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A little bit about me...

My name is Moira and I am a 20 year old undergraduate student at Carleton College in Minnesota. I am studying biology and environmental studies, and my hope is to use my degree to promote conservation through ecological research.

From the time I was a small child, I have been interested learning about and protecting the natural world.  My understanding of conservation grew as I did.  Because my father is an ecologist, my family lived in the places he worked, and I lived for a time in Antsiranana, Madagascar and in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania before moving to New York, USA where I finished growing up.  Living in these ecologically significant areas helped me to learn to appreciate both their richness and their great need for protection.  That was the easy part. 

No small child can fully appreciate the complexity of the world and its relationship with people.  I most certainly did not.  It took a very long time for me to begin to understand the complexity of conservation and the way it is interdependent with development.  During my studies, I was introduced to the existence of this relationship in classes, and from an academic point of view I understood its logic.  But there is a world of difference between understanding a concept and living in the evidence of its existence.  To truly understand the complexity and difficulty of managing the environment and promoting sustainable development I needed to work directly with the communities and organizations that are struggling with these issues.

© WWF / Marjolein Kamermans
© WWF / Marjolein Kamermans
What I learned in Madagascar

Ask a conservationist about Madagascar and she will first tell you about the phenomenal richness of the biodiversity and that the majority (80%) of species in this country are found nowhere else in the world.  Next, she will tell you about the devastating loss of biodiversity due to habitat destruction.  She will tell you how the practice of tavy, or slash and burn agriculture, and the need for firewood are driving back the edges of the rainforest and endangering increasing numbers of species.  Hopefully, she will also tell you about the extreme poverty that forces many Malagasy people to employ these practices. 

I saw these aspects of Madagascar.  I saw incredible numbers of species in one tiny patch of forest, and I saw grassy, treeless hills that had once been rainforest.   I saw people whose subsistence depended on the only kind of farming they knew.  I saw the absolute terror of fishermen who knew that their livelihood would be instantly destroyed by the creation of a national park in the area where they fished for crayfish.  But I also saw in many people a strong understanding of the need for conservation in order to sustain the resources they depended on. 

My project was to work with Marjolein Kamermans to conduct a pilot study assessing the impact of fishing on crayfish populations in the area surrounding the town of Miarinavartra, which is in the central highlands of Madagascar.  Our goals were to gain some idea of the level of threat to the crayfish population and suggest some possible approaches to conservation if it were necessary.  In conducting this study we spent much of our time interviewing people in the area.  Some fishermen reacted to us with near terror, fearing that our study would result in conservation measures that would prevent crayfish fishing – thus destroying their livelihood.  But many people were grateful that we were doing the study.  On numerous occasions people asked us what we had found out and what they could do to promote sustainable use of the resources.  These people were aware of the need to use the resources they needed sustainably.  They wanted to help promote conservation.  All they needed was the knowledge of how to go about it. 

By going to Madagascar I learned how organizations such as WWF are organized and what kind of projects they run.  I learned invaluable lessons about how WWF goes about promoting community-based conservation in areas such as Miarinavaratra.  But even more importantly, I learned to trust that there are people in Madagascar who are at least as dedicated to the joint goals of conservation and development as I could ever be.  These people can and will move towards sustainable development.  While they may need help with intellectual and physical resources, they will not fail to put these to good use.

Moira & Marjolein's study on crayfish

© WWF / Moira Hough
Crayfish from a stream in the Fandriana-Marolambo forest corridor
© WWF / Moira Hough

This was an experience that I could never have gotten another way.  There is no better way to get to know a country than by immersing yourself in its culture and its important issues.  There is no better way to learn about conservation than to see how it is done and to live an example of its implementation.  Go with an open mind ready to give your all, and you will receive so much more than you could ever imagine.

My photos of Madagascar