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William Donald: Big Cats

We were extremely excited to speak to Old Millhillian and Old Belmontian William Donald before the Half Term break. He spoke with us and told us about his fantastic and inspiring career working in Zambia Rehabilitating and Researching big cats. 

Since being a pupil at Mill Hill and Belmont School, what are you up to now? And what’s your journey since leaving?

When I graduated from Mill Hill, I went straight to Zambia. During my gap year, I played OMs Rugby for a season. I then went to Zambia for seven months, where I worked with a trust, rehabilitating and releasing lions and researching how their populations cross the Zambezi River. 

It is very rare but from a young age I always knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. Most people do a degree and then find out what to do afterwards to try and align to that degree. I knew that I wanted to go and work in Africa with wildlife and that I needed a strong bachelor’s and master’s to achieve it. So, I did biology in Bristol, and then every summer, I went back to Zambia to work with elephants and lions. Then, after my Bachelor’s, I went to South Africa to research stuff on a couple of key reserves there. 

Then I did my Master’s at UCL. I studied Biodiversity Evolution Conservation with Distinction, which made me very happy because it meant that I had everything I needed with also 18 months of experience working in Africa. I than managed to secure a job in the National Park in Zambia with a trust called Musekese conservation. I’ve worked for them for the last four years, running their research programme.

When did your interest in conservation begin?

When I was eight years old, I watched ‘Big Cat Week’ with Jonathan Scott. I said, That’s what I want to do!’

Scott was giving a talk in London, and through a family friend, I got to meet him at age 10. He said to me, Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do anything. Just go follow your passion with wildlife. Only you can work out if you can do it.‘ I held onto that. 

Looking back at your time at Mill Hill and Belmont, what are your main impressions of the school?

I loved Mill Hill but Belmont was my favourite! Mill Hill was a guiding light. I had a teacher called Mr Jennings, my favourite teacher; he was a biologist and helped me ignite the birth of passion in other areas of biology rather than just lions, which was great. I struggled to get top marks in chemistry; however, Mr Barren and Mr Turner helped me achieve the marks I needed. 

For me, Belmont was the school where you could really become yourself. From that age, you’re working out who you are as a person. The teachers at Belmont guide you through the development stage, which is why I love always coming back to Belmont and helping out where I can.

What are your career highlights so far? 

My whole career, working in the National Park in Zambia. One moment that stood out to me was when we thought we had lost a specific pride; we hadn’t seen them for a whole year, and we couldn’t see them on any of the cameras. Then out of nowhere, they came up in a court area about 40 kilometres away from a new area. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we found them!’ we called out on the radios to bring in the vet team and while waiting for the tranquilliser dart to come in for the lioness, I sat with them for eight hours. We soon found out that one of the female lions was pregnant. I remember putting my hands on her belly and being able to feel the baby’s kick. Just incredible.

Do you have any career advice for pupils?

Yes, don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do what you want to do! In a talk with Belmontians, there was a huge variety of careers the pupils wanted to do, such as Quantum Physicist, Actress, Video Game Designer, and Comic Book Designer. If they have a life goal now, they should be working towards it and asking for advice from everyone who can help them achieve their goal. 

At one point in my life, I was told that my dream of running a Big Cat Park was ‘not very realistic.’ I’m very realistic, so that stuck with me. When I did, I booked my first Zambia trip, and I went up to that person and told him that I could do this, and that I’m making my first steps. He was shocked. Hopefully, this was an eye-opening for him.

I had people telling me that what I wanted to do was not achievable. I’ve still managed to do it. Any goal a pupil at Belmont or Mill Hill has for their life is achievable if they put their mind to it and work at it.

What is your favourite memory that you spent at Belmont and Mill Hill?

In Belmont, it was probably getting cast for a leading role in The Midsummer Night’s Dream. I love drama and art but I knew I wanted to do biology, so being able to do choose was great. During my time in Mill Hill, it was an incredible experience going on tour in South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. As well as the incredible experience in Upper Sixth of starting at number nine when the Argentinian team came to play rugby. 

What are some insights into your conservation work in Zambia?

It’s hard. It’s hard to work there because it’s long hours, you’re remote, and you’re working with people who don’t speak English well because their native language is Nyanja. I work with 50 people from the local communities around the park. The language is quite difficult, but everyone is so happy and driven, and I love that about the Zambian people. They’re fantastic; they’re always happy and willing to work hard because they love what they do. In short, it’s a beautiful place to work and a hard place to work, but the people you’re working with are great.

How do you think your experiences in the conservation in Zambia can inspire the pupils in Mill Hill and Belmont?

Well, it proves that no matter how niche your goals or field of interest are, they are achievable. The pupils just need to know that they can achieve anything as long as they are dedicated with drive and passion. Only they can know if they can do it or not. 

How do you envision the collaboration between Old Belmontians and current pupils contributing to the growth mindset of aspirations in the community?

It’s very important for people like me and other Old Belmontians to come and inspire pupils. It is extremely important for their development. I think both Mill Hill and Belmont should try to get more people in different career paths and industries to come in and give talks in different niche areas. At Belmont, it’s all about getting them passionate about what they want to do, and at Mill Hill, it’s all about giving them the route to follow that passion.

How do you see the pathways through Mill Hill and Belmonts evolving to further support pupils in realising their potential and achieving their goals?

In terms of pathways through the schools, Belmont is where pupils develop the most. Belmont has pupils from the age of seven to thirteen; during these ages, there is a huge amount of development. Belmont is all about instilling the right values in pupils; that’s why I view it as the most important stage in the foundation because you’re teaching someone to be who they are.