Namibia experiences shape outlook of Nebraska professor, students

Courtesy image
Courtesy image

Larkin Powell is a wildlife biologist and professor in the School of Natural Resources interested in the conservation management of our fish and wildlife species. In his research, he investigates how our manipulation of habitat affects wildlife. In his teaching, he strives to introduce students to experiences that will help them develop into informed wildlife managers and decision makers. Every other summer, he leads a group of Nebraska students on a tour of Namibia, where the students encounter wildlife most have only seen on the internet, or at best, in zoos.

“The first time you’re all in a bus together, pulling up at a water hole and there’s an elephant standing there … it’s fun to watch the students, to see their wide-eyed looks. They’re talking in whispers,” Powell said.

Beyond the initial amazement of seeing such creatures up close, he says the program offers students the opportunity to experience diverse perspectives of wildlife management.

“It’s different in every country; what’s legal, what’s encouraged, where the power structure is from the landowner up to the federal government,” said Powell. “There are certain things (they see in Namibia) that you won’t ever see in Nebraska, but you can see how those systems of incentives work, and how they might be used to get conservation happening on the landscape here.”

Powell involves cultural, human aspects to the program in addition to the wildlife component, saying it helps the students better understand why people make the decisions they do.

“A few times we stay at private farms with tourism operations. One operator was originally shooting cheetahs to protect his livestock, then realized people actually wanted to see them (the cheetahs). It allows the students to see the effect of how a real person changed their approach in addressing human-wildlife conflict,” said Powell. “Another couple has a few bungalows that they rent out to tourists. They used to be a livestock operation, but droughts forced them to sell their herds. They talk about if they hadn’t got into tourism, they would have had to sell their land. It’s a great way to demonstrate to students the impact of diversifying farm income.”

Even within the country, the students are able to witness different approaches by conservation organizations. For example, one group works closely with farmers, with the philosophy that if production increases, the owners are less likely to shoot wildlife like cheetahs on their property. Another group is more protectionist, and their approach is to remove “problem animals” from farms. Powell’s program is intentionally structured to create opportunities to observe different types of models, and includes ample time to reflect on the experiences, both individually and in groups.

“We set the students up with different approaches then let them critically evaluate them. The students come back to base after each experience and we talk together and debrief,” he said. “We’re traveling in a group, but the students are each going to have individual experiences. So when they’re at a campsite in remote Namibia, and the sun comes up over the mountain and the acacia trees, I encourage them to not just stay in their tent, but go out and sit on a rock and think about things … have an experience in solitude.”

Nebraska to Namibia

While now known for leading trips to Namibia (he’s led or co-led five since 2011), Powell’s work as a faculty member leading students abroad began a bit closer to home, leading students on trips to the boundary waters of Minnesota, then to Puerto Rico, then ultimately Namibia.

Powell’s interest in Namibia was sparked while exploring locations for his sabbatical work in 2009. Seeing an opportunity to teach about grazing and wildlife at Polytechnic of Namibia, Powell reached out to his colleague, Mark Pegg, a fisheries ecologist and associate professor in the School of Natural Resources, who had been leading students to the country since 2005. With contacts Pegg had developed during his time there, he was able to help Powell pursue the opportunity, and eventually secure the position to spend his year of sabbatical teaching and researching at the institution.

“Thanks to Mark, I had this yearlong experience to learn more about the country and to teach, which required me to learn even more,” said Powell. “It’s a great example of colleague collaboration and leveraging and building on one another’s experience.” When he returned to his post in Nebraska, he and Pegg began co-leading the education abroad trip to Namibia. Later, when Pegg’s research took him to Canada, Larkin carried on.

“It was kind of a ‘passing of the baton’ in a way,” said Powell.

In addition to helping students expand their perspectives on wildlife management, and the world, Powell says his own research has shifted since his sabbatical in the country and his regular trips leading students.

“There was a pivot when I went to Namibia and saw incentives at work with private landowners, and how they had brought wildlife back onto these ranches,” said Powell. “We have private lands in Nebraska; we have farmers and ranchers.”

At the time, he’d been researching how landowners could increase pheasant production through farm bill programs, but the realities of increased commodity prices made the strategy less economically feasible for landowners. He returned to Nebraska with a renewed appreciation for the importance of economics in these models and began to shift his focus beyond just the wildlife research to the humans in the equation.

“I just finished a textbook for my course. ‘2007 Larkin’ would have written that completely differently than the ‘2010 Larkin’ after coming back and having that experience,” said Powell. "Now eight years later, it really reflects my thinking more about economics and the interactions between the people that own the land.”

“I found what I was looking for on sabbatical: a way to integrate my research with society rather than being just a separate piece.”

International experience impact

Powell understands how much an international experience can impact a student, especially those who may not have had the means or opportunity before. As a “farm boy from southern Iowa,” he said, funding support made possible his first trip abroad: an eye-opening experience in Hungary as it was coming out from behind the Iron Curtain in the late 80s. For many students in his program, the trip may be the first time they’ve flown without family or the first time leaving the country.

“You can watch students make progress over the course of the trip. Sometimes it’s little things, like seeing them not complain if they can’t understand someone’s accent—because they realize this person speaks five languages and they maybe speak one,” he said. “You see how the students learn about about differences and diversity, how U.S. actions impact other parts of the world, and how so many things intertwine.”

Beyond the larger perspective students gain, he feels they come back with skills that, while not always easy to articulate on a resume, give them an edge as they enter the professional world.

“When I look at students who have gone on these trips, they’ve become very good at how they interact, lead, organize; even how they can take a meeting from chaos to order,” said Powell. “We’re not teaching leadership, but we are teaching relationships.”


Do you have an international element to your work, studies, or background that you'd like to see highlighted in our "IANR is Global" Series? Contact Brianne Wolf at

This is a continuation of the "IANR is Global" series, which highlights the many ways internationalization is woven through the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources: through research collaboration, government and private industry partnerships, extension work, student educational experiences and beyond.