By Erum Noor Muzaffar
Tue, 08, 20

In an exclusive interview with You! Khan talks about her work and passion for preserving wildlife species…

woman @ work

Uzma Khan has been working with WWF - Pakistan since 1998. She started her career as the first zoo education officer for any zoo in Pakistan and led the Lahore Zoo education Programme, and initiated many new ventures for example animals adoption programmes, enrichment, touch tables, etc. She later led the conservation of Indus river dolphin and became more involved in conservation other endangered species, for example, Gyps vultures, leopards, while working on many aspects: research, field conservation, conservation strategies and addressing various issues livelihoods, conflict of wildlife with communities, habitat restoration, illegal wildlife trade, etc. She served as Director Species from 2010 - 2016 and later moved to a position in the WWF Network to manage the ‘Global River Dolphin Rivers Initiative’ Asian region. She has written the global river dolphin strategy and has published numerous papers on species. She has a Ph.D. in Animal Behaviour from the University of Siena, Italy, Master in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, University of Edinburgh, Postgraduate Diploma in Endangered Species Management from the University of Kent/Durrell Conservation Trust, UK and Master in Zoology, Punjab University. In an exclusive interview with You! Khan talks about her work and passion for preserving wildlife species…

You! Were you an animal lover since your childhood?

Uzma Khan: Yes, as long as I remember. I used to collect frogs in buckets, make ladybirds habitat in jars and would put soil and ants in bottles to see how they make their burrows. I am lucky that my love and passion became my professional career.

You! What motivated you towards joining this occupation?

UK: When I joined it was purely because I was interested in wildlife. Becoming the first zoo education officer at Lahore zoo was all I could dream of as it meant becoming close to animals. I made friends with the chimpanzees; Romeo and Julie and Suzi, the elephant. Romeo would groom my hair, would show his moods if I would not greet him first. These are exceptional experiences. Both Romeo and Julie passed away much before they should have. I have witnessed dolphins die in front of me, while I felt helpless. These are hurtful memories but at the same time these drive me to work harder.

You! Did your family support you to join this profession?

UK: My parents were exceptional, very encouraging, never stopped me from pursuing anything. I remember my mother used to say that I could do anything in life. My father was the most unconventional man and a feminist, supported my aspirations to study abroad, follow a profession which was unique, especially 20 years ago. I am lucky to have married a person who shares the same attributes; I got married while I was doing my PhD research. My husband continued to be a strength and converted a room of our house into a lab where I had my microscope and leopard scats samples, with a distinct smell!

You! What skills are most important for this field?

UK: Patience. If you are researching, conserving or dealing with communities, everything requires a lot of patience and gradually you will see results.

You! What are your current areas of focus?

UK: I manage the Asian region for the ‘River Dolphin Rivers Initiative’, a global priority conservation initiative to save the only five river dolphins species found in the world. Asia has three species in seven countries. Besides, this I am also involved with national wildlife conservation at a more strategic level and still in touch with zoos.

You! What made you interested in joining WWF?

UK: WWF was my dream, when I graduated, I always wanted to work for WWF and was looking for an appropriate opportunity.

You! What is your specialised field?

UK: I specialised in endangered species management and have been working for the conservation of endangered species throughout my career.

I have worked directly with river dolphins, vultures, leopards and I am involved in protected areas management, developing wildlife strategies, supporting improvements in zoo standards etc.

You! What is the most interesting aspect of your work?

UK: Exploring new places, learning about new species and their relationship with communities. I am constantly learning.

You! Being a woman, what kind of challenges do you encounter in your specific field?

UK: It is a male-dominated field. A woman can get some unwelcomed attention and at times you feel that people are not taking you seriously and as a woman you have to constantly proof yourself but those were initial years and once you establish yourself as a committed professional, you get respect and authority.

You! What drove you to write global river dolphin strategy? What’s the idea behind it?

UK: WWF and many other organizations have been working for the conservation of river dolphins for decades, however, with the exception of the Indus dolphin, populations of all river dolphins are declining which means that we need to act together and begin a global movement for river dolphins through an agreed strategy to stop this trajectory of population decline and build governments, communities and businesses ownership. That was the reason behind developing a global river dolphin strategy.

You! What are your other activities?

UK: I spend a lot of time with my kid. I have started experimented with different types of cuisine. Go for a walk near BRB canal for some bird watching. I sometimes write articles.

You! What do you think are the main issues being faced by Pakistani women today?

UK: Pakistan is a diverse country so women also face diversity in issues, where progressive cites provide options and choices to women, the same is lacking in remote areas because the lens through which a woman’s role in society is viewed is narrow and there is a lack of opportunities.

You! Do you think that our society has sympathy for animals – be it land or sea?

UK: I feel it’s getting better gradually, and social media platforms have given people a platform to voice their concerns, however, still I think many hunters are unethical. Illegal wildlife trade remains a challenge because there are still buyers of animal parts here.

You! What advice you can give to aspiring women who want to join this field?

UK: Believe in yourself. Nature has created women as strong, resilient being so why do we keep doubting ourselves? This field is the most rewarding profession, each day you feel you have done something good which is a great feeling.

You! What does a typical day look like for you?

UK: We are in an unusual situation these days, where my day begins with the online classes of my child. I have numerous virtual meetings and writing to do which is interspersed with cooking and cleaning - something Covid has taught me.

You! How do you keep balance between family life and work?

UK: It can be difficult at times but as you know that research shows that women are better at multitasking so I manage. I keep my family involved too, my husband and child accompany me on work trips, my kid goes with me to my field trips. WWF is a family and a very accommodating organisation. There is more acceptance now that family and work are both part of life and are not mutually exclusive.

You! How do you unwind?

UK: Late night walk with my dog, watch a movie.

You! Where would you like to see yourself in next 5 years?

UK: Once a panda, always a panda, I will always be doing something to help animals. That’s how I have always been.

You! Anything important that you would like to share with our readers?

UK: Working with nature is a very gratifying and humbling experience and nature conservation equates to our own sustainability. I have experienced extraordinary encounters with wildlife which influenced me deeply to help wildlife and I always feel I need to do more. I once found a leopard in Nathaigali, fallen from a cliff into a ditch with countless gunshots on his legs and broken spine, we pulled it and tried to treat it but eventually had to take the tough decision of euthanising it.

Once during a postmortem of an Indus dolphin, I found only parasites in its stomach and no food remains, it had probably died of starvation in small pool it was stuck in. It makes you think how destruction of habitat is impacting wild animals, and these are usually animals that lose. There are numerous sad stories like these but we all need to be conservationists to change things. The choices we make today have long term consequences and we have very little time to save the planet from disasters.