I’m particularly excited for this month’s showcase as I’m featuring someone I consider a good friend, mentor and all-round conservation inspiration. I first met Stella Diamant in Mozambique in 2018 when I was volunteering for the Marine Megafauna Foundation. Stella set up and runs her own NGO – the Madagascar Whale Shark Project Foundation – and was popping by to find out what MMF and MWSP could learn from each other to boost their conservation impact even further. Stella has built and grown her NGO from scratch, pretty much solo. I could talk for days about what an incredible, resilient and passionate role model she is… but let’s hear from Stella in her own words.
What does The Madagascar Whale Shark Project do?
The Madagascar Whale Shark Project (MWSP) is an NGO that aims to study and protect the whale sharks in Madagascar. We also aim to raise awareness and empower local communities.
Since the project was set up in 2016, we've identified over 400 individual whale sharks. This data has has contributed to the National Plan of Action for Sharks, published several peer-reviewed studies and implemented a code of conduct for the tourism industry. Our aim is to collect data, raise awareness and support sustainable management efforts to better protect whale sharks.
We’ve also initiated a local education programme to empower local youth in Nosy Be and change perceptions about ocean giants and how we can protect them. Our educational activities – Guardians of the Oceans - focuses on developing environmental awareness and creating ocean ambassadors.
I’m also now investing my time to motivate and empower other conservationists to set up their own successful projects.
And can you tell us a little bit about your newest project?
Through running the Madagascar Whale Shark Project, I’ve learned first-hand what it’s like to run a conservation organisation – simply by doing it. When I was getting my NGO off the ground, I wish I’d been able to access information about the discipline and effort it takes to do something different and things you need to consider in order to succeed. I feel we only really hear stories of successes and dreams coming true in conservation – rather than the grit it took to make it.
It’s usually pretty easy to find out about conservation organisations’ successes. But what about the challenges, delays and frustrations? The gritty reality is that dedicating your career to have a positive impact on our planet isn’t all suntans and salty hair.
There are plenty of university courses on how to collect and analyse data, how to become a biologist, let's say. I myself pursued one of these courses to earn good baseline experience as a scientist. But how does one learn how to write a business plan? To manage a team? Or to create content for social media? If we want to succeed, marine conservation needs help, and training. Collaboration and compassion are also so important for the success of the sector, not just the individuals within it.
That’s why I’ve set up a new donation-based Patreon page. This is dedicated to sharing insights into these topics. We give our Patreon subscribers a no bullsh*t deep dive into the behind the scenes of a conservation not-for-profit (not just the exciting Instagram-worthy highlights).
By joining, you’ll be able to support the project’s vital conservation work. In return, we’ll open the doors of our project to share exclusive content, behind-the-scenes snippets and advice that will help you learn and grow as a conservationist.
How did you get to where you are today?
I was born in Brussels and studied as a biologist with a focus on conservation and ecology at the University of Warwick and Imperial College London in the UK.
I was 21 when I first discovered Madagascar. It’s such a wonderful country with an incredible wealth of natural resources and endemic species. I saw my first ever whale shark in Nosy Be, Madagascar, in 2014.
Over the years, I’ve spent time working on various projects around the world (ecological research on birds, mammals and fish species, conservation NGOs, start-up development) to develop my experience in the field.
Then, in 2016, I set up the Madagascar Whale Shark Project. I never would have thought of myself as someone that would set up my own NGO. But I realised there had been regular reports of whale shark sightings but no-one was working to establish population size, trends or how they connect with other regional groups. As I started collaborating with a tourism operator (now our partner), in one season captains collected opportunistic data showing unexpectedly high numbers of whale sharks.
Seeing this gap in research and knowledge around protecting this endangered species in Madagascar, I saw an opportunity to set-up a multi-disciplinary impactful project. So, I started looking into how to set up a project with tourism operators in the region. Initially this started as a small pilot project. It grew very fast. Generally the project has been well received by the majority of operators. Although the introduction of guidelines initially was not so welcomed!
Now, my focus is to further delegate and grow our core team, while motivating other conservationists, particularly women and younger generations, to set up their own projects and have an impact.
What's a typical day like for you?
I know everyone says this but there isn’t one typical day! I usually spend my time between my hometown Brussels, Belgium, and my field site Nosy Be, Madagascar. As you might imagine, my schedule looks very different depending on whether I’m in the field or not.
From September to December, I’m usually in Madagascar working with my team to collect population, behavioural and ecological data on whale sharks. We also take skin samples and deploy tags. We do this while free diving from tourism boats so there is a lot of time spent in and on the water. But there’s also plenty of time spent at the computer too. I monitor, process and analyse the data so it can be published in peer-reviewed journals. I interact with tourism operators and volunteers on a daily basis to share our knowledge on whale sharks.
And then there are all the activities that go into running the charity itself. For example, I work with my team of volunteers to keep the website, social media channels and Patreon page running. I also spend a lot of time finding funding opportunities, preparing grant proposals and meeting with potential donors.
There’s such a wide range of things involved that every day looks different. The one similarity is that most days are long and busy!
What's your favourite marine creature and why?
A whale shark, of course! I love spending time in the water with them. But I also love sea lions, they are the cutest.
Do you think communications is an important part of your conservation work?
Yes, good communication is vital for the success of an organisation. The biological and ecological research we’re doing into endangered species is only one part of the puzzle. For better protections for whale sharks, this data needs to inform management plans, inspire local people and generate donations to help fund our work. For our data to have real impact, we share it with the general public, philanthropists, decision-makers, and most importantly, local communities.
What communications challenges do you face at Madagascar Whale Shark Project?
As a small NGO, we have so much we want to do to protect the ocean. This varies from preparing for the upcoming season, creating social media content and promoting the work we do in the press. This is often on a voluntary basis or outside our day jobs! This kind of expertise isn’t what we scientists train in. I had to learn a lot and get help from specialists (like you Mel). But finding the right people to share their expertise and budget to cover important operational costs can be challenging. We’re working tirelessly to do what we can and are so grateful to everyone that supports us.
What tips do you have for someone who wants to work in the conservation sector?
I’m often contacted by young biologists who have just finished their studies and want some advice or, ideally, a paid opportunity in the sector. There’s often a perception that people can only pursue a career in conservation if they’re a biologist. But things are changing.
I usually recommend people think about what other skills they have (or can gain) that can add value to a conservation project. We need more competent project managers, more communications specialists, more business-oriented approaches to become self-sustainable financially as organisation. You’d be surprised how much varied expertise it takes to run an organisation and make a difference. Realistically, these skills will help us change the world more than learning how to use a statistical programme. The thing is, not everyone is good at coding or modelling, yet struggle in that career path and often give up. We need all hands on board, especially in the fields of business, communication and management!
I launched our Patreon page specifically to help and inspire people who want to work in the conservation sector. Through the platform we’re sharing tips and advice. We're also interviewing people who are succeeding in the conservation sector – particularly if they didn’t follow the typical path. We’re ask for a small donation in exchange so that we can keep creating content and fundraise for the project at the same time.
What unanswered question do you still have about the ocean?
There is so much we’re yet to learn about both whale sharks specifically and the ocean in general. A key one for me: where do whale sharks give birth? We still have no idea.
How can readers support the project?
Join our community on Patreon. By making a regular donation, you’ll be helping to support the project’s vital conservation work while getting access to brilliant insights and exclusive content at the same time! You can also adopt a whale shark, make a donation or come and visit!