discovery,” says Al-Shamahi, who has conducted fieldwork in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. “To leave them behind... is not just a tragedy for these places, but it is also a tragedy for science.”
When she’s not ducking into caves, Al-Shamahi is making people laugh—and employing humor to celebrate science and exploration, particularly in more high-risk areas.
“The comedy comes in because I am obsessed with communication, obsessed with how to reach people, with how to tell Joe Bloggs… that science is important,” Al-Shamahi says. “Comedy is an incredible way to communicate that.”
It’s also a way for her to set an example for young women to dream big. Her intrepid spirit isn’t encouraged amongst women of her background. “I come from a highly conservative community where girls were taken out of swimming classes, [where there were] discussions about whether cycling broke your virginity, and where girls were repeatedly told that they could not travel without a male guardian,” Al-Shamahi explains. But she didn’t let that stop her.
“I swear there is no feeling on earth like looking up at a landscape at the beginning of an expedition and thinking that there is a chance your team is about to discover something,” Al-Shamahi says.
It all clicked for Evgenia Arbugaeva when she was a university student living in Moscow: She wanted to return to her hometown, a place called Tiksi in Siberia, and explore its vast wilderness—a place that was both familiar and foreign. She started by spending a year traveling with reindeer herders.
“I wasn’t even taking pictures,” the 33-year-old photographer and National Geographic Explorer says. “I was just working as a herder, but slowly I started making photographs, and I realized this was what I wanted to do.”
Arbugaeva found her calling in long-term storytelling, with a particular focus on the Russian Arctic and the people who inhabit its lands. Her next journey will take her along the Northern Sea Route—a maritime passage that stretches nearly 3,500 miles along the coast of Siberia across the Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi Seas—to document people’s daily lives amidst current political, economic, and climatic changes. “Even though Siberia is my backyard, it is such a vast expanse of land, and it’s hard to get to these places,” Arbugaeva says. “There are several indigenous communities along this route that I have never seen. There is so much potential [to tell stories] and so many things to talk about. The Arctic is such a special place.”
To be a storyteller is to have questions and seek answers, Arbugaeva says. “I think deep inside every time I am working on a story, I have my own question to answer, even if it isn’t [clearly] defined,” she explains. “I am trying to find an answer through other people. I am on a quest to find a truth and answers through families and through how people live.”