Teri Allendorf applied for the Peace Corps in the early 1990s with an eye toward East Africa, where she was hoping to use her knowledge of Swahili. But when the program gave her a list of four possible destinations, none were in her desired location. Instead, she chose Nepal. And that decision has shaped her entire career, one she has spent forging partnerships between conservationists and local communities.
“Peace Corps experiences are different,” says Allendorf, a conservation biologist and assistant scientist in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. “You can spend two years there and still wonder what you accomplished. I wanted to go back and learn more. And that’s what got me interested in looking at people.”
After finishing her work in the Peace Corps, Allendorf enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, where she studied local community perceptions of different types of protected areas in Nepal. Since that time, her work with communities across the globe has expanded.
In Chitwan, Nepal, Allendorf, along with the late renowned primatologist Rob Horwich, established a project to manage and monitor Bengal tigers through a Wisconsin organization called Community Conservation (which Horwich founded). Allendorf continues this kind of work today in southeastern Nepal in a project designed to protect wildlife by creating safe animal-use corridors. The aim is to link populations of tigers and elephants from Nepal to India and empower communities to network to create conserved landscapes.
Allendorf also acts as a consultant for projects in other countries, such as Mozambique. She has worked in China, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Namibia, Tanzania, Guyana, and elsewhere.
“The point of my work, no matter where or which project, has always been to make biologists and ecologists do better with humans,” explains Allendorf. “Social scientists would never claim me, since my degree is in conservation biology, but my whole focus is trying to make biologists think about humans and how they can collaborate with communities to conserve biodiversity.”
One of Allendorf’s priorities is involving more women in community conservation work. She views Nepal as a model for female involvement — its government recommends and aspires to achieve 50% representation of women in all groups. While not all groups reach that milestone, the precedent is set, and it helps communities strive for it.
Allendorf recently took that directive to a project in Sarawak, Malaysia, spearheaded by graduate student Olivia Cosby. The project is an international collaboration between the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, where Cosby is a student fellow, and the Sarawak Forestry Corporation. Cosby has been doing camera trapping — capturing photographs of animals using remotely activated trail cameras — in the Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary for the last three years, and she’s made it a goal to include the community in her efforts. Allendorf and Cosby found that the Malaysian women were more than willing to join in. During the latest trip, they held a training session for the women. They wondered why they hadn’t been asked to be involved sooner, Allendorf says.
“Teri’s advice and oversight have been invaluable,” says Cosby, a master’s student who works in the lab of wildlife ecology professor Timothy Van Deelen. “Much of her time on our last trip was spent talking with the community, particularly the women. She also taught me and two staff members of the Sarawak Forestry Corporation her approach to working with local communities. We spent time gathering information to develop a long-term community wildlife monitoring program that emphasizes peer mentorship.”
Whether in Malaysia, Nepal, or elsewhere, Allendorf finds that local communities are interested in conservation efforts, and that keeps her passionate about her work. Locals are concerned about their crops and livelihoods, but they also understand that the landscape is theirs, and they want to conserve it.
In Nepal, over 19,000 community forest user groups composed of more than 1 million households participate in forest resources management. Given shared interests with those groups, Allendorf offers them technical training in areas such as wildlife monitoring and preservation. She believes that community management and input will propel countries forward in their conservation efforts.
“The story tends to say that local people don’t like protected areas because it takes away their rights and their resources,” Allendorf says. “But in reality, we see that, when you ask them, they appreciate many, many benefits from those areas. If you look at Nepal, they have accomplished so much in 50 years. So I have this dream that new generations will be actively involved in sustainable forest and wildlife management in Nepal — and beyond.”This article was posted in Economic and Community Development, Fall 2020, Field Notes, Health and Wellness, Healthy Ecosystems and tagged biodiversity, communities, Conservation, Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Malaysia, Nepal, Olivia Cosby, Peace corps, Rob Horwich, Teri Allendorf, Timothy Van Deelen.