"If you wish to go quickly, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together." – African proverb
During an Earthwatch Institute archeological expedition to Namibia when she was 15, Californian Sarah Frazee patiently scraped away the dry soil and painted solidifying solution on a fossilized cow hip bone for two weeks.
Hunched over and motionless for hours at a time, Frazee often gazed at the stunning giraffes and striking birds gracefully crossing the Namibian landscape.
But it was variations of lilac, cerulean blue and turquoise from the Lilac-breasted Roller that caught her attention and entranced her, never having seen birds of that color in the United States.
That was the moment, Frazee later reflected, that, she realized that her interest was not about restoring the animal artifacts of the past, but about protecting animals for the future.
Raised in a family of historians, Frazee was always considered the “wildlife girl.” A year-long homestay in Tanzania helped Frazee realize, however, that history has always played a large role in understanding local ecology.
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“(My host father) was telling me the indigenous names of all of the animals and then laughing as he said, ‘then Mr. Grant came and now it is Grant’s gazelle and Mr. Thompson came and its name became Thompson gazelle’,” Frazee recalls. “There was so much understanding of ecology of the land we were living on and a whole spectrum of influences including colonialism, population growth and economic factors that were resulting in another loss for my homestay community.”
Economics as a Tool for Conservation
One of those influences, Frazee realized, could actually benefit conservation efforts: economics. She believes economics is a common language in which everyone has a vested interest, “whereas when you just talk about the environment, you lose a lot of people. So you’ve got to be able to speak both languages to be an effective environmentalist," she says.
She studied at Claremont McKenna College for her bachelor’s degree and received her master’s degree at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, after spending a year abroad in Tanzania.
In college, she met her roommate’s brother in-law, Glenn Prickett (now CI Senior Vice President, CELB), who was interested in Frazee’s background in economics. Prickett convinced her to apply to Conservation International’s ecotourism and conservation enterprise in 1995. Frazee began as an unpaid intern, paying her bills by waitressing at night.
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Now, as CI’s Southern Africa Hotspots Director, Frazee laughs when people tell her how interesting her job sounds. “I just attend meetings and send emails like everyone else!” she laughs. By bringing her work down to an understandable level she hopes that people realize that they don’t have to be “tree-huggers” in order to work with the environment.
Currently, Frazee is working on three hotspots in Africa: Succulent Karoo, Cape Floristic and Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany.
Building Responsibility within Communities
Frazee’s long-term vision is that “50 years from now we won’t need national parks. As humans, we will have learned how to integrate and live harmoniously with nature. Whether you're building a golf course, or mining or whatever, you have a fundamental responsibility to this earth"
Frazee is quick to admit that her role in conservation is not to save the environment by herself, but rather as “empowering others to show their commitment to nature.” It’s a motto that she often expresses by telling locals: “How can I love and support you? This is your responsibility.”
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This philosophy is neatly echoed in one of Frazee’s conservation efforts. With nearly the entire coastline of South Africa affected by mining, thus upsetting a critical connection from land to sea for many species, Frazee helped broker a land conservation deal with DeBeers Diamond Mining. Currently, some 38,000 hectares (94,000 acres) of irreplaceable coastal land has been added to the Namaqua National Park in South Africa.
She has received the go ahead to explore how another 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres) can be added as protected area.
“I don't see it as my job to climb the mountain (of conservation),” she explains. “It’s basically DeBeers’ job to climb the mountain.”
Frazee’s full spectrum approach to conservation using historical ties and economics and the empowering of others, is fully conceptualized in her team.
Consisting entirely of young, dynamic, and hard-working locals, 17 of 21 being women, she considers her team an inspiration. Her daily motivation, Frazee says, is to be supportive and to “give them an opportunity to have a job where they can help conserve the environment that they love.”
READ MORE: Namaqualand: Little White Rocks and Succulent Plants