One day, a doctoral student at the University of Montana brought Wayne Freimund a proposal to review for an experimental forest in Zambia.
The idea was to build a $6 million fence to enclose lions, and the College of Forestry and Conservation student told Freimund the project was for her father, Emmanuel Chunda.
At the time, Chunda was dean of the forestry college at Copperbelt University in Zambia, and Freimund, now interim dean of the same college at UM, saw parallels between the schools – two forestry programs working on similar issues, an emphasis on field work, both with experimental forests.
Through a U.S. Forest Service Office of International Programs grant, Freimund and Chunda made a connection here in Missoula. Then, they met in Africa at Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
There, at the site of the largest waterfall on Earth, Chunda posed a question to his colleague about the future of their relationship:
"Shouldn't you be studying places like this?"
Nearly 20 years later, the bond between "The Last Best Place" and a country some call "The Real Africa" is strong, and the similarities between the conservation story in Montana and Zambia run deep:
- Copper mines that once lined pockets lose money.
- Political leaders push to grow economies through tourism, touting big rivers and national parks.
- Iconic animals, like the wolverine and the elephant, see threats from a warming climate.
On the 100-year anniversary of America's National Park Service, the link UM established is bolstering conservation on both continents as glaciers retreat in Montana and the mist and spray diminish from the churning waters at Victoria Falls.
The tie also is shaping the next generation of conservationists, leaders who will think about protecting lions and grizzlies and their wild habitats in the face of climate change and beyond the lines on a map.
During the years, UM has taught several doctorate students who have returned to Zambia as leaders in the field of conservation. Last year, for the first time, UM took a cohort of graduate students to the landlocked country to see conservation at work in a different place under different pressures.
Ian Williams, who graduated in May from the College of Forestry and Conservation, said in Zambia, it was clear that people are an intrinsic part of the ecosystem. It's a lesson that translates to places in his backyard, like Glacier National Park, and one he'll take with him as he embarks on a career in recreation management.
"I think they've realized pretty early on that if our goal is to protect wildlife or have this park area, then the benefits need to extend beyond the park borders in order for (local communities) to really reap the benefits," Williams said. "I think we could learn some lessons from that."
Freimund has fostered a relationship with peers in Zambia for the long haul. He's seen other Americans parachute onto the continent, write a thesis and return home, a situation he characterizes as intellectual colonization.
Through UM, he's taken the opposite approach: "We keep coming back."
The link was first born in 1998, when Freimund worked with the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. The country had just ushered in democracy and a new president and constitution, and at the time, university professors there lacked the credentials to match their experience.
"They were evolving quickly and in great need of capacity building," Freimund said.
They looked to UM to help build curricula, and Freimund quickly saw a gap in the offerings. When it came to conservation, the research examples at UM were based in Montana, Idaho, the West.
"They needed African contextualized data to put into their training," he said.
To fill the gap, the transatlantic team launched a joint research program with an emphasis on bringing students from Africa to Montana for coursework that didn't exist at home.
Several students turned out to be Zambians, including Nelly Chunda, daughter of Emmanuel Chunda, who died in 2012. The students from a country not unlike Montana started asking Freimund a question:
"When are you going to come to 'The Real Africa'?"
So Freimund turned his attention in Zambia's direction.
The professor struck up a relationship with Copperbelt University, and now, a memorandum of understanding creates a conservation network among five universities, including Copperbelt and UM.
Doctoral graduates from the early years are now in leadership roles at the African universities, and UM is the only school in the group that isn't in Africa.
"It's a real honored position for the University of Montana," Freimund said.
One student in particular, Jane Kwenye, is now a faculty member at Copperbelt University, and a couple years ago, Freimund decided it was time to work with her to take U.S. students to Zambia.
Shepherding students overseas is an enormous responsibility, and the UM professor is risk averse, but he believed Kwenye would be a strong partner in developing a study abroad course that would work.
"She really knows what we're like. She's taken classes here. She guest lectures. She understands our students," Freimund said.
Last year, he took the first group of UM graduate students to Livingstone, students from forestry and other disciplines who were mature enough to avoid the snakes and the bars. A couple times along the way, he wondered if he might have taken a class over earlier.
"The group we brought last year was absolutely remarkable," he said. "They were so mature, and I was really pleased."
In Zambia, Williams had an experience that brought to light for him the importance of the human in the natural ecosystem.
There, if an elephant is going to destroy crops or trample a child, the people don't have much incentive to protect it – unless the benefits of protecting the animals extend past the park borders.
"So conservation efforts need to incorporate people as well as wildlife as well as an ecosystem. So how are we, moving forward, going to do our best to protect these natural landscapes? Protect this wildlife? But also protect human livelihood in that process?" Williams said.
In the U.S., people value the parks and forest systems, he said.
"But we need to find that balance of also making sure the local communities are involved in decision-making as much as possible," Williams said.
In the future, the most important role for people in his field will be to strike the balance that allows people to see animals like grizzlies without being overly intrusive – and adversely impacting their habitat.
One evening last year in Chobe National Park, Williams saw elephants passing, probably to the place they planned to rest for the night. After most of them had passed, the animals realized they had walked past a pride of lions, maybe eight or nine.
The elephants spooked, and in the midst of the chaos, a baby charged the pride.
"So all the other elephants got involved and did the same thing and scared off the lions," Williams.
At the time, he was alone with the others in his Jeep, and he cherishes those moments of being quiet with the wild.
"There's so many other Jeeps out there," Williams said of the park in Botswana, a neighbor of Zambia. "It can kind of be annoying and makes you wonder, how good is this? How wild is this? But those moments when you were by yourself captured this amazing essence."
This year, UM canceled its Zambia course after an inadequate number of students signed up, but assistant professor Jennifer Thomsen is heading to Livingstone to connect with the contacts Freimund developed for future classes.
The conservation issues her students will face as professionals are global; issues like climate change, land preservation, biodiversity protection and managing tourism, one of the biggest industries in the world.
As Thomsen sees it, the next wave of conservation won't be bound by lines on a map, but will take into account the fuller complexity of a place.
"The next 100 years, with us and Africa, it's not about managing and conserving within these borders, but it's beyond the borders," said Thomsen, who teaches park, recreation and tourism management for the College of Forestry and Conservation.
This year, the U.S. celebrates the centennial of the National Park Service, and here, Montana is home to two of its gems, examples of "America's Best Idea."
Surely, the UM researchers have plenty to share with their colleagues across the Atlantic, but Freimund said the reverse is true, too. Zambia is poor and less developed, but Zambians remind him in his travels that his culture is so young.
Then, they reassure him.
"'We've been running around for 100,000 years, and we'll wait for you to catch up,'" Freimund said. "I would have never thought of it that way.
"There's these cultures in the world that we think might not be as developed, or developing, and they're just waiting for us to catch up."