From working with hedgehogs to Amazonian river dolphins – Saadia switches UK for South American adventure

News Page 12th January 2018

A University of Northampton graduate has gone from working with Leicestershire’s hedgehogs to helping the bid to halt the decline of Amazonian river dolphins.

Saadia Khan recently returned from a two-month expedition in Peru, where she led dolphin surveys for environmental research organisation Operation Wallacea, as its river dolphin biologist.

Scroll down to watch a video of her adventures

During the surveys, she taught students and research assistants how to record the distribution and behaviour of pink and grey Amazonian river dolphins.

Climate change is thought to be impacting the dolphin numbers in the Amazon basin, and the research is helping to investigate this link.

After the expedition came to an end, Saadia led surveys for international environmental charities, before assisting a Japanese film crew which was making a documentary about the dolphins.

“My time spent in the Amazon rainforest working has helped me in developing a keen interest in tropical mammal ecology with a more informed understanding of the importance of conservation work worldwide,” said Saadia, who graduated from the Wildlife Conservation course in 2016.

“The students I worked with typically had little knowledge of tropical wildlife, rainforests survey techniques and how conservation can be linked to sustainable development. I received a great deal of satisfaction from motivating and inspiring young people to engage with wildlife conservation and the task of enhancing their enthusiasm for the natural world.”

While working in the Amazon was an amazing experience for Saadia, she has sound advice for anyone looking to join an expedition.

She said: “Working overseas can seem glamourous but there are equally stressful times that can push you to your absolute limits. Expeditions can result in very basic accommodation in a very arduous environment in remote locations with limited resources. Fieldwork is often completed under intense unforgiving conditions and it can take real determination in collecting research in a hostile environment.

“My advice would be to take part in an expedition but to tailor it specifically to your needs and see how it works for you. Choose a country that suits you and the time frame that you’re comfortable with. Most importantly, pick the subject matter that really matters to you. Whether that be terrestrial or aquatic, fauna or flora – because ultimately, it’s what you’re collecting research on that will really lift your spirits through the difficult times.

“Being surrounded by all types of people from all around the world with different backgrounds who harvest the same passion and interests as you is a beautiful thing. It’s something you really have to experience for yourself so please never hesitate to take part in a once in a lifetime opportunity. If you’re worried about anything, ask your university for advice – that’s what they’re there for and the staff at Northampton certainly helped me.”

It was during her time at the University that Saadia’s gained an interest in river dolphin research.

She attended a lecture by Operation Wallacea at Avenue Campus and decided she wanted to complete her dissertation study with the organisation. With support from the University, she joined an expedition to the Amazon in 2015 to compete research on the animals.

Saadia said: “My first time in Peru involved working with ecologists, scientists, academics, and postgraduate researchers that specialised in various wildlife and projects. I worked very hard to learn as much as I could in a short window of time, which allowed me to lead unsupervised dolphin surveys within a couple of weeks. The hard work and determination paid off as I was successful in gaining work with Operation Wallace back in Peru last year.”

Now back in the UK, Saadia is looking forward to the next chapter of her career.

She said: “This line of work has afforded me with spontaneity and I love it. I went from working with hedgehogs in Leicestershire to river dolphins in Peru. I have no idea what the future holds but I will absolutely keep the university updated. Watch this space!”

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