Zoliswa Nhleko

  • April 2022

Postdoctoral Research Associate
Forest and Wildlife Research Center
Starkville Campus

Years in Position: 1 year
Years at MSU: 1 year

Zoliswa “Zoe” Nhleko, a conservationist and native of South Africa, has wanted to play a part in saving wild animals since she was in grade school and learned about the extinct dodo.

“I vowed then that when I grew up, I would work to make sure no other animals went extinct,” she explained. “When I finally got to college, I enrolled for a zoology degree, and that’s when I had a clearer idea of the kinds of careers in conservation.

“I also realized I couldn’t single-handedly save animals from extinction as I had vowed when I was younger. I was just happy to do work that contributed towards our understanding of why extinctions occur and what management interventions we could use to delay extinctions,” Nhleko said.

As a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture in the Forest and Wildlife Research Center, her research will provide information for state biologists to better manage wild turkeys in Mississippi. 

She most recently worked for the park service in South Africa where she focused on rhino conservation and large mammal management.

“I love that I get to work with these amazing species in some of the world’s awesome landscapes,” Nhleko said. “I particularly love contributing towards wildlife conservation and hopefully making the world a better place for wildlife and humans, because when wildlife thrives, so do humans.”

She has had some wonderful experiences while doing this work. One of her favorites was seeing a leopard in the wild while on foot.

“We were out collecting field data on a windy day and came to a clearing at the same time as a leopard was also walking into that clearing,” Nhleko remembers. “All parties -- us and the leopard -- were surprised to see each other. Because of the wind, the leopard had not smelled us and didn’t avoid us. 

“We stood there both in shock and for safety, because that is what you are supposed to do when walking upon dangerous animals. Then, the leopard ran off in a different direction. Leopards are gorgeous animals, so seeing one that close was such a great experience, one that didn’t require a picture as proof of it happening!”

Nhleko said all one needs is a passion for wildlife to thrive in this career.

“Everyone I have met in this career is passionate about saving wildlife,” she said.

She encourages others who may be interested in wildlife conservation careers to explore the field by volunteering with grad students doing field research or organizations that do the same thing. Conducting interviews with people already in the field is another way to learn more about their work and the path to get there.

“The more experience you have in this field the better it will be for you to decide which kinds of work you like,” Nhleko said. “The wildlife management/conservation career stream is not as straightforward as a law career, for example. 

“When I was an undergraduate, I thought I would become a game ranger because I thought that was how I would get to work with wildlife. After talking to a few people in the field I came to realize that there were more careers in the field. I found that I enjoyed the research side of things and that stuck.,” she said.

Nhleko is also an avid podcast listener.

“I subscribe to over 50 different podcasts and am almost always listening to a podcast instead of music,” she said.  

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