Dean Carlisle, together with a group of young, like-minded individuals’ heads up an organization called Lessons in Conservation. As 2020 winds down, David Batzofin asked him about the year and how COVID-19 has affected him, his team, and working in the conservation industry.

D.C: My name is Dean Carlisle. I have an honours degree in Zoology (cum laude) from the University of Pretoria and passed my FGASA Apprentice Field Guide NQF 2 with 92%. I will be completing my guide training with andBeyond in January 2021.

D.B: Tell me about Lessons in Conservation? How and why was it started and is there a connection to FGASA?

D.C: My family has been involved in conservation for a long time, it is all I have ever really known. As I grew older I realized that it was almost selfish of me not to share the many incredible conservation and wildlife experiences I had been afforded with others and hopefully give them the chance to experience the magic of the African bush too. The idea to go out and teach children about basic ecology and the importance of conservation was then placed on my heart at the start of 2018, as I was heading into my honours year. The original goal was to teach one class of 20 children and take the top 3 students on a game drive. I proposed the idea to some of my friends at University who agreed to help me and we went about developing a curriculum and identifying a community in which to work. Word spread quickly after the first few lessons and I then realized that this organization was going to explode. We then went about establishing a team at the University of Stellenbosch and since then we have set up teams in Eswatini, Malawi, and Tanzania. We realized that young people want to make a difference in the world, and LiC has given them that platform.

D.B: Tell me about Dean in Grade 12?  Did you know what you wanted to be once you started working?

D.C: From the time I could formulate thoughts I always wanted to become a guide. I was always drawn to the idea of learning to speak the language of the bush, understanding her nuances and subtleties, and ultimately interpreting these for people from across the globe. This was still my plan all through school, including Grade 12, and was the reason I pursued a degree in Zoology. I am still following this dream while running an organization at the same time.

D.B: If you ever had to leave conservation, is there another career path you would like to follow?

D.C: I played a season of semi-professional cricket in Ireland, so if not conservation I think I would have tried to make it in the cricketing sphere either as a player or perhaps as a coach.

D.B: With the pandemic, there has been a surge in online conferences of various sorts. Have you and Lessons in Conservation been taking part in any and what has that experience been like?

D.C: Yes, LiC has definitely joined in on the online conferencing revolution. We have been conducting online interviews with students in Malawi and Tanzania which in itself was an extremely humbling experience. We have conducted our weekly regional and management meetings online and have even taught some children using an online platform. We have also been working closely with the Leadership for Conservation in Africa (LCA) and a few of our team members have spoken on their online seminar series and have even co-hosted a few of the youth talks for them. In general, it has been incredible to realize that we can connect with people from across the continent, and the world, from the comfort of your office. It has opened doors that I did not even know existed and has been one huge benefit coming out of this pandemic for us.

D.B: If you could sum up your career in one sentence, how would you do that?

D.C: I am very much still learning, but it seems from my experiences so far that the key to success in conservation is about having the ability to excite those around you about something that you genuinely believe in.

D.B: How are you and Lessons in Conservation currently keeping yourselves occupied?

D.C: This could be an entire interview in itself, but here is a short summary:

We have established 2 student-run teams in Malawi and 2 more in Tanzania, so a good part of our work now has been training and up-skilling these individuals in their respective portfolios. We have been working with FGASA to establish the best way to convert their youth content onto an online platform and how to roll this out to schools across the country. Similarly, we have had workshops with the LCA to discuss a fantastic initiative that they would like us to be involved in which may operate on a continental or even global scale in the future. We have refined our curricula for each of the respective regions we are going to be working and sought advice from respected organizations such as the PAMS Foundation (Tanzania) and African Parks (Malawi) to ensure that what we do in these regions will be beneficial ad sustainable in these areas. We are in the process of setting up fundraising teams in America who will link in with a volunteer program involving a 5-week trip to visit each of our teams and the remarkable wildlife areas along the way. And lastly, we have also begun the process of registering as a PBO with help from Paul Cassells from MFG accounting and through this process have been fortunate enough to have been accepted as a pro bono client by MacRobert Attorneys.

D.B: What would you say to someone who is interested in conservation but does not know where or how to start? How important would a FGASA qualification be to someone looking for employment in this branch of the industry?

D.C: I would say that a FGASA NQF 2 is a great place to start. It covers a broad spectrum of topics and allows you to decide which aspect of the conservation industry you are most drawn to. If you are seeking employment as a guide at a top lodge in South Africa a FGASA qualification is a must. In terms of where to start, I think going on a training course facilitated by one of the many endorsed training providers is a good place. This will give you an idea of what you are really getting into and talking to the trainers will give some direction. Try to learn as much as possible from all of those around you, especially those who have experience in the industry. The conservation world is a small one and often your success will boil down to your relationships with people in it. This means go out of your way to create good relationships with as many people as possible and then put the effort into maintaining them.

D.B: What words of encouragement do you have for those who wish to follow a similar path to yours?

D.C: Be brave. Trying to change the world is scary and it’s not easy, so keep your head up and your heart strong through the difficult times, and celebrate the smallest of victories. If this path is your calling, as it is mine, you will continually find magic in the mundane and it is this magic that will drive you through the 16 hour days in 40-degree heat. You need to believe completely in whatever cause you are committing yourself to and then throw every sinew and fiber of your being into achieving your goals. Lastly, you need to have bucket loads of faith that what you are doing is making a difference. The following quote by Rabindranath Tagore has helped me through my journey and perhaps it will resonate with some of the readers too: “Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”