GoAbroad Interview

Dr. Simon Morgan - Director

Dr. Simon Morgan - Director

Inspired by his childhood vacations exploring the natural wonders of Southern Africa, Dr. Simon Morgan developed a passion for conservation at a very young age. "Working" in his current role with Wildlife ACT has, therefore, become anything but work. Dr. Simon Morgan thoroughly enjoys making wildlife conservation possible and productive for volunteers, wildlife, the community, and the organization as a whole.

How was Wildlife ACT conceived with Johan and Chris?

Chris and I were working in the field as wildlife monitors, monitoring wild dog and black rhino respectively. We realised that there was a need within the provincial parks of KwaZulu-Natal to have dedicated wildlife monitors assisting the conservation managers with the daily monitoring of their endangered priority species. All too often researchers had to be relied upon to collect this valuable information, yet not always being able to provide managers with what they were looking for. So, we developed self-funded Management Orientated Monitoring Systems for these parks, with the conservation managers in mind.

I knew Johan from university days and sought him out to assist us with the marketing of these projects to volunteers; he jumped straight in and Wildlife ACT was born.

Participants at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in 2015
Wildlife Conservation Network Expo 2015 participants

You were born in Zimbabwe, but spent your childhood and college years in South Africa. How did your interest in conservation and wildlife come about?

I was fortunate enough to spend the better part of most school holidays with my family visiting the national parks of Southern Africa. My parents also had some friends who ran wildlife concessions in Botswana that we would visit; their lifestyle was always something which we attuned to as youngsters.

Why did you choose to focus programs in Malawi, Botswana, Seychelles, and South Africa?

We liked some things, but they often just choose you. We were working with a few conservation managers and conservation organisations that led us to these countries where there was a need. In each case, we have had to adapt our funding and support model, but in each case focusing on long-term management orientated monitoring systems and threatened species conservation.

Wildlife ACT director with a baby rhino at the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi bomas
Simon Morgan with a baby rhino at the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi bomas

Has your experience as a Black Rhino monitor influenced the direction of any of your programs?

Definitely, Chris also has a strong black rhino conservation background, so this has influenced not only the types of projects we have focussed on, but also our approach to the monitoring efforts and the value add we know they have for conservation management.

Do you have any plans of expanding programs to any other countries in the near future? Zimbabwe maybe?

Yes, we are busy exploring a few options to expand our work into new areas; there are a couple of big projects in the pipeline. There is a growing understanding and willingness in the conservation management arena around the importance of adaptive management strategies, which need to be informed by management orientated monitoring systems - so there is a great need for the work to get done.

Panel at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in 2015
Dr Simon Morgan on the panel at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo 2015

What makes Wildlife ACT different from other wildlife volunteer programs in Africa?

Quite a few aspects differentiate us. Firstly, we are a conservation organisation with a focus on the conservation efforts of endangered and threatened species. We allow volunteers to join those projects which are conducive to volunteer participation only, meaning we run a number of projects that don’t engage with volunteers. Unfortunately, there is often the misallocation of volunteers on to projects in the field, meaning volunteers can find themselves on projects which are not conducive to their participation.

We like to differentiate the conservation focus of our and the volunteers efforts to those projects that are focused on wildlife farm management, or those which provide sanctuary and hands on care for wild animals. All too often these types of volunteer opportunities are plugged as conservation work, yet ultimately true conservation is the preservation of wild animals in the wild, such that they can contribute meaningfully to grow wild populations.

We also only allow small groups of volunteers onto the projects, on average about four per project, with a maximum of five - meaning their effort is more meaningful and that the focus still remains on the work at hand. With a 14 percent returning volunteer rate each year, we know that we are meeting volunteer expectations and there is a high level of involvement with our work.

Our focus is on job creation in South Africa too - meaning the volunteer participation should create jobs, not take away jobs on a continent which has a huge work force that is unemployed. Our ratio of five volunteers to three locally employed staff is an example of this and one we are proud of.

Wildlife ACT staff member observing a black rhino
“If we can’t step up and protect a species like this, we don’t really have much hope for anything else – specially for something as iconic as a Black Rhino.”

When volunteers return home, what do you hope they have learned?

We know that we have managed to give them an insight into the daily efforts of conservationists in the field and hope that this will inspire them to support our work and that of other conservation groups further.

Where do you see Wildlife ACT in five years?

We are a fairly small and dynamic team, which means it is often hard to pin this down. We have been having some exciting discussions with a few conservation organisations about expanding our footprint - so I am confident that we will have grown our conservation efforts and be making a greater impact each and every year.

Why do you love your job?

My “job” is a lifestyle, which I am very fortunate to have. The places and animals we get to experience and the impact we have is very rewarding on a number of levels.