Tiwonge I Mzumara-Gawa is a volunteer Conservation and Research officer for the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (WESM), the national partner of BirdLife in Malawi. Tiwonge has been honoured with the International Young Conservationist Award for her inspiring work in assessing threatened species and important bird areas (IBAs) in Malawi. In an interview, she told us more about her work, and what the award means to her.
1. Please tell us about yourself, and what motivated you to work in conservation.
My interest in conservation began in an Ecology class during my undergrad studies at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. A scholarship from the Tropical biology Association provided me the opportunity to go and study Tropical Ecology in Uganda. It was at this course that I was introduced to the field of Ornithology, and this literally changed my career path. On return to Malawi I found that there was only one ornithologist in the country (who at the time was away for studies). I knew immediately that this was a gap that I could feel and would love every moment of it. Through the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi I began to learn my birds…
2. Who was your hero growing up with regards to conservation?
I am one of those unique people that never had a conservation hero growing up, I didn’t know anyone who worked in this field. I grew in a single parent home (mum), and we were not very well to do. We never visited parks or the like. My first visit to a park was at university in undergrad. As I said above, these visits and classes are what sparked my interest. However, the ‘hero’ / ‘quote’ that guides my work is Sir Peter Scott, founder of WWF, who said “We shan't save all we should like to, but we shall save a great deal more than if we had never tried.”
3. What is your favourite place in nature? Where do you go to escape?
I love forested places, be it montane forests or woodland, I love being under the shadow of trees. In Malawi, one such place is Mulanje Mountain & Michiru Conservation Area.
4. Tell us about a special moment you experienced in nature.
This is a hard one – every moment I am in nature is special. One memory that has stuck in my mind for long is my participation in a game count in 2006. This is the time I first encountered a poisoned waterhole in Liwonde National Park. Seeing all the dead birds around the pool is one of the things that drives my passion for conservation.
5. What did it mean to you to win the International Young Conservationist Award and see your work recognized in this way?
I feel really honoured and humbled at the award. Having the work that we are doing recognised at such an international level is really beyond words. This award will help to elevate our work in Malawi.
6. Could you share some statistics on bird numbers and how it feels to make a difference?
We are yet to have robust statistics. As so little has been done on bird conservation in Malawi, every simple work that I do is providing a basis for others who will come after me. I am truly blessed to be in such a unique position.
7. What can be done to help your work further or to replicate or use the results elsewhere?
The amount of work I am able to do is limited by the funds available. The museum rarely has funds to support research. All my current projects are supported by external partners, the more of these there can be, the more we can do for Malawi’s birds.
8. What is your next project, and how you will achieve it?
I am currently looking at impact of baobab damage to nest and roost site availability for Brown & Grey headed parrots in Liwonde. I am also looking at Modelling Lilian’s Lovebird distribution in Zambia in collaboration with the British Ecological Society, World Parrot trust, Fitz Patrick Institute and Birdwatch Zambia.