March 06, 2012

Interviews With Hawk Mountain Internship Alumni

Dr. Ruth Tingay

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What have you been doing since you were a Conservation Science intern in 1996?
I have since completed MSc and PhD degrees in raptor ecology and conservation, and have worked as a biologist on several international raptor projects. I also became closely involved with the Raptor Research Foundation and am currently serving as the President of this international organization. In 2010 my first book was published by Cornell University Press (co-edited with another former HMS intern. I am currently working on two other raptor books.
What challenges did you face as a Conservation Science intern?
Learning the science of raptor biology and ecology was a bit like learning a new language.  I starting off by mimicking words and sentences, but not fully understanding their meaning, and frequently making mistakes with such a limited vocabulary. Then I gradually becoming more proficient, yet keenly aware that fluency was still a long way off!
Which raptors are you now working with, and why?
I’m currently studying grey-headed fish eagles in Cambodia and Pallas’s fish eagles in Mongolia. Both are poorly-known species facing significant conservation threats. I also have research interests concerning the illegal persecution of raptors in Scotland.
What are some of the difficulties or challenges that you have experienced in your career?
The challenges I have faced are probably familiar to most field biologists.  They include securing long-term funding, working in remote environments with infrastructural difficulties, living with dangerous wildlife, adapting to cultural sensitivities, dealing with bureaucracy, local politics and, sometimes, corruption, and being away from home for long periods. More strategic challenges include trying to influence policy makers to make their decisions based on science rather than on myth and popular misconceptions.
What has been your most amazing experience with a raptor?
It happened on 18th October 1997, in Veracruz, Mexico. With three Mexican colleagues, I was counting the migrating raptors that funnel through coastal Veracruz each autumn, on their way south from North America. We were used to seeing daily counts of hundreds of thousands of raptors, but the 18th October was something special. From 9am to 7pm, the sky was black with flying raptors swarming in-front, overhead, and to both sides of us. We recorded more than a million raptors that day (1,173,776 to be precise – I have a copy of the day’s data sheet framed on my wall!). Simply phenomenal.
What is your biggest concern regarding raptors and their conservation?
Raptors face many different threats, both direct and indirect, all over the world, leading to different concerns for different species in different locations. My two biggest concerns are:

Whether governments have the political will both to develop protective legislation based on strong scientific evidence, and to ensure that legislation is enforced.

We can find innovative ways to help change negative perceptions and attitudes towards raptors, as it is attitudes that create the most of the problems facing raptors. The best way to do this is through education.  We need to find better ways of translating the science in ways that are accessible to and understandable by the average, ordinary person.

What is the single most important thing you would like people to know about raptors?
If it were gamekeepers in Scotland, it would be that sea eagles do not eat small children (the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association recently wrote to the government about this “threat,” to create hysteria in an attempt to halt a sea eagle reintroduction project). If it were buyers in Muti (traditional medicine) markets in parts of South Africa, it would be that inhaling smoked vulture brains does not confer the gift of premonition (some people believe that because vultures have an ability to find prey, they must have clairvoyant powers). If it was people in India who have suffered financial loss, it would be that sacrificing owls during the Diwali festival would not result in them being blessed by the goddess of wealth. So, it would depend on who the audience was, before deciding the single most important thing I’d like them to know about raptors.
How has your Conservation Science internship helped you in your career? 
The internship has been instrumental to my career in many ways. Most significantly, it provided an opportunity to enter the field of scientific research – especially when I was strongly encouraged (forced!) to present the findings of my internship project on American kestrels at the annual Raptor Research Foundation conference. This was both terrifying and rewarding, and set me on a career path I hadn’t previously considered. In the later stages, long after the internship had ended, Hawk Mountain scientists continued to provide advice and support as my career developed.
How has your Hawk Mountain leadership internship in 2003 helped you in your career? 
The leadership internship provided me with the perfect environment in which to write up my PhD dissertation, as well as an opportunity to develop future raptor research and conservation projects. It also consolidated the professional relationships that had developed from my earlier internship with Sanctuary personnel, many of whom I continue to collaborate with today.

Cozen O'Connor