Waking up with a view of the mountains in the Bella Coola Valley isn’t going to get old anytime soon for the region’s new WildSafeBC co-ordinator, Rae Kokeš.
The 33-year-old wildlife biologist has spent the past 10 years in the savannas of Africa working predominantly in wildlife conflict management between lions and humans, but also with elephants.
“It is stunning, and I feel like I’ve landed in a playground,” Kokeš said of the Bella Coola Valley.
“I’ve been coming to the Valley on and off the past couple years, and now I have the novelty of looking outside here every morning and that is not going to wear off. I feel incredibly privileged to have moved here and, to be allowed to be here in Nuxalk territory, it’s really, really special.”
Shifting her focus from wild cats to bears, Kokeš — who is originally from Yorkshire, England, moved to Bella Coola this past July with her husband, also a wildlife biologist — is excited to hit the ground running as the WildSafeBC Co-ordinator.
“The landscapes, the systems, bears — it’s all quite new to me,” she said. “But I have a lot of experience in human, wildlife conflict and that is very similar. People are always the common denominator, and I think my experience in that can help bring more to the table in this position.”
One thing Kokeš is encouraging the community to participate in is an upcoming social survey surrounding human and wildlife conflict.
“I want to give the community this opportunity to share with us their experiences and how that may have shaped their perception of bears and what levels of tolerance exist,” she said. “There is already this high level of coexistence with bears, but really you only hear about the negative parts.”
So far, she’s been working hard to learn more about the Bella Coola Valley and its residents, and said she is particularly looking forward to working with the Nuxalk Nation.
“They have been here from time immemorial and have evolved with the bears over 10,000 years,” she said. “Hopefully this survey will be a success and we can quantify it to a certain level and use that to guide our conflict strategies then, say, repeat the survey five years down the line and see where we are at. That’s going to be beneficial for everybody.”
The survey will be available for community members online through SurveyMonkey and via paper copy. Kokeš said she’ll be out and about in the community throughout the spring and summer with copies of the survey to hand out, as well.
Reflecting on her work with lions in Africa, she said the same problems surrounding human and wildlife conflicts exist.
“They are different animals, and the experience is different, but attractants play a big role,” she said. “In Africa it’s lions coming into communities and killing livestock, whereas here there are different attractants for bears: garbage, fruit trees, gardens, things like that.”
No one wants to see bears killed, she noted, signalling the importance of educating the community on wildlife conflicts.
Kokeš said the parts of the job she’s looking forward to most are getting to know the community more, learning more about its history, and having the opportunity to get to increase her knowledge of bears.
“I studied animal behaviour for my masters [thesis] and that is my favourite pastime,” she said. “I get the privilege to watch an animal naturally in its habitat. As a human in an urban area the nuances are fascinating to me, and that’s indicative of understanding conflict. Every animal is different.”
She added working with the WildSafeBC team throughout the province has been fantastic, so far.
“They are really supportive,” she said. “I’m out here technically on my own but my colleagues are absolutely wonderful. They are so humble despite being so experienced, and so supportive. It really is a great organization.”