Dr. David W. Tonkyn

Population ecology

Clemson University

From Russia With Love


By Jen Bunty,

M.S. student, Biological Sciences 2014


In a world that is becoming increasingly accessible, where well-traveled people claim that “everyone speaks English” and smartphone apps can instantly translate any book, it may seem as though learning a second language is a waste of time. For future conservation professionals, this myth is promoted through course requirements that leave out foreign languages and in turn focus on math and economics. While math and economics are undoubtedly important, if you want to work towards conservation in another country, I can attest that learning a second language can be as good as a ticket there.


I recently finished a field season in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve in the Russian Far East. This reserve has been set aside strictly for tiger conservation and is only open to researchers and managers. My work was focused on analyzing prey populations for the endangered Amur tiger. I spent three months collaborating with some of the world’s most renowned tiger researchers and participating in tiger conservation efforts. I had the opportunity to photograph tigers in the wild and spend a great deal of time in one of the world’s great wild places. For me this was a dream come true, and I attribute it in large part to learning Russian while I was an undergrad.


When I began searching for a graduate school, I was required to find an advisor to take me under his/her wing and into their lab for the research component of my Master’s degree. While I wrote dozens of emails, the only promising response I received was from Dr. David Tonkyn of Clemson University.


When David called, he wasn’t impressed by my GPA and didn’t want to hear about any extracurricular activities or leadership roles or any of the typical college acceptance things. He wanted to talk to me about Russia. He noticed a singular line on my resume that said I had double majored in my undergraduate program and that I had received a degree in Russian. I should point out here that the only reason I double majored was because I took a few Russian classes on a whim and I really liked them.


David had been interested in Russian ecosystems for a long time and had always been on the lookout for a student that he could send that way. It was a great match for both of us and before I knew it I was on a plane, another plane, another plane, and a long bus ride down a dusty road to Ternei, Russia.


We all know, of course, that learning a second language will not guarantee you a dream trip to one of the world’s great wild places. Many of the researchers that live the dream saving the great and threatened flora and fauna of the world though will tell you that a second language can be a very nice bridge between a dream and a job.


Jen Morton

Clemson University Graduate Student


Copyright Jen Morton 2014


Conn and Takako at the World Tiger Congress, Dallas 1998
Conn and Takako at the World Tiger Congress, Dallas 1998