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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Adjany Costa Exploring and Protecting Angola’s Rivers

Adjany Costa. Photo by James Kydd

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Conservationist and ichthyologist Adjany Costa is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.

When the team of the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project began looking for scientific partners in Angola to help them protect the highland waters that feed the rich Okavango wetlands in Botswana, they couldn’t have done better than finding Adjany. Not only does she serve as an expert on the fish of the rivers and lakes of the system, she serves as assistant director of the project, and the local liaison with the Angolan Ministry of Environment.

Has working on this project changed how you see Angola in any way?
From the first expedition everything changed about how I see my country. Me and everyone I know grew up in a hopeless society, constantly recalling the war times and always blaming them for our lack of ability to plan and act long-term. We are focused on the now and even more on the past, as we were never given the chance to hope for a future. Our culture, personalities, and livelihoods (even the so well known corruption) have been modelled by this “curse” and even newer generations who have never felt the direct hit of civil war live a life shaped by its ghost.

This project has given me the privileged ability to HOPE. It has shown me that we are in a new era, a new phase, a new future—or at least we should be. Working in such a remote hidden paradise has proven to me over and over again that Angola can be great again, and my father’s childhood memories of peace and happiness can be again a reality, for everyone.

Working on this project led to me being considered a lunatic amongst my fellow Angolans—for falling in love with my country and the people in it, and for recognizing its natural potential and international importance in a world focused on accumulating wealth and destroying natural heritage for it, or simply not caring.

I now HOPE, and I now DREAM, and I now BELONG, and most importantly, I now PLAN and I can now FIGHT for causes that go beyond the now.

Has it changed how you think about the other countries in the area?
Most definitely yes. Especially Namibia and Botswana, with whom we share the Okavango basin with. Our political relationship with Namibia has always been fairly good considering the partnership of both countries during the war times. However, from then on, it has never been exactly intimate. I feel that the Okavango basin has the potential to help join forces between these two countries and combine their strengths to help achieve the ultimate goal: save this amazing wilderness. I started seeing Namibia as more than a neighbour country with whom we shared a dark history. Now I see it as a potential partner that we can build a future with.

The case with Botswana is very different though. Botswana can be a teacher for conservation in Angola. It can be the example to use to achieve great deeds in protecting the Okavango, and even other parts of the country. The Okavango Delta once faced the same issues as we did (excessive hunting, no conservation basis, no protection status): the wilderness of the Delta was at risk of disappearing before the government acted. We can be inspired and motivated by these examples that we can relate to. And Botswana will eventually realize (if not already) that it is of their best interest to transfer that knowledge to Angola, as the Delta depends 100% of its sources in Angola.

What’s the most physically challenging thing you’ve had to do on these expeditions?
In general, expeditions are filled with physically demanding chores on a daily basis, from carrying heavy equipment to finding fire wood. However, it is difficult to choose between pulling mekoro (dug-out canoes) filled with heavy equipment (around 350 kg, or 770 lbs.) through mud and grass, and paddling eight hours a day for four months as the most challenging physical things we had to endure.

We have once been able to paddle through 52 km in a day, which was probably the most tiring day for me for the whole expedition (or even of the project!). On the other hand, we once had to pull mekoro canoes through the mud in the delta right after I was stung by a scorpion, which was very difficult to manage.

Adjany Costa and Paul Skelton collect samples of the fish found in the Cuito River of Angola. Photo by James Kydd

What are some of your favorite sounds or smells or tastes or textures when on expedition?
I remember the first time my senses clicked and reacted to the wilderness. We were in the delta and went for a short walk around camp. We set facing an open area with hundreds of animals around. Birds, buffalos, elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, hundreds around everywhere. I closed my eyes when something clicked: I could hear everything at the same time yet be able to distinguish each sound, I could feel the texture of the dirt on my fingers and guessed the baby elephant of the close by herd could feel it too, I could smell the mess that a lonely buffalo hidden in a bush was doing, meters away… I could feel… everything… and understand my surroundings even with my eyes closed. Every sound, taste, smell, texture and colour enhanced and processed… immediately. I felt alive for the first time and I realised I loved all of it… Every sound, taste, smell, texture and colour, the smallest, the weirdest… everything.

