Conservationist and ichthyologist Adjany Costa is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. 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.
These are excerpts from her interview with National Geographic.
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.
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? 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.