From scholar consultant to Kazakh nature conservation officer

Vera Voronova is the managing director of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) – the only full BirdLife partner in Central Asia. After starting as a student member of the ACBK board in 2009, she became managing director just six years later. Vera received the Conservation Leadership Program's Future Conservationist Award in 2011 for evaluating the effects of power lines on birds in the central Kazakh steppe. The project was so important that its results are still used today to inform about conservation efforts. We recently met with Vera to uncover the story behind her success and dreams for the future of conservation.

What motivated you to work in nature conservation?

It was very natural for me to work in nature conservation. As a kid growing up in a small village in the vast steppes of central Kazakhstan, I always tried to save something, like the mice our cats caught at home and the poor frozen birds I got after a snow storm found (I really thought I could warm them up and bring them back to life). When I was very little, I even tried to keep snowflakes from melting by shaking them off my clothes before we went inside!

From a young age, my mother noticed that I was enjoying biology and being outdoors with my father. She really helped me pursue those interests. Now as an adult, I find that working in nature conservation really suits my personality: I am a very social person and it is very important to me to be useful to society by saving nature.

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What is your proudest achievement from your CLP project?

When I started my CLP project in 2011, bird mortality on power lines in central Kazakhstan was a little known problem in the country at the time, especially in the central region where there are only steppes and no trees. The power lines were used as "trees" by the birds to perch and nest, but very few ornithologists knew how safe they were or how they affected the birds.

In the project, we covered 680 kilometers and examined five different types of power lines. This is still a record for such research in Kazakhstan. We found over 1,000 bird remains of around 40 species, most of which were birds of prey and corvids. Approximately 90% were electrocuted on power lines. I'm really proud of this research because it was really important to understand how the different power lines affect the birds in this region. Since then there have been no other projects like this. It's already nine years later, but we are still using the data we gathered from my CLP project.

Why do you think your CLP project has been so successful?

I think our project was a success mainly because the CLP team and my ACBK colleagues helped me get the research right. They also put me in touch with local and international academics who have really helped me. These people provided me with valuable literature and information, and helped me design the research and analyze the data we had collected.

If you could do your CLP project again, would you do anything differently?

If I could do the project again today, I would take the opportunity to tell as many people as possible about the problem. If you do not make noise in our country, you will not be able to solve serious nature conservation problems. Even after nine years we still cannot completely solve the problem uncovered in our project.

So in retrospect, I should have made a lot more ado about the results we found. I should have met with executives who control the legislation. But I was young, it was one of the first projects I led and maybe I wasn't expecting to find so many birds or get such important results.

How did you come to be the Executive Director of ACBK?

I always smile when I think back to when I first came to ACBK 11 years ago. I was studying for my Masters in Science and was a member of my university's Nature Club, run by ACBK. At the time, most of the ACBK members were students and the board wanted a student representative. In the end I was elected to the board of directors of ACBK and was only 22 years old!

I was on the board for six years and for the last three years I was chairman of the board. This was an amazing experience as ACBK has really improved its governance during this time and I have had a deep experience of this process. I became CEO in 2015 and have since been able to develop the organization, including our internal management system and our strategic vision.

What is it like to be the CEO of a conservation organization?

It is really exciting! At the beginning of my career, I was interested in many different things, including ecotourism and scientific research, so it was very difficult for me to decide which of these interests to pursue. Now I am involved in many different aspects of managing ACBK and our various conservation projects every day so the role really satisfies my curious, social character.

ACBK is only 16 years old and we are still in the development phase. Last year we developed a new strategy, so we are currently moving in a new direction. One of my main responsibilities right now is to help the team move in this new direction and strengthen the existing directions that we have. As the only full-fledged BirdLife partner in Central Asia, we see ourselves in the process of expanding our work in cooperation with neighboring countries.

The ACBK team with Vera Voronova in the middle (in the orange coat) © Renat Eskazyuly

Are you currently facing difficulties?

Conservation is not a very popular profession in Kazakhstan, so it can be very difficult to find really motivated professionals in our field. The situation is getting better, however, as students go abroad to study in Europe and the US and then return to help solve conservation issues in Kazakhstan.

We also find it difficult to involve people in our work and to spread our messages more widely to society. The government here doesn't have very strict wildlife protection policies, so advocating change can be difficult.

For example, I was recently involved in the global community's discussion on the post-2020 biodiversity framework under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Even though Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, it does not yet have a biodiversity strategy in line with CBD. Without an existing strategy, it is extremely difficult to develop a new one.

How did you benefit from the CLP training course you attended in 2011?

The CLP Conservation Management and Leadership Course in Canada was the best of the best training I have ever attended. I keep saying this because it's really true! Now, when I close my eyes and imagine the CLP training module on advocacy, I really remember what they said to us. All of the knowledge I learned from the course just got stuck in my brain and I keep referring to it now, nine years later.

The courses I took in Kazakhstan were usually about conducting research, not project management. Therefore, the CLP training really closed this knowledge gap for me. We learned the theory in the course and were then able to put it into practice in our projects.

How did it affect you to be part of the CLP Alumni Network?

CLP came to me at the right moment. I previously worked in an ecological tourism agency, but after a few years I realized that the agency was more focused on tourism than ecology. It was then that I realized I wanted to focus on nature conservation. At the same time, CLP announced the call for applications and my good friend suggested that I apply. It was the first independent project I led and designed (with the help of my colleagues) – so it was really the first step in my career as a conservationist. Through this connection with other young conservationists, I realized that I am not alone in my work, which really motivated me.

What advice would you give conservationists just starting their careers?

When you are young you have a lot of time and energy. Hence, it is very important to take this opportunity to get involved in many different things. It will help you find your path in life. You never know what could happen! Be curious, find out what you like and what you don't, and go from there.

What are your future plans?

I have no specific ambitions. It is just very important to me to be useful to society. Although I still have a dream to continue my research on pendulum tits (in the Remizidae family) that I studied in my Bachelor and Master studies. They are fascinating birds and there is still some confusion about their taxonomy so I really would love to do a PhD project on them one day.

I really hope that the majority of people – not just conservationists – will begin to understand our connection with nature in the future. I think the pandemic and the current situation we are in naturally push people to this understanding. I hope this will change the focus of everything we do in our daily lives so that we can influence global politics to bring about lasting change.

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