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april conway, sierra leone, 2010-2011

Fulbright Year: 2010-2011
Country: Sierra Leone
Proposal Type: Research
Field of Study: Ecology
Proposal Title: Conservation of Pygmy Hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis) in Sierra Leone, West Africa
UGA Graduate Department: Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources
Degree: PhD in Forest Resources
Hometown: Conyers, GA

Of the dozens of University of Georgia students who have taken Fulbright sojourns, April Conway’s experience may stand out as being the most exotic. April is spent her Fulbright year on the remote Tiwai Island in southeastern Sierra Leone in pursuit of the endangered pygmy hippopotamus.

“To study this elusive creature, I put out motion-detecting cameras in the forest to capture them on film,” she says. “Using these photographs and videos, I can describe daily activity patterns, identify preferred habitats, predict where hippos may occur, and determine priority areas for conservation. I have also obtained video footage of pygmy hippos and other rare animals using bait, perfumes, and salt blocks. I have been able to observe interesting behaviors such as African civets and porcupines fighting.

“I also developed techniques for capturing and radio-tagging pygmy hippos in the field, which will hopefully be put into practice next year. Using radio telemetry, we can track pygmy hippos through the forest to find out where they spend their time.”

However, April didn’t spend all her time chasing hippos.

“My study also contained a human aspect, and I interviewed local people to investigate their perspectives on wildlife and Tiwai Island,” she says. “In addition to my research activities, I conducted environmental education lessons in local schools, and spread awareness of pygmy hippos by creating bumper stickers, t-shirts, posters and murals.”

Along with honing her research skills, April says she felt she’s part of a big family in her corner of Sierra Leone.

“My favorite memory was the naming ceremony of my field assistant’s newborn son in May of this year,” she says. “I had bought some clothing for the baby in the local city and when the baby was presented, they told me his name was Leslie Kenewa Koroma. Although Leslie may seem a strange name for an African baby, this is the name of my father, who had visited the year before. They said if the baby had been a girl they would have named her for me, but since it was a boy they wanted to name him for somebody who meant a lot to me so they could remember me when I was gone.

“As the village sang for the naming ceremony, I looked around and found myself surrounded by people who had become my family over the past year. I felt a sense of belonging and community. I felt like I had a second home and family. The people of Kambama became my friends and family and I can never forget them, especially my ‘father,’ little Leslie.”

April says her Fulbright experience has made her a better “people person” and has given her a new perception of the world at large.

“I have learned to work better with people, to maintain patience even when things are difficult, to manage employees, and to try to understand all sides of conflicts before making a decision,” she says. “I believe that I have matured over the past year in a way that I could have not accomplished without the help of the Fulbright experience. I have become a stronger person when dealing with adversity and have come through the experience with a new insight into the world.

“Fulbright has enabled me to interact with hundreds of people who I have gotten to know over the year, and who have gotten to know me as well. I definitely feel like I am more independent, because I had to be self-motivated to make my own plans, as well as deal with my problems and those of my workers that arose in the course of the work. Cultural differences have been a hurdle -- aspects that are important to me in my own culture are not given the same priority in the Sierra Leone culture. Working with my field assistants, we have had to compromise on many things and also try to understand how the others feel in certain situations. I hope this has led to a better understanding for them about American culture.”

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