Faces of Turtle Conservation: Nafisa Islam

Who: Nafisa Islam

What: Social Media Manager, Creative Conservation Alliance (CCA)

Where: Dhaka, Bangladesh

Nafisa Islam feeds one of the Asian Giant Tortoises (Manouria emys) at the CCA's Turtle Conservation Center. Photo: Scott Trageser

What’s your background?

I completed my Bachelor of Science in Environmental Sciences from Asian University for Women (AUW), Chattogram, Bangladesh. I also had a minor in Development Studies. I was always into wildlife conservation and knew that I wanted to work in this sector. I didn’t get much opportunity to gain experience during my undergrad, but always tried to include and connect wildlife conservation and highlight its importance in whatever courses I took. This helped me explore and gain more knowledge on these issues.

How did you get involved with Creative Conservation Alliance?

I was introduced to CCA when I attended one of their workshops in Lawachara National Park, Sylhet, Bangladesh in 2017. I continued to follow their conservation initiatives after this workshop, as well as kept in touch with Caesar [Rahman] and Scott [Trageser]*. I contacted them and asked if I could contribute to CCA via voluntary work, which I did. Caesar has since played a major role in my academic and professional life, not only as a mentor, but as a friend. He helped me out a lot with my senior thesis. After graduating from AUW, I joined CCA as a Communications Intern, eventually becoming their official Social Media Manager.

What’s your experience thus far working for CCA in a country with a male-dominant society?

I have not faced any problems yet though I have not traveled extensively into the field. So far, working with CCA has been great. The team has created a very inclusive environment where I can feel comfortable being myself and not worry about the problems associated with being a woman in this country. They are highly aware of the problems that female conservationists might face here, and always incorporate these in their plans when conducting workshops so as to create a safe, comfortable, and inclusive environment.

What’s your favorite turtle at the Turtle Conservation Centre (TCC) and why?

Elongated tortoise (Indotestudo elongata). In Bangla they are known as Holud Pahari Kochhop (হলুদ পাহাড়ি কচ্ছপ). I think they are absolutely adorable! They have the cutest little nose.

Can you tell us about the conservation challenges in Bangladesh?

There are multiple conservation challenges working in a developing country like Bangladesh. First and foremost is the country’s current focal problem: eradicating poverty. It is difficult to raise conservation awareness in a country where people do not have access to basic human necessities and are struggling to survive. We cannot expect people, whose main goal is to survive and provide for their families, to think about other species they are living amongst. This is especially important to be mindful of for those of us coming from a privileged background. Some of us have the privilege to be concerned about wildlife. It will seem very condescending of us to go into areas, which are also biodiversity hotspots, and tell local peoples that their traditional lifestyle practices, which they have been performing for generations, are harming wildlife and need to change.

Navigating socioeconomic issues in Bangladesh can be difficult due to the sensitivity of their nature. One of the goals of conservation is to find sustainable approaches that locals can incorporate into their lifestyle such that they can provide for themselves and also conserve wildlife. Convincing people that they can be the change can be a tricky matter, as they may become skeptical (and rightfully so) of our perspectives, and might consider us to be supporters of ecofascism. The change can be created by the locals themselves if they are environmentally conscious and are prepared to take accountability for the creation and implementation of this change. We conservationists can only relay the message of conservation, while helping others find and implement alternate living practices that do not harm wildlife or their habitats.  

What are some of the issues you have faced as a social media manager?

One of the biggest obstacles I’ve faced so far is not being able to travel, stay in an area for a period of time, and express my observations and experiences of that particular area through writing. It is difficult for me to write about conservation work that’s based on field experiences having not yet spent considerable time in the field. People who get those chances can be more creative in their writing when personal experiences and emotions are involved. They can create story-like content that captures the reader’s attention through their relating to the writing. Not yet having these experiences, I have faced difficulty in terms of creativity. I’ve had to find other ways to fill this gap and capture the attention of our followers so that I can successfully relay the message about the importance of our conservation work.

How does being a female conservationist in Bangladesh affect your ability to get firsthand experiences with the conservation work so as to better relay the conservation message?

Unfortunately, females don’t yet have the facilities and comfort zone (in terms of social, security, and health issues) to work in this sector efficiently with minimal challenges. Visiting field sites, especially conservative ones, can be quite nerve-racking as we need to take into account the type of clothes we will be wearing, the security for women in that area, and check and prepare for our menstrual cycle if it falls during our travel. It gets more difficult when the cramps kick in and the hormonal changes make one nauseous. Female conservationists have that extra pressure of planning during travel, especially when their male colleagues are not aware of menstruation-related issues so that they can support them during that time.

A lot of organizations prefer recruiting males as it’s easier to travel with them for longer periods in areas that are still very conservative and don’t like the idea of seeing females working and intermixing with their male colleagues. Many locals are not used to seeing women in leadership positions, let alone perform conservation work. This brings up the matter of security, as fundamentalists might also be present in those areas and create disruptions for the conservation work. The costs related to accommodation also increase when having a female around. To avoid confrontation with these social, financial, health, and security related issues, females are less preferred to perform field work.

While it is understandable that not everyone has the energy and budget to deal with gender-related issues while simultaneously dealing with conservation related issues, as that might hinder their conservation work, we need to start somewhere. We need to facilitate this integration process so as to create more opportunities for potential female conservationists to gain firsthand experiences and contribute their knowledge to this sector.

What’s your most memorable moment working with the turtles at the TCC?

I remember during one of my visits to CCA’s Turtle Conservation Center, we were checking up on the Asian Giant Tortoises (Manouria emys). Scott and Caesar were teasing me and we were laughing about how each of the tortoises was my weight. I was around 42 kg back then, and Asian Giant Tortoises weigh around 37 kg. They challenged me to try and pick one of them up and I did! One of my little moments of pride in my conservation career so far.

*Shahriar ‘Caesar’ Rahman is Chief Executive Officer and Scott Trageser is Director of Creative Conservation Alliance