“What drives me is a passion to conserve the environment
so that we can ensure a better future for our next generation”: Zaineb Akbarally
Interview By Sara Pathirana & Varsha Sekaram, Written By Sara Pathirana
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Zaineb Akbarally
Illustration by Eshana Rajaratnam- email@example.com
Zaineb Akbarally is an Environmental Scientist, Conservationist & Educator. She is one of those young women, who had a childhood dream come true and can be regarded as a true advocate and an amazing role model for those who find that they have a passion towards conservation and environmentalism. She reminisced about a fulfilling childhood and one that truly helped shape her working life and brought her to where she is today.
Zaineb was born in May 1994 and attended the Colombo International School. Growing up, a highlight from her childhood was the many jungle trips that she was exposed to with her father.. For her, observing what was around her, and the outdoors was second nature and at times, her obliviousness to what was happening inside her classroom startled her teachers and parents.
She loved all the things outside her home and would explore her garden, showing a sense of heightened curiosity towards the fauna found within her garden. This fascination for animals eventually grew and even at a young age, she would disclose to teachers, about her wish to one day study animals. Moving forward, and with time, she still held onto that dream, even when she had to propel her attention to studying politics and international relations at the University of Kent, a choice she made in a bid to direct herself towards a more ‘realistic’ career path.
However, apart from the significance of having gained a degree in those fields, she went on to complete an MSc in Environment and Development from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and this enabled her with the opportunity to quickly embark on an internship in this field. Here, she had the chance to delve straight into fieldwork, in a position based in Kenya with Save the Elephants — a UK registered charity.
As an Environmental Scientist, she has experience working on a number of scientific-oriented projects. She attributes the training she has had to gaining an understanding of the world and world affairs — including policy and governance, which are all very important elements as many of the challenges witnessed and the battles being fought today for conservation are very much related to these concepts.
Zaineb is also the perfect role model for youth who are beginning to explore their passion in this area and have a strong urge to make a visible difference in the world, especially when it comes to conservation in Sri Lanka. As a young, ambitious woman, she has never held back or let resistance get in her way and has simply moved forward with a deep belief in her dreams and an effortless love for the environment around her. She continues to share that message with youth who find her via digital media and reach out to her.
She regards human development as a priority and the one entity that requires imperative progress through consistent awareness. She believes that if the country aims to succeed in conservation, the aspect of human development must be prioritized as without it we can never be able to gain any success from these efforts. Thus, her work is also targeted towards trying to find that balance and middle ground.
When posed with the question of what drives her work, Zaineb shared, “It is simply passion. That’s what it is. It is the passion to conserve and I think at its core, the most important thing is that we are ensuring a better future for our children and future generations. That’s what drives me because I think that development needs to be sustainable.”
What further drives her forward, as someone who is working in conservation, also has to do with the outdoors. “I just love the outdoors,” she quips. At one moment, during the interview, she catches sight of a gecko on the wall next to her and points at it excitedly. For any average person, not many go about doing that or realizing the amount of creatures we have around us, inside our own homes, protected within our walls. But she truly loves all living beings and is focused and determined to do something to ensure they are preserved.
She likes to mix up her work, enjoy the spontaneity of it all and connect with people from all walks of life, from all around the country. She finds being out in the field rewarding and exciting; each day a different experience. “I have had so many wonderful experiences,” she says, whilst pondering about what story to relay to us. There are moments she holds precious — simple ones like having a simple plain tea and sitting down for a chat with a farmer during fieldwork in Wasgamuwa.
Zaineb engaged in fieldwork in Wasgamuwa and worked on the Elephants and Bees Project. In that role, which was a research-cum-trial project, the team were working on testing out a hypothesis of whether bees would scare away elephants by way of erecting beehive fences along perimeters which would keep elephants away from humans. The aim was to test out this experiment, which was deemed successful in Africa with an 80% success rate, at keeping elephants away from those perimeters. However, it was not a success here in Sri Lanka due to the difference of species in bees and the elephants. African honey bees and Asiatic honey bees being two different species, this too affects their behaviours and level of aggressiveness completely.
When it comes to facing challenges on the field, Zaineb stated, “It is always a challenge to be working out there in the outdoors and to drive a project on the ground.” Being a young girl makes it even more challenging, when you have to be in a completely remote and new location, living there for days on end at times and overseeing this type of work. Amongst other bigger challenges, dealing with bureaucracy and administration is an unfavourable aspect of her job, says Zaineb. “That’s what I find challenging and not exactly a favourite part of the work I do. I love to go out there, get down and be hands on with my work. Any project has elements of administration and fund-raising aspects, which is also another challenge.”
“Gathering funds is another area we work very hard on,” she adds. Sometimes, preparing one proposal with the hope of grabbing the attention of an interested donor takes around 10 days of work, and if she writes five proposals, chances are that only one might get selected or pass through to donors. “Sadly though, our futures literally depend on the state of our environment. We are seeing it right now and at this point of time with Covid-19. Funds from donors, businesses and corporations do not seem to be funnelled into the right direction or move towards covering projects that need to be implemented. So, funding is also one of our biggest obstacles when we need to implement a project and be able to achieve what we want.”
Zaineb is a bold, adventurous, curious, driven and passionate woman, who has never felt restricted in any way, and feels that her outlook as a woman has never hindered her work ethic and approach to how she does things. Through her volunteer work with the WNPS Youth Wing, she travels the length and breadth of the island, visiting schools and helping them set up Environment Societies. Through this, she is inspiring children and youth to comprehend the importance of conservation and sustainability and is working to find ways to protect our country’s natural resources.
(Sara Pathirana is a Freelance Journalist, Content Creator and Researcher. She has been active in the media sector for over 9 years. She is currently involved in projects pertaining to mobile journalism, pluralism, tourism entrepreneurship and podcasting).
(Varsha Sekaram is an architect currently working with a firm based in Sri Lanka. Alongside her work as an architect, Varsha works with Everystory Sri Lanka as a Curator for their work documenting and visually interpreting the stories of girls’ resistance and activism in South Asia. Varsha’s avid interest in the great outdoors and all things design related has also fuelled a deep relationship with gem and jewellery design which she believes lies at the intersection of design and nature)
Reference Links and Further Reading
Articles by Zaineb
“I want to be a hero and save the elephants”, Elephants and Bees — Save The Elephants, 11th October 2016, https://elephantsandbees.com/i-want-to-be-a-hero-and-save-the-elephants/
An update from the field in Wasgamuwa, Sri Lanka!, Elephants and Bees — Save The Elephants, 8th May 2017, https://elephantsandbees.com/an-update-from-the-field-in-wasgamuwa-sri-lanka/
Zaineb Akberally, ResearchGate (Profile), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Zaineb-Akbarally
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