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Posted: 2017-03-27 14:00:00

David Emmett meeting a local python. (Courtesy of David Emmett)

Editor’s note: In honor of Conservation International’s (CI) 30th anniversary, this is the latest post in an occasional series called “My ‘aha!’ moment,” in which CI staff reflect on moments of insight or discovery that paved the way for their careers in conservation. For David Emmett, senior vice president for CI’s Asia-Pacific field division, that moment came during a field trip with schoolchildren in Malawi. Read other posts in this series.

I can’t remember a time when nature wasn’t a source of inspiration for me. My ‘aha!’ moment came when I discovered just how valuable it is to others.

My father is an entomologist, so my childhood home was often full of containers of exotic insects. Our family embraced nature as an integral part of our life, and I have many wonderful memories of family time spent outdoors.

After studying zoology at Imperial College in London, I decided to spend some time working overseas in a developing country so I could put my life and future plans into better perspective. I moved to Malawi in East Africa, where I taught biology in a very remote secondary school for two years. It was a humbling experience that broke down my preconceptions of myself, helped me define what is really important in life and exposed me to the often brutal realities faced by so many of the world’s people. It also led to the reality check that shaped my career from that moment on.

During that time, I arranged a school trip to a nearby nature reserve. I’d never seen the large wildlife Africa is famous for — nor had many of my students — so I was excited. My 200+ students and I piled into some large trucks and bounced along the dirt roads into the wilderness, the children laughing and singing as we went.

Yet on arrival at the reserve, we saw almost nothing. No big game, just a few troops of vervet monkeys and some birds. I was so disappointed.

I asked the game wardens what had happened, and they told

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