Bringing Your Own Chair

Local conservationist Gabriela Fleury named to Forbes 30 under 30 list 

By Pam Kamphuis and Amber Pointer-Ayala

Gabriela Fleury has always lived according to the Shirley Chisholm quote: “If they’re not going to offer you a seat at the table, you have to bring your own chair.” This inspiration has propelled Gabi from a three-year-old lion lover and pediatric cancer survivor to a leading scientist in the field of environmental conservation. Currently a Conservation Programs Officer at local conservation nonprofit Rainforest Trust, Gabi was one of three conservationists named in the science category of the prestigious Forbes 30 under 30 list for 2021 for work done in human/wildlife conflict in Africa.

Warrenton Lifestyle was able to sit down with Gabi and hear all about the adventures that led to the honor.  

How long have you lived in Fauquier County? What do you like about it? 

I’ve lived in Fauquier since late 2018, and it’s a great place to live! I like the small-town feel, and the fact that everyone is so friendly here, and you can be close to nature. I like to walk my Labrador Churchill up Culpeper Street.  

When and why did you decide to become a conservationist?

It’s all I ever wanted to do. When I was three, I had a cookie tin I labeled “Gabi’s Africa Fund”. All my allowance and spare coins went in there. When I was little, I was further inspired when I went to Franklin Park Zoo in Boston on a “behind the scenes” tour and saw my first lion up close in their holding area behind the exhibit, and let me tell you – their roar up close is no joke. You can literally feel your teeth rattle. When I got older, I kept at it, and nothing could get in my way or vision. I really feel like this is a way to make a difference in the world. However, I won’t pretend the conservation field isn’t very difficult to break into. You really have to be a little obsessed. Barriers are high – especially financial ones.

How did you get to where you are today?

When I was growing up, my father was a gemologist, and my mother was an opera director, so I was a bit of an “opera brat, moving all over the States.” We lived in places like Alaska, Miami, Boston, and Virginia. My father is Brazilian, so I also have a close connection to that part of the world. I got my undergrad degree in Geographic Science from James Madison University. After that, I was lucky enough to receive a full ride Ambassadorial Scholarship from Rotary International to get my master’s in conservation biology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. I moved there by myself when I just turned 23. The graduate program was an accelerated program for 13 months, 7 months of class work, and 6 months to complete my research and dissertation work. The scholarship paid for living expenses, travel, and tuition and I wouldn’t have been able to get my master’s without it. 

What was living in Africa like for you? 

Depends what country I was working in. Overall, I tend to work in semi-arid ecosystems, so not dusty, but fairly dry, hot (in the 90s most days), with lots of acacias, grasses, etc, but in the rainy season it can get really green and beautiful. As far as living quarters, they were pretty variable, from a little cinderblock house in Namibia, to tents when I was doing fieldwork, to an old clinic building when I was doing my work in Kenya, which was a little rough. I ended up naming the cockroach that hung out in my room a lot (Mr. Samsa, after Kafka’s Metamorphosis). Admittedly, there might have been more than one, but it was nice pretending I had just the one as a pet. 

What is your concentration in the field? 

My concentration is human/wildlife conflict. The problem for farmers is wildlife going after resources humans need, like livestock or crops. It’s a huge blow to a farmer to lose their maize (corn) or prize cattle to a hungry elephant or lion. Sometimes, farmers try to stop the wildlife by killing them, which, although an understandable reaction, can have major impacts on endangered wildlife populations. So, it’s a balancing act between making sure both humans and wildlife can coexist in the same space.

So how do you deter the wildlife from going after the livestock? 

We’ve tested out several deterrents. One was called an e-shepherd collar which goes around the neck of the livestock, like a goat or a sheep, and it has a device that emits a high-pitched obnoxious noise that will ideally prevent predators from attacking livestock. We also tested something called the foxlight system, which is a motion-activated light which ideally scares away predators from livestock enclosures. 

What studies have you done? 

My first study, in Amboseli, Kenya, was about lion and livestock conflict. The Maasai tribe that live there are herders, and I looked into different factors behind carnivores eating their livestock. In my career so far, I’ve studied all different types of carnivores and their interactions with farmers and livestock, you name it – black-backed jackals, African wild dogs, caracals, brown and spotted hyenas, cheetahs, leopards and lions. I’ve worked in South Africa, Namibia and Kenya, and also collaborated with a project in Mozambique. So, I concentrated on Eastern and Southern Africa. I’m expecting to focus mainly on African conservation for the rest of my career, but we’ll see!

What was receiving the Forbes honor like? 

A huge surprise! They don’t tell you that you receive it until you check the list, so I checked the list and there I was!

Also, you mentioned receiving dozens of requests to be interviewed. Is it about your work, or who you are as a person?

Both! I think it’s a mix. I’m interviewed for my human-wildlife conflict mitigation work, but also for my advocacy work as a Black, nonbinary scientist trying to help break down barriers for people from underrepresented groups in STEM to become conservationists.

What else are you doing?

I co-created a video game that was designed for the villagers in Africa to teach different ways of protecting livestock from carnivores. The game had no text and only used images so non-English speakers could play too. After it was beta tested, it got added to Niassa Carnivore Project’s environmental education program. I’m also an author. Recently, I signed with an agent, and I’m working on a kids’ book that focuses on Southern African mythology/fantasy.  

What’s next for you? 

I was awarded a Fulbright grant to Botswana to conduct a nine-month research study. Once it’s safe to travel, I’ll be able to begin research onsite. I am going to partner with Cheetah Conservation Botswana and Botswana Predator Conservation to test deterrents out in the field, looking at ways to prevent African wild dogs from attacking livestock on commercial farms.

What are you proudest of? 

I’m so glad I kept my original promise to my younger self, and I wish I could go back and tell my three-year-old self that dreams do come true with hard work and determination. There’s a great Charles Bukowski poem called “Roll the Dice” that’s always inspired me. It says, ‘if you’re going to try, go all the way.’ I really think that’s true.

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