Ladies, gentlemen, and all snakeaholics, once again welcome to the Snakeman’s Lair! Joining us today will be Dr. Nasreen Peer, a zoologist and conservationist whose work and ethics I greatly admire.
I first came across Nasreen’s endeavors on Instagram, where she is an active science communicator. Her posts quickly got me hooked because she promotes an approach to science and conservation that challenges long-held prejudices and misconceptions about what the very concept of wildlife conservation means. As a researcher, Nasreen holds a PhD in zoology- however, her knowledge and wisdom extend far beyond academia. I have learned a great deal from her so far, and I am happy to be able to call her a friend- so without further ado, Nasreen, the floor is yours.
Hi Nasreen, thank you for paying us a visit in the Lair! So, your work is centred around estuarine mangrove ecosystems in your home country of South Africa. What makes this type of biome so interesting and valuable from a scientific perspective, and why did you choose to devote your career to it?
The mangrove biome is really fascinating for me. Firstly, the trees that make up this unique environment have evolved to deal with numerous challenges including having submerged roots for part of the day, high salt exposure and often growing in dense, anoxic mud. Naturally, the animals that live in association with this habitat are often just as unique. Mangroves also form a vital nursery habitat for marine bony fish, sharks and rays. In South Africa, our mangroves are all found in estuaries and sheltered bays making these nurseries even more protected. They provide physical protection to the land from high-energy wave action and provide a filtration system for adjacent marine biomes (think coral reefs) as water enters the ocean from run-off. Mangroves are also great carbon sinks, storing large amounts of carbon mostly below-ground. All these qualities make this an important ecosystem to mitigate the effects of global change.
In your research, you consistently use crustaceans and molluscs as bioindicators to assess the state of mangrove ecosystems. Would you please explain how these specific clades so clearly represent the conditions of their habitat?
Well, molluscs and crustaceans are prominent in mangrove forests across the globe. They are big enough to see from a reasonable distance and small enough to capture/quantify/investigate with minimal resources (as opposed to expensively tagging and tracking large animals for months on end!). Many studies have looked at physiological and behavioural responses of molluscs and crustaceans to multiple stressors including pollution, climate change and habitat loss so we have a solid understanding of these basic responses even though we still have many questions and variables to address. Because these organisms respond to environmental changes fairly rapidly, they can be used to assess impacts of recent changes/stressors and also provide insights into the response of ecosystems to future potential scenarios.
One of the (admittedly many) reasons I admire you is your attention to the social justice and equality dynamics intrinsic to wildlife conservation. Based on your personal experience, what neo-colonialist patterns and structures are still in place that make conservation a burden, rather than a resource, for local communities in Southern Africa?
In South Africa in particular our national parks were constructed based on the North American model of exclusion and complete protection of wildlife. Back in the day this model was developed by hunters who then explored other countries and implemented the same model where they travelled. In some parts of southern Africa, humans live closely off the land and removing communities from areas that they depend on is not acceptable as we now know. Aside from an ethical point-of-view, people need to survive and will do so ‘illegally’ if they must. This leads to heightened human-wildlife conflict, a weak link that huge poaching enterprises can then exploit. Although many of our parks are trying to reform, we still have a long way to go to shift the core mindset of many South Africans. Other countries such as Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya are more advanced in terms of socio-ecological conservation.
Respect and recognition for traditional ecological knowledge is also a core point of your work ethics and research activities. How has TEK helped you in your scientific career, and why do you think “academic” science still largely tends to disregard traditional knowledge entirely?
I learnt a lot about the value of traditional ecological knowledge when I started collaborating in Mozambique. Communities are definitely more visible around mangrove systems and can’t be excluded from any mangrove research due to the huge connection between human communities and mangroves. I walked in to that project with my university education and confidence and I was humbled by how little I really knew. People have been living off these ecosystems for generations and have an in-depth, hard-to-match understanding of how things function. I am so grateful for our TEK collaborators for their kindness and patience. I think academia still largely dismisses TEK because of the way it is passed down i.e. through story-telling and dialogue. Because of this, certain principles are simplified and we as scientists have not been taught to respect other forms of communication. For example, community fishers would say that ‘if there is no rain, there is no fish’. We would tend to scoff at this ‘old wives’ tale’ only believing it might be true once we’ve tested for ourselves. I’m not saying TEK replaces scientific methodology, I’m saying that in a setting like mine, the two are complementary. Communities may have questions we can help answer using our tools and methods and they may save us from years of trial and error, provide historical context and show us a different aspect that we wouldn’t ordinarily consider. We honestly only stand to gain by working together.
If you had to give one piece of advice to an aspiring wildlife conservationist concerning the power dynamics we just discussed, what would it be?
Learn to listen. This has been my biggest lesson. Listen before you assume, understand before you dismiss. Ask questions…ask lots of questions. Go into a new area with an open mind, willing to be taught rather than to teach.
You and your partner Dr. Nelson Miranda recently launched your own start-up company Argonaut Science– which, not surprisingly, also revolves around your work in estuarine/brackish ecosystems and empowering local communities. What is the purpose of this initiative, and what drove you to get it started?
We really wanted to foster this desire to explore the outside world in younger people. We often complain about the education system so why not add to it? Why not show the youth how to explore the natural world themselves in a way that is relevant. With citizen science tools and apps they also get excited to contribute to actual databases and records. For both of us, however, one of the main motivations for the business is to provide a platform for people to tell their own stories and to show us the environment through their own eyes. Moving back to SA we realised that conservation here mostly excluded communities. We knew we had stories to tell and science education is very much the focus of the business but we also knew that other people have stories to tell as well. At this stage (we’re a very new company) this is not much more than involving local guides on our tours and ensuring representation in our tour groups. Here in Cape Town, we’ve been extremely fortunate to partner up with organisations like The Future Kids and Sea The Bigger Picture both of whom have a heavy focus on community representation. On the East Coast, Tidal Tao and Mr Junior Gabela serve as local guides, showing us their respective areas through a lens that would take us years and years to develop.
Alongside your research work, you are also a lecturer at Stellenbosch University. What are your impressions of teaching and life in academia in general?
Teaching surprised me. I did not expect to learn so much about myself and science communication this past year especially. I really enjoy it and realise how fortunate we are in South Africa to have such amazing opportunities for young conservationists and biologists. Coming back to a university, I see now how social science training is crucial and lacking at the same time, something I hope to change with my own students. Academia is tough and we’re undergoing a heavy period of transformation in South Africa which compounds the harsh realities of academia sometimes.
To conclude, let’s set our eyes on the future- what are your aspirations and/or long term plans regarding your work and the impact you wish to achieve?
Having grown up post-Apartheid I didn’t really understand the challenges we face as a country until I reached my 20s. I know realise that if we are to move forward, it requires effort in all aspects, even in seemingly non-related fields like biology. I hope to move my own personal focus away from solely academia and more towards transformation. I want to encourage a change in the way we conduct research in South Africa; I want to move from science to a partnership between scientists, storytellers, communities, explorers; I hope that I can provide a space for young researchers/conservationists/explorers to build their own careers and networks. In terms of my own work, I will never not be fascinated by the puzzle that is nature…I hope I always have the privilege of research and learning.
Thank you so much for this interview Nasreen- insightful as always. We wish you nothing but the best for your career and future in general!
As for you readers, if you wish to learn more about Nasreen’s work and the social dynamics of conservation as a whole, I highly recommend checking out her Instagram and Twitter. The Snakeman’s Lair will be back next week with another amazing scientists as our guest- stay tuned!