Dubuque native returns home to work in conservation after years in Africa
DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — The Dubuque County Conservation Department’s new naturalist has taken an unusual path to his position — from Dubuque to Mozambique and then back to eastern Iowa.
Naturalist Jason Denlinger (Mozambique 1999-01) began work for the county late last month after six years at Gorongosa National Park in the East African country of Mozambique.
Before working in Africa, Denlinger was a Dubuquer who had a fascination with pachyderms.
“I always had this dream to work with elephants and in Africa,” he said. “My aunt was a Peace Corps volunteer, so then I was a Peace Corps volunteer, which really set me on my path (to Africa).”
Denlinger first went to Mozambique 20 years ago with the Peace Corps before returning to Dubuque. That experience abroad would later help him secure a research manager position at Gorongosa, where he was able to realize his dream of working with the planet’s largest land animal.
“I was lucky enough to get to do some work with elephants, observing them and their behavior, putting information about them into a database and helping collar them to learn about their movements in an effort to protect them,” he told the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.
That work was not always easy.
“At first, none of them had GPS tracking collars, so we would spend time driving around trying to find them based on where other people had seen them or (based on the elephants’) habits,” he said. “And Gorongosa isn’t open savanna-like the Serengeti, where people picture in Kenya or Tanzania. You can be 50 yards from an elephant, but if it is behind trees — despite them being enormous organisms — they hide quite well.”
Elephants can be dangerous to work with, Denlinger said, especially females who are protective of their young.
“I was in a car that was smashed by an elephant once,” he said. “But that was in response to (a previous) civil war. A lot of elephants had been massacred during the civil war. And elephants live as long as we do, so the survivors remember that.”
Denlinger also felt peripheral effects of military conflicts that hit the nation in 2021. He, his wife, and his son stayed safe through that time, but some of his colleagues wound up caught in the crossfire and rebel forces camped at the top of one of the national park’s mountains.
Elephants did not take up all of Denlinger’s time at Gorongosa, either. His work was ever-changing.
“I might be installing a weather station in a remote location,” he said. “I might be working with a group of researchers trying to catch bats or vultures to tag them. Other days, I might be working to try and locate some elephants. Every day was not an adventure. I did have administrative stuff. But I don’t know that there was a typical day.”
Denlinger said his return to Dubuque was based partly on his family. His wife was born in Mozambique but also has lived in Dubuque before. Their 4-year-old son was born in Mozambique, as well.
“My little boy, in the park where he grew up, there was no school and really no other children for him to play with,” he said. “While he’s had an amazing experience — he’s probably seen elephants more than he’s seen dogs and seen a lot of amazing things I hope he remembers — for his development, it was important to get him to a school and around other children.”
Denlinger also is excited for the opportunities his new naturalist position affords, including getting to use his experiences abroad back at home.
“This is an opportunity for me to work with young people and the public in general and still do a lot of what I like to do,” he said. “One of my favorite aspects of my job (at Gorongosa) was doing biodiversity surveys, which I’m hoping to maybe try and do and show kids a smaller version of it here.”
Dubuque County Conservation Executive Director Brian Preston said Denlinger brings a lot to the position.
“Jason’s really passionate and excited about bringing back some of those lessons to people here,” he said. “I think he’ll open up eyes to not only what’s happening here in terms of environmental science, but what’s happening around the world.”
Denlinger said he hopes to highlight some of the similarities between conservation in Iowa and in Africa during a presentation. He also hopes to show how pursuing environmental science can take people to new places.
“Hopefully, I can show young people that there’s a path to their dreams, as long as they try different things and work at it,” he said.