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Exclusive interview with David Youldon - get the inside scoop on the new Lion Country Documentary
Read an exclusive interview with British conservationist, David Youldon about his role in the incredible Lion Country documentary series, and how volunteering dramatically altered the course of his life.
By: Sarah Graham
So what inspired David Youldon to up-sticks and leave his comfy life in the UK? Have you ever had the same urge and thought you were mad and just left it at that? Here are David's thoughts on not leaving it at that, and the road he's traveled since starting out as a volunteer with African Impact back in 2004...
Read on for more on David Youldon's exclusive interview with African Impact co-founder Sarah Graham
"Having first met David Youldon at home on our wildlife reserve Antelope Park in Zimbabwe when I started out as one of the founders of African Impact in 2005, and having been continuously inspired by his passion and dedication to our lion conservation project ever since, it was really exciting to re-visit the last few years with him in this interview. I remember back in 2005 when Dave said to us 'You'd be stupid not to hire me to work on this full time' and how taken aback I was at the time! And now, looking back, he was absolutely right...!
Sarah: Ok, so let's set the scene... it's circa 2004 and what are you thinking Dave? Why choose volunteering as your next travel option?
David: Having worked in the travel industry for many years I had already travelled a great deal of the world either with a group, on my own or with friends. So what I was looking for was something that allowed me to stay in one place for a longer period of time; to start to feel part of the community in the place that I was travelling to. I wanted to achieve more out of my travels than purely observing, I wanted to become involved; to give something back. Volunteering offered that type of travel experience.
Sarah: Ok so you decided you wanted to volunteer, so how did you decide which route to go?
David: The other aspect of a volunteer placement for me was to have a chance, to some extent, to experience what is was like to be in a conservation job; a job I had always considered that I had wanted but was not sure whether the idea in my head matched with the actual reality. So volunteering gave me a chance to actually experience what it might be like to work in the conservation industry full time, and guess what, it is not nearly as glamorous as most people would think, but again, it was right for me.
Sarah: So you did your homework on the various options, and where did your first volunteer experience take you?
David: My first experience was a cheetah research program in Namibia. I loved it. It didn't even matter that the chances of actually seeing a cheetah were remote, just the joy of waking up to the sights and sounds of Africa; a continent that had captivated me ever since my parents first showed me wildlife documentaries or took me to see the animals of Africa in our local zoo. I was in fact very lucky on cheetah sightings, and was able to assist in capturing, darting and collaring some.
Sarah: And then back to the grind of daily life... That's always the real test, could you settle back in or did you just not fit anymore?
David: On my return to the UK I was determined to find a way to build a career in conservation, but of course that is not easily done, especially as I had no scientific background. So I decided to put myself through a number of volunteering programs to try and build experience that might help me get a job. I did a conservation management course and worked on elephant research programs amongst others. I had wanted to concentrate on big cats being a cat lover my whole life, but this seemed impossible at the time.
Then I got an email from a friend telling me about the African Impact lion volunteer program in Zimbabwe and I booked on to the program immediately, that was in 2004. http://www.africanimpact.com/
Sarah: So you found yourself at a controversial program in my very-controversial homeland, Zimbabwe...
David: When I was told the project was in Zimbabwe it did not concern me in the slightest. I had already been to Zimbabwe once before and found a very welcoming people and a beautiful landscape, so I was simply glad to have the opportunity to return.
On arrival at Antelope Park I met a group of wonderful individuals, all passionate about what they were doing; and they welcomed the volunteers (there were seven of us) with open arms, typical of the warmness I have found in the Zimbabwean people. Every day on this beautiful reserve was simply incredible; whether it was taking 6 month old lions for a walk or clearing up endless piles of poo; it was all great.
Sarah: At this stage you thought you'd found your calling. It must have seemed like an enormous chasm for you to cross over from what you knew you wanted, to making it a viable reality for yourself...
Dave: Yes, after a very short time I decided that lion conservation was the future for me, but how? My skills were in logistical planning and operations, not research and veterinary science. But I had a revelation. Most people think that a passion for animals is what they need to work in conservation. That is just one very small element, a given. Conservation organizations need to employ people with a range of skills, exactly as any industry does. A travel company needs guides who are flitting around the world all the time, but they also need accountants and admin staff and a host of other people. So I thought about what skills I had to offer and enquired about how my skills might fit in with what the project needed. And there was a fit, and an opportunity, so I started by running the volunteer program - organizing their day, arranging vehicles and making sure the volunteers were teamed up with their guides and lion handlers. And whilst doing that I studied as hard as I could to learn as much as possible about lions as a species. I have a huge amount more knowledge to gain, but that could not be more enjoyable.
Sarah: And so you made it to the other side. Crossed the proverbial chasm to a viable reality, and where has the road taken you?
Dave: Now I have risen to the lofty title of Chief Operating Officer for African Impact's partner charity the African Lion & Environmental Research Trust. But I am still using the core skills I started with.
What gets me up in the morning? That's easy to answer; it's the same thing that has inspired me since the first time I ever saw it with my own eyes. The sight of an African sunrise lifts my spirit every day. I can't explain properly why, but that globe of light signals new opportunities, the potential for new ideas and new hope every day. Is that pretentious?
Sarah: And what would you say to anyone thinking about signing up for a volunteer experience?
David: I would highly recommend the volunteer experience. There are so many things you can do these days across the world. The memories I have of my volunteer days with African Impact, and elsewhere, will never leave me, but it is the knowledge that I made a difference on those projects, to those animals, for those people; that is what I hold close each day.
CATCH EPISODE 4 OF LION COUNTRY ON ITV1 IN THE UK – WEDNESDAY 24th March @ 7.30PM
See more information on the series at http://www.itv.com/
INTERESTED IN VOLUNTEERING?
Visit the lion rehabilitation project at Antelope Park, or in Livingstone Zambia as featured in the documentary series - email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
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African Impact is the largest facilitator of responsible volunteer projects in Southern and East Africa. In 2009 we were nominated as finalists in the World Travel Awards, and are continuously striving to improve the nature of our work in Africa.