By Lee Anna Sherman
In the place where Dylan McDowell grew up, wildlife meant sea lions, sandpipers, salmon and passing pods of spouting whales. Where he’s going this summer, wildlife means something else entirely, something reminiscent of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, exotic and fearsome: wildebeests, jackals, baboons, leopards, warthogs. And rhinos that have been poached nearly to extinction.
These are the beasts McDowell will encounter when he travels to Africa for six months of study and research, first with Nyati Conservation Corps in Zimbabwe and then with SIT Study Abroad in Tanzania.
But wild animals aren’t his sole interest. Humans captivate him, too. “I feel it’s my responsibility as a person to explore and embrace different cultures,” says McDowell, who’s working on two degrees at Oregon State University, one in K-12 education and the other in fisheries and wildlife.
In McDowell’s coastal hometown of Yachats, skin-color variations had more to do with degrees of sunburn than with ethnic or racial diversity. “There was only one African-American student in my high school,” McDowell says, sounding a little regretful. He wants to fill that cultural gap in his education. So he’s heading to Africa not only to study wildlife conservation but also to meet African people and learn firsthand about their values, their politics, their struggles, their aspirations.
“I like looking at things through different lenses,” McDowell explains. Which might explain why he gravitates toward the junctures of disparate fields — for instance, the nexus of science and public policy, his current passion. The program in Tanzania fits that passion to a T. “The program focuses on wildlife conservation and political ecology — basically, how people interact with the environment,” he says.
So although his research is on rhinos, it’s as much about the humans who kill and sell the endangered ungulates for their horns, believed to be an aphrodisiac in some Asian societies. It’s also about the people who protect the massive horned animals, which are being reintroduced to the Serengeti where they have been wiped out.
“Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world,” says McDowell. “There’s a lot of money in the rhino trade.” Noting that Africa is “still trying to recover from European hegemony” of earlier decades, he argues that to take an American perspective on the rhino issue is to miss the social, political and cultural context in which the poaching occurs.
Besides interviewing rangers and local residents about the rhinos, McDowell will live with members of the Maasai tribe, camp out during a four-week safari and take classes in Swahili.
McDowell may not have had many cross-cultural experiences growing up in Yachats, but he did get plenty of cross-species interactions at the Oregon Coast Aquarium as a volunteer and later as a part-time guide and an aquarist. He became acquainted with puffins and octopi, whiskered otters lolling in their artificial habitat and ethereal jellyfish pulsing in their tubular tank. He even kissed a sea lion named Leah. “Very fishy,” is how he describes the marine-mammal’s smooch, for which tourists happily paid extra as part of a behind-the-scenes tour.
Follow McDowell’s travels through his blog, Under the Baobab Tree.
For more information about education abroad opportunities for OSU students, contact the International Degree & Education Abroad (IDEA) at 541-737-3006.