Alumni Spotlight: Kate Howlett

Kate is a final-year student of zoology at the University of Cambridge, specialising in ecology and conservation. After graduating, she will study for a master's at UCL in biodiversity, evolution and conservation. She is passionate about encouraging people to live a more sustainable lifestyle and to increase their contact with nature.

Why did you choose this program?

dromicodryas bernieri in Madagascar

I wanted to learn first-hand about how conservation works in the field and the challenges it faces, whilst also contributing to meaningful conservation science.

The more I've learned about conservation, the more it has become clear that all hands on deck are needed if we want to succeed in turning the tide towards a more sustainable, nature-friendly future, so I wanted to get started straight away.

OpWall advertise regularly at as many universities as they can, and I had seen their posters up in my department during my first year and had thought they sounded interesting. I began studying topics more directly related to their work during my second year, so I decided to go along to one of their presentations.

The range of sites and projects that they have on offer, and the passion and enthusiasm of their staff convinced me that enrolling on one of their expeditions would allow me to have an impact in the field I cared about, as well as learn a lot and have a huge amount of fun, so I signed up.

I picked their Madagascar site because the opportunity of visiting such an ecologically unique place and of seeing so many endemic species would most likely never present itself again (I managed to see 72 species, 44 of which were endemic!). I have always been fascinated by primates, so the chance to see lemurs was too good to miss.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

OpWall were hugely helpful throughout the whole preparation and planning process. When you sign up for one of their expeditions, all accommodation, meals and equipment are included and organized for you.

They recommend a company through which to book flights and travel insurance, so you can be sure that they're trustworthy. Once your flights are booked, the details are automatically passed onto OpWall and they arrange in-country travel for you to pick you up from the airport and drop you back at the end of your expedition.

Nearer the time, they send you training videos and extensive kit lists, along with help for finding funding. Their staff are always friendly and happy to help with anything you're struggling with.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Be assured that you will have a fantastic time, meet incredible people, and see and do unique things. Trust that this will be the case and throw yourself in whole-heartedly: go on every walk and survey, keep a notebook of everything you see, and make friends with everyone.

Although raising funds for the best part of a year can be stressful at times, as soon I got there I knew that it had been worth every single penny.

I was apprehensive before I left about the whole trip; I had never flown anywhere by myself before, and I didn't know anyone going, but I was also incredibly excited and determined to make the most of it. I wish someone had told me not to bother with the apprehensive part - there was no need and I wish I could have spent every ounce of my energy taking every second in.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

There are three sessions per day: one early in the morning straight after breakfast, one after lunch, and one after dinner in the dark. In each of these three sessions, surveys are conducted in five key areas: lemurs, birds, invertebrates, herpetofauna and forest plots (and crocodiles at one camp!).

The whole group of research assistants is split into smaller groups, each of which takes a different survey in each session. You get to do a huge range of things just within one day, let alone two weeks.

On my first day, for example, I went on an early-morning lemur survey after breakfast, then I did bird mist-netting in the afternoon, and went searching for scorpions and spiders at night.

There are three camps: a base camp (Mariarano) and two satellite camps (Matsedroy and Antafiameva), each about 2-3 hours' trek from base camp. A good effort is made to make sure that you get to see each camp in two weeks, so I didn't miss out on anything.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?

Although I knew I cared about conservation and that I wanted to help, I had no idea whether I would be able to cope with life in a remote and hot location, and whether or not this type of work would be for me.

The site is a five-hour drive from the nearest town, which is a twelve-hour drive from the capital where the nearest hospital and airport is, and the temperature is around 35-40°C every day. The site does not have electricity or running water, so you really are incredibly cut off from the world.

Whilst I was excited to experience it, I was nervous about how I would cope with trekking in the heat - I'm English, and freckle and burn badly on a day trip to the zoo in the UK, never mind in Madagascar! However, I found that following the advice of all the site staff and forcing myself to drink lots of water meant that I was absolutely fine, and I loved being cut-off from everything.

Hearing nothing but wildlife whilst waking up and going to sleep, and seeing millions of stars in the sky was a magical experience, and one that the majority of people, sadly, do not get to experience. The experience of living in basic conditions was also incredibly valuable.

Our impact on the surrounding nature was made so much more tangible by seeing exactly where our water was coming from, and that in turn made us use it more economically and value it much more.

Who would you recommend this program to?

I would recommend enrolling on this program to anyone who cares about wildlife, conservation, the planet, geography or biology, and to anyone who likes to travel. The projects run by OpWall aren't just about the conservation science, they are also about engaging with the local community to find better management practices for the future.

Meeting local people who are just as passionate about their local wildlife as you, and who are dedicating their lives to protecting it, is both heartening and inspiring, and I recommend this experience to everyone.