Growing up, I always knew I wanted to work in the field of wildlife conservation; however, I took a rather indirect path to get here. As an undergraduate, I was persuaded to follow in the footsteps of several family members and major in education rather than wildlife conservation. I spent several challenging and rewarding years as an inner-city schoolteacher in a science magnet school. In this role, I shared my enthusiasm for conservation with my students, studying many environmental issues through theme-based instruction, including an issue that has been central in my life: elephant conservation.
Then, one day during a staff meeting, the school principal announced an opportunity to volunteer in Africa. Months later, I was living in Nairobi, Kenya, and teaching at a local primary school, where I started a wildlife conservation club that provided opportunities for urban Kenyan children to learn about and experience the natural world. One of my most rewarding experiences was taking students to a nearby national park. For many of them, it was their first opportunity to see wild animals, such as lions, giraffe, and rhinos, that tourists from around the world traveled great distances to see.
I also volunteered at an elephant orphanage in Nairobi National Park. It was thrilling and heartbreaking at the same time. Not only was I was spending time with rambunctious baby elephants, I was learning from people who dedicated their lives to conserving these magnificent beings. While many elephants came to the orphanage as a result of poaching for ivory, others were orphaned when their family groups ventured into areas occupied by people. These negative encounters, often referred to as human-elephant conflict (HEC), can result in injury or loss of life for elephants and people.
I stayed on a second year in Kenya and fully devoted my time to elephant conservation. One of the highlights of that year was a trip to Amboseli National Park with one of the world’s leading elephant researchers. We visited a local homestead where herders lived on the boundary of the park with their livestock and wildlife. It was here that I first considered the perspective of people who did not like, or feared, the animals I loved from afar. It turns out that human-wildlife conflict is a conservation concern around the globe. This experience, and the sage advice of my new conservation mentors, was the impetus for my return to the U.S. to pursue a graduate degree so that I could finally become a conservation professional.
I earned a master’s degree from Colorado State University in human dimensions of natural resources, a broad field of scientific study concerned with understanding human thought and action in order to inform management and conservation decision making. I went on to the University of Florida to earn a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology with an emphasis on human dimensions, returning to Kenya for my doctoral research examining predictors of tolerance of elephants on private lands around Amboseli. My path has most recently led to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, where in March of 2014 I joined the Conservation Education division as conservation program manager. One of the most rewarding aspects of my work has been the gratitude expressed by local people who feel the human dimensions approach gives them a voice in conservation. It’s been a great journey thus far and I look forward to sharing the next leg with my new colleagues to bring species back from the brink of extinction!
Christine Browne-Nuñez, Ph.D. is a conservation program manager for the Conservation Education division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.