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Life and Work in the Serengeti: part one

 Since being recruited by Mango to take on the role of Head of Finance and Administration for the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), Donald Boag has been working tirelessly to help conserve the Serengeti. In this blog entry, the first in a three-part series, Donald provides us with a window into life and work in the Serengeti National Park, and expands upon the conservation work of the FZS.

Arriving in the Serengeti

A lovely sunny morning in Nairobi. What could be better as we sat at Wilson Aerodrome eagerly scanning the skies for the aircraft which was to take us to our new home and job in the Serengeti? Nothing to be seen.  We tried binoculars. Still nothing.  And then we espied it, hiding like a baby chick under the wing of another plane.

It was about the size of a Ford Fiesta with wings, though it did have a couple of very handsome zebra stripes on its side, and after galloping down the runway it rose into the air almost effortlessly.

The views were spectacular as we passed over the Rift Valley and the bright pink soda flats of Lake Natron and an hour later we landed on the gravel runway at Serengeti where we were immediately greeted by a family of warthog, and a herd of giraffe waving their elegant necks in welcome. 

We were taken to our new house and within a few minutes received a visit from our nearest neighbour. “How nice,” you might think but we did wonder at the cheek of a neighbour who comes into your home completely uninvited, sits down in your lounge and starts to pick fleas from his massive hairy baboon body.  Despite the cool reception he received he was back the next morning, but this time with a bit more derring-do. His hunger not appeased by the fleas, he made his way to the kitchen where he proceeded to tuck into all the fruit and vegetables we had just bought and the very precious jar of peanut butter.

It was quite a palaver to get rid of him and we soon learnt the first lesson of living in the Serengeti.  Keep your doors closed!  We have learnt a number of lessons since that day four years ago when I arrived with my wife, Carole, in the Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania.

We both quickly settled into our new life and eagerly awaited one of nature’s greatest annual events – the migration of the wildebeest, or gnu.

No one knows exactly when this will happen and so life goes on and the commute to the office is easier than in UK although I still have to leave enough time for the occasional traffic jam – yes I really do have to stop at zebras crossing.

Working in such a remote area is not without its challenges, one of which is trying to keep a good internet connection when the baboons use the satellite dish as a trampoline. 

Our work and adventures continue in this vast wilderness and we feel privileged to be able to play a very small part in helping to conserve the Serengeti for generations to come.

Financial management and conservation

After thirty years working in various Financial Management roles in several countries in Africa, I was delighted to be returning to Tanzania, having been recruited by Mango to take on the role of Head of Finance and Administration for the Africa Regional Office of Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS). 

FZS has been involved in conservation work in Africa since the late 1950s when Bernard Grzimek, then Director of Frankfurt Zoo in Germany came to Tanganyika with his son, Michael, to try to gain a better understanding of the Serengeti ecosystem and the migration of the wildebeest. His book “Serengeti shall not die” has become the conservation byword for this ecosystem, one of the last great wilderness areas of the world.

The Africa work of FZS has expanded since those early days and we are now active in five countries, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe, with an annual Africa turnover of nine million euros.  FZS also operates in Europe, South East Asia and Latin America.

FZS has long standing partnerships with the National Parks authorities in each of these countries, bringing technical expertise and resources to contribute towards the protection of the remaining wild places of Africa.   With the recent dramatic increase in the (illegal) international trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn, much of our work concentrates on law enforcement and security by assisting the parks authorities with ranger training and equipment.    We also work closely with the communities in the vicinity to instil in them the economic benefits to their communities of the National Parks.  Micro-finance schemes with a conservation thrust have been set up and are now self-financing and self-governing.  This, linked with education programmes is having an impact in reducing involvement in poaching.  

Over recent years we have been able to increase the range of our funding.  Historically most of our operations were funded by the income from donated funds built up over the decades.  As the conservation challenges have increased we have responded by increasing the scope of our work using direct grants from a number of international organisations and private philanthropists.    This adds an extra dimension to the Finance work as each organisation  has its own funding, monitoring and reporting rules and standards which have to be adhered to. 

Developing FZS's financial management procedures

With this expansion of our work in Africa my role as Head of Finance and Administration for Africa has involved me in developing operating and control systems to ensure that the projects in all five countries follow the same procedures.  Part of this involved putting in place an integrated internet-based accounting system for all of the FZS offices and projects worldwide. This was led by our Headquarters office in Germany but as Africa represents by far the majority of our work, fitting it to the requirements of African projects was key to its success.      

My day to day work has two main aspects to it; generally supervising to ensure that all of the projects are following proper procedures and keeping good accurate accounts and offering assistance and accounting guidance and advice to projects as they need it.   

On top of that there is coordinating the budgets for grant proposals, guiding the projects through reporting to donors and co-ordination of project and country audits.   

The wide range of projects, countries and cultures adds to the interest and diversity of the work, dealing with different regulatory authorities in each of the countries, different banking systems, currencies and in the case of Ethiopia a different calendar. 

As most of our work, by its very nature, is in remote areas our operations are not always fully understood by capital city based visitors.   Recently during our Ethiopian audit, the auditor raised an issue over the amount of money we spent on hiring mules at a project in a mountainous conservation area.    Her next request was to inspect some construction work we had been doing.   Our Accountant at the project solved both issues at the same time by taking her to the construction site.    After eight hours of mountain trekking to the construction site in her town shoes – without a mule – the question of our mule hiring expenditure was quietly dropped.    


Want to read more? Take a look at part 2 and part 3 in this series.