So hearing any animal makes me smile: I like how lion roars keep me on my toes at night, elephant purrs make me feel cozy and comfortable, I am entertained by hyenas’ laughters and baboons complaints, hippo grunts compulse me to verbally assure them all is fine and they are being grumpy for no reason (most of the time they are waaay too far to even hear), I even appreciate the noisy frogs that stubbornly sing at your tend’s entrance and keep you from sleeping. In general, insect life when falling asleep and birdlife when waking up just give me a deeper sense of belonging. But my absolute favourite sound is waking up to the sound of fish eagles early in the morning. Sometimes I find myself smiling to it before actually opening my eyes and trying to imitate their sound. They are beautiful and elegant birds and I love them!

The taste and texture of the crystalline waters of the head source lakes in Angola are incomparable! Drinking bottled water (or treated water in general) never felt right since I had the first sip from these rivers. It is as natural, clean and pure as water can be in the wild. The smell of wild sage when we pass through some of the villages along the way instantly brightens my mood.

Ok… I’ll stop now 😅

How do you make the transition from field work to lab or office work? Do you prefer one or the other?
Being in the field is quite addicting to me. Especially in such a wild remote area. It sharpens your senses and changes your views of the world. It reconnects you to yourself and everything around you. It is now home to me and I crave it from the second I have to leave. It is always a struggle to go back to “civilization.”

It always takes me some time to re-adapt to the modern world. I need a few days and sometimes even a few weeks to shut down my senses (everything is too loud, bright, or smelly) and get back to “normal” life.

I also do enjoy lab work though, as the results provide another level of understanding and make me feel closer to my new home. But I am spending more and more time in the field, and I couldn’t be a happier about it.

Checking a fish trap. Photo by Thalefang Charles

Are there benefits to working with a sibling, as you’re doing with your brother Kerllen on these trips?
My expedition partners have through time and shared experiences become my family: a true bush family that I can count on whatever happens. They have made me feel welcomed from day one, when I didn’t even know anyone’s names and had no other girl in the group.

Nevertheless, my brother joining the team has added an extra level of comfort, familiarity and affection that is difficult to top.

Apart from having saved my life a couple of times on expedition, I can count on him to help me without even having to ask for help (physically or emotionally), or even to scold me openly when need be so I can recognize any wrongdoing and improve next time. Having someone around that knows you so well is brilliant in such harsh type of environments, as he becomes a pillar in your daily life and you don’t have to worry as you know that person will have your back unconditionally. Working with my brother has made this experience whole and complete, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What questions has your work been inspiring you to think about? What are the mysteries or next things you want to investigate?
Working with this project has made me open my eyes for the potential of conservation in a country that has never been known to prioritize such topics. Additionally, it has made me realize that through conservation, thousands of people—fellow Angolans—haunted by war memories, can see their livelihoods improved and can finally be compensated for everything they had to go through.

Moreover, these same people are the key to protecting the wildlife and wilderness of these places, as only they have the knowledge and possibility to have a direct positive impact over the ecosystem.

So the question is: how to do so? How can we open the eyes of these land guardians and help them recognize that this massive Miombo forest is a pot of gold bigger than the diamonds and oil they were always convinced to be the salvation? How do we show the decision makers of the country the importance of these communities for protecting and saving the Okavango? What tools can we use to make community conservation a reality, considering the area to be protected is too large for a country with no experience in conservation?

On the other hand, the regional and international aspects of conservation are also something crucial to think about. How do we make transboundary conservation work? African countries are not known for their ability to cooperate with each other, and there have been previous attempts to activate transboundary conservation which never really worked due to different political views and conservation policies. How can we combine all the strengths of different neighbouring countries to compensate for all the lows of each?

Working with this project has also helped me to transfer some of the conservation concepts and hopes to very different realms, such as the ocean. I have always been fascinated by the ocean and for the first time I have the hope, determination, and somehow, experience to explore and help protect marine environments. As a project for my PhD, I’m working to establish the first marine protected area in Angola.

Learn More About the Okavango Wilderness Project

 

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