Stephen Awoyemi's passion for conservation was ignited in the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania in 2002 where he was participating in a field course sponsored by the Tropical Biology Association.
The mountains are a biodiversity hotspot and it was there, engaged in on-the-ground conservation projects and learning about the scale of humanity's impact on the environment, that Stephen realized that conservation is the cause to which he would dedicate his career.
Since then he has "not turned back. Not even once."
Today Stephen is a Miriam Rothschild Scholar at the Conservation Leadership Program (MPhil) at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
In the following Q&A, Stephen, who is from Nigeria, offers advice to conservation biology students on how to make a difference and discusses leadership, the role of religion in conservation biology, and why he is pursuing a Master of Philosophy in conservation.
You are one of the founders of SCB's Religion and Conservation Biology Working Group. Most don't associate religion with conservation.What role does religion play in conservation?
Steven: If you observe trends you will find out that in the last 50 years humanity has increased tremendously in its capacity to self-determine and above all be responsible for its destiny and its planet. Irrespective of the shortfalls, there is a dawning, an awakening in humanity that we can change things, we are in control and therefore responsible.
This consciousness is also spreading across religious communities in different parts of the world. Religions have more strongly emphasized, refined and altered their teachings about conservation in ways that call for changing human behavior toward nature. This is a welcome development. We know that religion drives three behavioral pivots in the human: beliefs, emotions and values. Facts, figures and statistics do little to foster the commitment conservation badly needs. And religion can help us place meaning, value and concern for biodiversity in society where science cannot tread.
Why did you decide to pursue a Masters of Philosophy in Conservation Leadership?
I have always known that conservation is all about leadership. Long before I saw the MPhil in Conservation Leadership Program in Cambridge, I had been studying leadership and management literature for years. I knew this was as far self-help could take me. I needed capacity building of international standards in what I know how to do best. So I seized the opportunity. Thanks to my mentor Phoebe Barnard who encouraged me to apply.
There are people in your program from literally all corners of the world. What have you learned from your classmates and what is it like to participate in group discussions where so many different cultures, experiences, perspectives and approaches are represented?
I have learned even more that there is strength in diversity. From saving octopuses in Madagascar, solving complex policy issues in protected areas in Colombia and protecting snow leopards in India, each classmate affirms the need for courage, persistence, creativity and the passion to make an impact. Each of us is distinct in our views, tackling conservation from the basis of our strengths and peculiarities. This makes a stimulating atmosphere for discussions and team work when we address conservation problems in class.
How is the program shaping your views on the challenges of conserving Earth's biological diversity?
As the program exposes the breadth of conservation problems and the different approaches in addressing these problems, I see even more profoundly the daunting challenge before humanity. Importantly, I see how hard conservation organizations and individuals round the world are working and making a difference. This gives me hope, telling me no matter how little, each individual can make a difference; whether a researcher, practitioner or policy maker.
You talk about the leadership mind to solve conservation problems. What do you see as the key characteristics of a leadership mind?
The leadership mind is a choice. It is not a given. What characterizes the leadership mind are:1. Sustained “initiative” all through one’s life and career not just a flash in the pan demonstration.
On a local scale, what conservation issues in Nigeria are dear to you? What about a continent wide scale?
Wildlife conservation is not considered a priority in Nigeria and many parts of Africa. I see religion as the most apt conduit to reach the hearts and minds of many Africans. The essence would be to enlighten and bring to their consciousness the importance of biodiversity and the African’s role in contributing to save life on Earth from an imminent catastrophe.
What advice do you have to offer to conservation biology students looking to follow their dreams and make a difference in the field?
Defining purpose is central to any aspiration. The conservation biology student must search deeply within him or her to identify their purpose. When this is done, all things, all activities will converge at a point of concentration. There will be less frivolous activity, distraction and waste of opportunity. Purpose will fuel passion and passion in turn will fuel perseverance, creativity and innovation. My friend and teacher Tom Lombardo observes “Although it is important to strive for self-improvement through education and to pursue education to realize professional goals and advancement, these goals are one-sided and self-centered; one should also pursue education so that one can contribute something to the world – to humanity, to something beyond oneself”.