WINGS WorldQuest will induct five new groundbreaking women as Fellows during the 2018 Women of Discovery Awards. Leading up to our April 25 Awards Luncheon, we are highlighting the work of each of our new Fellows. Thandiwe Mweetwa is a senior ecologist and community educator with the Zambian Carnivore Programme. Her work focuses on studying population dynamics and threats to survival of lions and other carnivores in eastern Zambia in order to protect the species and their habitat. She will receive our Conservation Award.

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WINGS WORLDQUEST: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and in your field specifically?

Thandiwe Mweetwa: I was born in a small town in southern Zambia. When I was 12 years old, our family moved from the plantation town to a rural area in the eastern part of the country. Our village is near a national park so I saw wildlife like monkeys, elephants and small antelope live for the first time here. I was fascinated by these animals so I joined my school’s conservation club. I learned many interesting facts about wildlife and more about the nature and extent of the environmental issues affecting our area. My experience in the conservation club inspired me to join the conservation field and help protect wildlife. Throughout high school and university, I volunteered at different organizations and agencies to learn more and sharpen my skills.

My passion for studying and working with lions began when I joined the Zambian Carnivore Programme as a volunteer field assistant in 2009. Like many people around the world, I have always been fascinated by lions. I enjoyed hearing stories about them from my mother and loved watching them in wildlife documentaries. The defining moment was on my first day of work when I experienced the power of three male lions roaring just meters from the car I was in. I had never heard anything like it before and I was just amazed by how an animal could produce such a sound. I, there and then, decided to pursue a career working with lions and helping conserve them.

WWQ: What is something you would like people to understand about your field and your work?

TM: We are faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to balance the needs of an ever-growing human population with protecting biodiversity. Therefore, it is important for people to understand that the conservation issues we face are very complex. Conservationists need to learn from each other while recognizing that there is no “one size fits all” solution to these problems. The general public needs to look beyond the headlines on conservation issues. When talking about poaching, the first thing many people say is “Why not just arrest all the poachers?” It seems like a no brainer to someone looking in from the outside but the solution is more complex than that. A lot of communities are dealing with debilitating poverty and judicial systems are virtually non-existent in some of these places. 

Our search for solutions to environmental problems should be more inclusive, interdisciplinary and innovative. Sound science and exploration can lead to game-changing discoveries and help us understand the nature of the evolving threats facing our planet. As we seek to strengthen law enforcement, we should to also push for meaningful engagement with communities that feel alienated by conservation as it is practiced in the 21st century. We need to make it clear to these communities that conservation is as much about human wellbeing as it is about protecting wildlife.

As a global community, we need to cultivate a sense of pride in our shared heritage. Lions are majestic, universal icons of strength and courage. Collective effort is required in order for us to make a meaningful difference.  

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

TM: The greatest barrier is the deeply entrenched belief that the sciences and mathematics are subjects for boys. From early on, girls believe they are not as capable as their male counterparts. Therefore, they lack the motivation to pursue their interests in these subjects. As these girls turn into women, they carry this misconception along and consider some careers to be, almost exclusively, for men. There is need for educational systems to be more nurturing to encourage and support young girls in their scientific pursuits. In the long run, this will increase the number of women working in science.

WWQ: What gets you up in the morning? 

TM: The desire to make a positive difference in the world.

WWQ: What's your next challenge? 

TM: I am interested in studying how to balance conservation goals with human development needs as ecosystems and communities change. I hope to focus on the evolving nature of human interaction with big cats in the Luangwa Valley as more people and livestock move into the area. I also want to expand educational programs aimed addressing the emerging human-lion conflict and empowering young people while, at the same time, building local capacity for wildlife management.