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CASE STUDY: Earthwatch and Shell Group work together to conserve leopards and monkeys in South Africa

NGO Earthwatch Europe and multi-national Shell work together to conserve leopards and monkeys in South Africa

Across South Africa, conflict between humans and animals is rising due to increased habitat fragmentation caused by farming, commercial activities and government land reforms. In addition, local landowners tend to think of leopards as major killers of their livestock and primates as a major pest species, leading to lethal control measures being used across the region. 

Earthwatch is working with Shell in South Africa to help reduce human-wildlife conflict. Through their collaboration, the NGO and multi-national corporation deliver a results-orientated employee engagement programme – Earthwatch Expeditions – leading to personal and professional development opportunities and increased understanding of global sustainability issues amongst Shell staff, greater engagement with local communities, and direct environmental interventions. 

The local context

Earthwatch delivers Expeditions in South Africa at the Lajuma Research Centre, set within the Soutpansberg Mountains. Lajuma Research Centre is a Natural Heritage Site, and forms part of the Luvhondo Nature Reserve. This mountainous area is becoming increasingly important as a refuge for leopards, monkeys and other mammals under growing threat.

When on location at Lajuma, Shell employees support researchers from Earthwatch and their research partner University of Durham to gather research in three critical conservation areas: investigating the presence and diversity of important species, including leopards; assessing the extent of human–wildlife conflict and investigating possible mitigation strategies; and, increasing environmental awareness in local communities.

Participant activities include checking the researchers’ camera traps - cameras that automatically take pictures of animals as they pass by – to create a database of species present in the area, and collecting data on trees and seed dispersal to understand primate eating habits. They join engagements with local farmers and undertake activities to support farmer livelihoods while protecting predator species. This includes building cattle enclosures (known locally as bomas) which use natural materials to protect calves overnight. To support the next generation to live in harmony with wildlife, the Shell employees support the researchers to run a school activity that highlights the diversity and importance of local species. 

Rachel Smith, a Shell engineer from Houston and the 1000th Shell participant in the Earthwatch Expeditions said:

“The expedition was truly an eye-opener. One day we worked on building ‘bomas’. These are a type of cattle enclosure that help the farmers protect their livestock from leopard attacks. In turn, this reduces their desire for lethal wildlife controls.” The Shell employees also learn the value of listening to stakeholders. “It means we can help provide a sustainable solution and not just treat a symptom.”

For more on Rachel’s experience, please read the full story here.

Outcomes and mitigation

The researchers have found that South Africa’s Soutpansberg Mountains had one of the highest population densities of leopards outside of protected areas in Africa in 2008. Today, that population has been cut by nearly two-thirds which appeared to be the result of illegal human activities. This information has been published and shared with decision makers to inform the moratorium on leopard hunting. However, further work is needed with landowners to effectively address this worrying decline.

The researchers, with the support of Shell funding, have identified practical interventions and support measures across the landowner community. These include:

  • Providing a call-out service to farmers to address their wildlife concerns.
  • Building of cattle enclosures (bomas) to protect calves.
  • Placement of livestock guarding dogs with a number of farmers to reduce predation levels.
  • Running of workshops with local communities and schools to raise awareness of the importance of wildlife.
  • Conducting snare sweeps to reduce risks to wildlife.
  • Running trials on alternative foods and electric fences to support farmers to reduce risk to their crops from primates.
  • Attending anti-poaching and farm security controls.

Professor Russell Hill, Department of Anthropology, Durham University explains:

“Quite simply, we could not achieve what we do without Shell participants and the community funding we receive.  Our partnership with Earthwatch and Shell has allowed us to appoint dedicated staff to work closely with local communities, with Shell employees assisting with everything from processing camera trap images to practical activities such as snare sweeps and school educational activities.  Long-term engagement is critical in conservation and to the success of our research and it wouldn’t be possible without the support we receive.”

