Oliver Sommer | WWF

Oliver Sommer

About me

I am a student in Mathematics in Germany and completed my studies recently. I have been interested in nature, wildlife and conservation for many years and I wanted to seize the opportunity and try to get a feel for how conservation really works in the field. I found WWF's Explore Program and got really excited, because this would be the best way to learn about field work and get to know the local culture in a quite authentic way. Since one of my major hobbies is photography, I couldn't wait to go ...

Our group

WWF had chosen six volunteers with various backgrounds for a large cultural and skill diversity in the field. Tatiana from Lebanon, Guillaume from Belgium, Michael from Kenya, Walter from Cameroon and me and the sixth one who unfortunately stepped back for personal reasons. Now we were divided into two villages not far from each other, but basically we were two groups working autonomously on the different assignments we had. Luckily Walter was really motivated and tried to persuade young students at the local university to join and help us, and he succeeded. Completely spontaneously Sahala put her studies on ice for three months and joined us. She is from the north of Madagascar, so even knew the local culture. A journey was about to begin.

	© WWF / Walter P. Tapondjou N.
Portrait of Oliver
© WWF / Walter P. Tapondjou N.

Our mission

The objective of WWF, the global conservation organization, is to stop the degradation of the environment of our planet and to create a future in which humans will be able to live in harmony with nature:

  • By preserving biodiversity around the globe;
  • By guaranteeing a sustainable use of natural renewable resources;
  • By promoting measures aiming to reduce pollution as well as wasteful exploitation and consumption of energy resources.

The marine and coastal ecosystems of Madagascar are rich in biodiversity and this biodiversity is increasingly threatened by climate change and anthropological impacts. Close interactions exist between coral reef systems, sea grass beds, mangrove forests and coastal forests. Therefore, it is important to focus attention not only on one ecosystem type, but rather to analyze the vulnerability of all ecosystems involved. The objective of WWF Project MG200901 is to analyze these vulnerabilities and the adaptation to climate change. The September 2013 WWF Explore Volunteer program focused on the mangrove ecosystem in the bay of Ambaro, situated on the northwest coast of Madagascar. The volunteers were based in the villages of Ankazomborona and Antsatrana.

I was with the volunteer group in Antsatrana, together with Sahala Soaoda and Walter Tapondjou. Our first main activity was general fishery catch monitoring together with the WWF intern Felix, whom we assisted in collecting statistical evidence on species type, weight, number per species, length of each specimen, etc. A further activity was the re-enforcement of women associations’ capacities by giving English and French lessons, developing family vegetable gardens, raising awareness on hygiene and waste treatment and giving cooking classes partly as cultural exchange. Last but not least we educated the villagers on their mangrove ecosystem and its importance for surrounding ecosystems and for their own sustainability due to resources it yields. Unfortunately we also had to point out all anthropological threats to this ecosystem, including also the pending changes due to the advancement of climate change. In addition to these three activities, we decided to support the ambitions of the locals CBOs (community based organizations) to establish an ecotourism project in the village by providing a preliminary rough assessment.

Time Lapse Video

Part of our assignment was to create a video. It could be about anything remotely related to the project. I remembered that there was this special thing called "Time Lapse" that I wanted to try for a while already. So I got my act together, studied a few online tutorials, thought about the mechanical details a bit and started experimenting.

But what is a time lapse video? It's simply a normal video of anything you want, but played back (a lot) faster than captured in the original scene. A long two hour event could be condensed in a ten second video. Of course this means that you want to keep your camera quite still. Also, you need to pick the interesting events, namely those that don't seem to develop in real life, but suddenly come to life when played back a thousand times faster. Imagine watching a plant grow? How boring! But if you speed it up considerably, it's a real surprise that awaits you.

Now the good thing is that you only need 25 frames per second for a smooth video appearance. This means that creating a time lapse video boils down to taking tons of consecutive images of one event, slowly capturing its development over time. Bottom line: we're back to photography.

Over 15,000 pictures of raw footage and over 50 hours in the field later, I had enough footage for the movie. It took tons of post-processing to gather all the small bits for editing the movie, and listening to over 2,000 songs to find the appropriate accompanying music. Check out the final result:




When you come to Madagascar, a wealth of colors, shapes, people, plants, wildlife, food, etc. awaits you. There's nothing you can't turn into a wonderful photo. Whenever I had time and wanted to take a picture, I never had to go far. People in general liked to be photographed, just like that or merely to see their picture on the camera screen. Especially children were unstoppable once they saw your camera. There's nothing more convenient than seeing your motive walk right up to you and waiting to be shot. The more excited people were though, the more they would be posing for the camera. That made it a bit difficult sometimes, since I like it most when I can capture people's natural expressions and their normal habits. Anyway, hunting down crabs and chameleons with the children of village got me better pictures than I could hope for.

The learning process

During the assignment, you're bound to learn something new. It just happens. I learned the basics of a new language, Malagasy. In the dialect of the north, which means you cannot necessarily communicate with people in the south, but that's not what learning a new language is about. Sahala helped Walter and me to understand the specific meanings when we didn't manage understanding them on our own. This is quite important if you don't want misunderstandings to get between you and the locals. All along I also had the opportunity to brush up on my French. Most of all though, I learned a lot about conservation from Walter. He studies Biology back in Cameroon and is currently working on his PhD.

The detailed interactions between different ecosystems like Mangroves, coastal ecosystems and coral reefs are so strong that you cannot hope conserving one of them without the other. In Antsatrana our mission was to help preserve the Mangrove ecosystem. The intact Mangroves are able to filter many sediments carried from rivers and rain to the coast. Especially when erosion problems in coastal systems increase due to deforestation and mining, the amount of sediments a river carries to the sea is far larger than normal. If these sediments are not filtered relentlessly by mangroves and sea grass beds, then they might form a thin layer on live coral reefs. This slowly damages the corals and their inhabitants until the biodiversity is drastically diminished, which is especially tragic in such diverse ecosystems.

Just check out the great articles here:
WWF Mangrove Articles

The small differences

I have traveled to Western Africa before, so upon my arrival not everything was completely surprising and new. Of course there was a new language that I was eager to learn. After all, communication is the key to a new culture. And the food is different, and it is easy to get lost in the wealth of delicious dishes. Also, many people probably would have difficulties adjusting to the temperatures - no problem for me, though.

There was one thing that struck me, however. At first, I always seemed to be disoriented whenever we had to go somewhere in Tana. I've never felt so helpless navigating my way through an unknown city. A few days later I suddenly realized: It's the sun! I haven't been to the southern hemisphere before, and although it's completely logical, it took me a while. The sun rises in the east, sets in the west, but during the day it's up high in the NORTH! Sometimes it's just the unexpected small differences that take you aback.

What about you?

Does this sound interesting? Don't think you can't volunteer with WWF! As long as you are young, motivated and know something about conservation, you might be the next volunteer. Show why you are motivated and why it should be you who will volunteer next. Plan ahead of time, you want to be ready when you are chosen. Think about the special thing that you will contribute to the assignment. And then simply apply!

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