World Land Trust (WLT) is launching today #OurReasonsForNature, a series into the wildlife that inspired each of our team members to care for the natural world. For our first instalment, we look at why meerkats brought CEO Dr Catherine Barnard to Africa’s deserts, kickstarting a career in conservation.
Catherine’s fascination with meerkats (Suricatta suricatta) goes back to her university years, when an assignment opened a window into these social burrowers of Africa.
“I first encountered meerkats when doing a university project on animal vocalisations, as meerkats have a range of different alarm calls. This was long before their now legendary media success,” WLT’s CEO remembers today. “I became fascinated by their complex social structure, which led me to a completing my PhD in the Kalahari.”
In these vast, sandy deserts of southern Africa, Catherine spent several years closely researching the foraging and social behaviour and ecology of the meerkat; a highly gregarious species famous for its sentinel behaviour and the wide-ranging calls they use to alert of incoming predators, addressing their young and others.
In the Kalahari, Catherine’s close encounters with meerkats – and the other highlights of the desert’s “stunning” wildlife – brought home the urgency of conservation action. “The tragic decline of biodiversity and the importance of protected areas were already clear back then,” she explains today.
“At the time, I just knew that I had to do what I could to ensure that we protected these areas and species. For their own sake, but also for ours,” she adds.
From the Sussex countryside to the conservation frontlines
For Catherine, the pull of the natural world predates the years charting the comings and goings of meerkats, however. Growing up in the Sussex countryside, nature was a constant backdrop to childhood adventures, she says.
“I remember the excitement seeing dragonflies emerge from their cases in our pond, or hearing the screeches and hoots of owls calling in the night,” Catherine explains. “I spent my childhood in nature but I never knew that the natural world would take over my life in quite the way it has.”
And take over it did. From her PhD in the Kalahari Desert, Catherine’s 25-year-plus career brought her to working on community-led conservation projects in central Africa, ecosystem restoration concession projects in Indonesia and protected areas in West Africa. This was followed by his heading-up of RSPB’s international conservation programmes and finally, in September 2019, her arrival to WLT as CEO – a position she describes as a “dream job”.
WLT’s latest conservation work is taking place against a backdrop of pandemic disruption; a global landscape Catherine admits she wasn’t expecting when she joined the Trust. “It is ironic that our over-exploitation of nature is the most likely cause of the current global pandemic and yet the lockdown has reminded so many people of the joy of nature in a multitude of ways,” she points out.
“For me nothing can take away my memories of field work with the meerkats and the deep bond I formed with the wildlife and lands of the Kalahari, and I know for so many, nature has also provided solace in this difficult year,” Catherine adds. “As we are continuously reminded by science and our patron Sir David Attenborough, the planet is in trouble and so are we, so I’m determined to do what I can to help save nature for its own sake but also ours,”
These times are tricky for people and planet and yet at WLT, we are inspired by the conservation wins our supporters have continued to deliver despite the chaos of 2020. Nature is the reason for all those who work at WLT and for the next few months we will be sharing with you what brought us to conservation, and what keeps us going as we save land to save species.
None of our conservation victories would be possible without our supporters and we would love to hear from you – about your own reasons for nature, the wildlife that inspired you to care for the natural world.
Share your stories and pictures with us on social media under the #OurReasonsForNature hashtag!