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My journey to becoming a conservationist with GVI

Article by Cathryn Gill

Cathryn Gill

Posted: May 30, 2022

Fifteen years ago, Cathryn Gill joined a GVI program to work with endangered wildlife in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Kalahari Desert. Read about her experience and how it impacted her life.


A little bit about me



I was born under a coppery African sky in the big city of Jozi (Johannesburg) in Mzansi (South Africa). My ancestors are Celts from Scotland and the north of England. My adopted home, where I have lived and worked as a geography teacher and conservation educator for a number of years, is Aotearoa, New Zealand. I travel back to Southern Africa regularly for conservation projects. This is where my soul sings.

I am a conservationist, an environmental scientist, an ecologist, a geographer, a teacher, an observer, a reader, a storyteller, a decorator, an organiser, a quiet activist and a creative.


Living and working with GVI in the Kalahari Desert


Original photo by Chris Stenger is licensed under Unsplash


My journey with GVI began 14 years ago. In 2007 I spent a year in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park as a SANParks People and Conservation volunteer intern. The internship was an inspired collaboration between GVI and SANParks. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is located in the far north-west of South Africa, bordering Botswana. This isolated Peace Park conserves the unique Kalahari Desert biome. My volunteer service consisted of assisting to develop and promote environmental education within the park to tourists, and externally through local schools, thus contributing to strengthening relationships with neighbouring communities and enhancing access to the park. Other activities included the promotion of indigenous knowledge and youth outreach, assisting with a cheetah research project and basic ranger duties.

Highlights of my time on base include an invitation to accompany an expert on African predators, Dr Gus Mills, on a cheetah radio-collaring expedition, and time spent with the Khomani San and Mier people, helping to create the décor and atmosphere for a culturally-based ecotourism lodge (!Xaus Lodge).

It’s difficult to put the isolation of this spectacular place into words. What I can say is the experience of living in the Kalahari has been one of the most profound of my life, and eventually inspired the name of my brand – Pure Spaces.  Spaces and places have such significance for me. The way they make me feel, the energy they give affects me emotionally and often spiritually. The pure space that is the Kalahari would definitely fall into the spiritual category. And my name means “pure”. 


My journey to becoming a conservationist



My GVI on-base program all those years ago was such a growth experience. I learned how to take my place in a small community. I also learned about how I wanted to be in the world and the impact for good I wanted to make. It confirmed my childhood aspiration to be a conservationist.

What a strange journey it has been and continues to be.  It certainly hasn’t been a linear career path since that first GVI experience. There have been many times when I thought I had lost my way – wondering, how is where I am and what I am doing right now, possibly about following my passion? But what I have recently realised is that every apparent detour I have encountered on my path has equipped me with a rather unique world view. And it turns out GVI has continued to be part of my road map.


How COVID-19 and GVI’s online courses helped me pursue my passion project


Original photo by  Maya Maceka is licensed under Unsplash


Over the years I have made a living teaching (traditional high school in a classroom and conservation education in a zoo setting) or working in ecotourism. In my free time, I take every opportunity to get involved in conservation projects. The outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020 cancelled a number of plans to get back to boots-on-the-ground conservation work. To fill this gap I was grateful to discover GVI was offering online courses.

I completed a couple of courses focused on social entrepreneurship and impact measurement. Around this time I was made redundant. At first I was at a bit of  a loss. However, it quickly became apparent that what I had learned through GVI’s online courses was about to set me on the next part of my journey to becoming an impact maker. And Pure Spaces Education was born.


My big dream realised



Pure Spaces Education is my self-published website, which is a part of a big dream I’ve had for a long time. A dream to create ways to encourage people to find their place in the world, stand empowered in that space, and, through their small, everyday decisions and actions, make a positive impact in the world. I want to add my perspective to the conservation collective as I believe each and every added voice multiplies the power of unity. 

My environmental education resource hub is carefully curated, regularly updated with media, and serves as an inspiration for growth. My purpose is to connect a personal sense of place in the world with living sustainably both environmentally and socially. My mission is to share a wellbeing toolbox that helps people establish their sense of place in the world. My theory of change is that a sense of our place and connecting back with nature leads us to make small but effective changes towards sustainable living. This in turn promotes active, influential personal and communal guardianship of wildlife and wild places.


Back on base 14 years later


It has been a long time since I completed my Environmental Science degree. I knew I needed to be as up to date as possible with what is happening in wildlife conservation. As GVI’s values are so aligned with my own, I trust their content to be at the forefront of what’s happening globally, both environmentally and socially. In June 2021 I completed the Advanced Wildlife Conservation online program.

Halfway through the program I just knew this online stuff wasn’t going to be enough for me. Don’t get me wrong, the program material was informative, inspiring and challenging, but I wanted to be back in the field again. I enrolled in GVI’s Wildlife Conservation Short Term Internship and  in June I will be back on base –  15 years after my first GVI experience – and I cannot wait!


The changing face of conservation



It has become clear that my work is not going to be that of a traditional conservation scientist. I have had to come to terms with the educator within. To lean into the discomfort I feel as an introvert in relating to people of all ages and stages in the course of sharing one all important message – wild lives and wild spaces matter.

The upshot of all this is that the model of conservation I was immersed in as a child is no longer valid, if it ever was.  We cannot hope to make a difference for wildlife and wild spaces by putting fences up and keeping human communities out of the picture.  Wildlife conservation should be an everyday practice for all of us, wherever we find ourselves on this planet.  We need to learn to live in harmony with ourselves, each other and the other beings we share Earth with. My journey with GVI has been significant in working my way to this conclusion and for that I am grateful.

We understand that you may have questions about how COVID-19 will affect your travel plans. Visit our FAQs page which explains our latest safety protocols in response to COVID-19. 

Disclaimer: The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.

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