Participant experiences

Agnieszka Pocztowska General Manager for Shell Business Operations and her team on Earthwatch Expedition Conserving Leopards and Monkeys (2017), Lajuma Research Centre, South Africa

In addition to making a direct contribution to scientific research, Shell employees also participate in daily learning sessions to broaden their understanding of key sustainability issues and Shell’s approach. At the end of the expedition, they create action plans on how they will incorporate sustainability into their work and home lives.

Agnieszka Pocztowska, General Manager of Shell Business Operations (SBO) based in Kraków, Poland attended an Earthwatch Expedition in 2017.

Agnieszka says: “The Earthwatch Expedition was a strong reinforcement and motivation to accelerate my thinking of leveraging the power that sits within the SBO Kraków community, when it comes to our external impact in the sustainability space. The people I met in Lajuma, South Africa, are the greatest manifestation that the biggest power often sits with an individual’s effort and motivation to act. With the right leadership support, you can drive that motivation to a new level.”

Since her expedition, Agnieszka has encouraged various SBO Kraków groups involved in different social and environmental topics to join forces and look for synergies to accelerate their collective impact.

“The group got together, brainstormed, discussed and got excited with my proposal of creating one holistic plan which would address various aspects of sustainability in an integrated annual agenda. And, they soon found a name for themselves, “Think4Tomorrow” (T4T). In only a few months, with a lot of passion, dedication and my sponsorship, a set of activities was agreed and consequently deployed. The staff response was amazing, and led to a snowball effect, with new ideas coming in, and more and more people interested in being part of the group.”

Agnieszka continues,

“Today, after 1.5 years since T4T’s inception, over 400 people work on various activities, including annual events in SBO Kraków, which spread across education, community support, wildlife support, and environmental activities. This year we have expanded our thinking, adopting the Circular Thinking concept. This has provided a new angle to the opportunities and our impact.  For example, we joined forces with the City of Kraków on several activities, reinforcing our external engagement as a socially responsible business, and leveraging a higher sense of purpose for everyone involved.”

“As a community of 4000 people and one of the largest employers on the Kraków market, it is important that Shell is effectively driving the impact of the sustainability efforts which are being taken up in SBO Kraków.  We are in a unique position to power the hearts and minds of our young, dynamic workforce, get them involved and engaged for a better future. Through employee engagement, such as the Earthwatch collaboration, we connect our staff to our company purpose, and achieve a real impact on eco-systems we operate in, showcasing our social licence to operate.”

Another key member of the T4T group, Lukasz Krawiec, Acting Leader of a team in the Customer Operation area, joined an expedition in 2018 with a view to developing new skills.

Lukasz said: “The reason I applied was to deepen my influencing skills and improve my effectiveness while working in a diverse group. Being a part of a project, which includes changing local community behaviour helped me become a more influential and effective leader. It was a unique opportunity to see how Earthwatch and Shell can work together to deliver real impact. Field-based science and sustainability learning is a powerful combination that changes perspectives, allows hands-on experience and ultimately transforms behaviour.”

Lukasz has been working with colleagues to drive forward a number of sustainability actions, such as co-creating a programme of sustainability-awareness sessions with Customer Operations staff, holding workshops to create a roadmap to bring in circular economy thinking into Customer Operations and presenting this to over 500 Shell staff.

“The expedition forced me to think more about the impact I can make on people, society and the environment. I started to change my behaviour towards sustainability and take action on responsible business solutions and the choices I make on a daily basis,” added Lukasz.

In attending the expedition, Lukasz realised the importance of engaging communities in sustainability efforts. On his return to Poland, he encouraged his colleagues to join him in the local community to collect waste that was polluting the environment at a nature reservation in Kraków. Together they were able to build relationships with local people and collect half a tonne of waste at a nature reservation close to Kraków.

“Thanks to the engagement in the project,” said Lukasz, “I have improved my influencing, relationship building, and communication skills. Working with the local communities in South Africa also exposed me to a new experience that helped me master my collaboration skills.”

 For more information, head over to our news story


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