Many people dream about landing their ideal job working to protect our natural world. Thanks to the TV and the brilliant documentaries we see nowadays, being paid to travel the world to distant and remote locations, meeting communities of people from different backgrounds and baring witness to some of the worlds most biodiverse regions has gained interest over the years. However, it is not as lavish as it sounds, with often long work days, uncomfortable and basic living conditions and an industry that is extremely difficult to enter, it is a job that is fuelled by passion as opposed to monetary benefits.
Of course, working as a wildlife conservationist in any field, has its immense moments. Working outdoors with people that have the same values and knowing the work you do really can make a difference are just some of the daily pros felt within a career in wildlife conservation. And then there are the big moments, the defining moments when you change the behaviour of a community and empower them through education and involvement, the moment you capture that first image of that unrecorded critically endangered species that had only previously been seen by locals of the area and the moment you see a damaged habitat begin to recover. These are the moments that we are all here for, those rewarding moments that will remain with us for a lifetime, unparalleled by any other achievements.
No one ever said it would be easy. But I can guarantee it will be rewarding, even if it is years down the line. I often get asked how I managed to work in wildlife conservation, travel to beautiful places and work with some of the world’s most iconic species such as sea turtles and pangolins. Dedication, patience and commitment are necessary, along with the willingness to live on a small wage. Not only am I basing this blog on my experience, but the following points are ones which are supported by many of today’s conservationists.
Volunteer for Experience
Unfortunately, passion isn’t enough. Experience is highly sought after within an industry that is so competitive. Jobs within wildlife conservation are becoming more popular, and not surprisingly due to the rate of habitat destruction and species extinction we are seeing today, but they are also one of the most competitive fields of work out there. Making your experience stand out should be a priority. Therefore, put yourself out there, try anything once and don’t be afraid to say yes. Volunteering can be done from your local Nature Reserve or National Park, or with programmes across the world that have been developed to not only seek help with conservation issues in that area, but also to help you gain recognisable experience.
I can’t emphasis enough how important experience is, and the more you involve yourself in, the better. It will also allow you to discover what areas of wildlife conservation suit you and help you create a niche to enter. Keeping your “foot in the door” is something that has worked well for me, and for many others, showing that you are dedicated and passionate without the involvement of money can often lead to more permanent positions within the organisation; always treat a volunteer position like you would a paid job and remember that there are many people that are willing to work for free within this industry simply to gain experience, so having a volunteer role is a great opportunity and should be treated with respect.
Get that University Degree
So not only is passion not enough, often experience is not enough either. Yes, I know, it sounds dreary and too much like hard work, but having that university degree alongside your unique work experience stands you out in what is now seen as a highly vocational career. University degrees offer a thorough insight into the aspects involved and allow you to focus on specific areas if you have already discovered where your interests lie. I graduated with a BSc(Hons) Zoology in 2010 and owe my first graduate job within an education department at a zoo to this qualification. I found it quite strange that people would assume that a Zoology degree was all about zoos, when in fact we had one small section of a module based on zoo conservation and breeding programmes, the rest of the degree was more focused on animal biology. Anyhow, I ended up with that paid job and gained four years’ worth of experience within teaching from it.
I’m not saying it is impossible for someone without a degree to find a position. It is easier for a candidate with a degree in a science related field to acquire a job in wildlife conservation as it is for someone without. Even so, for that candidate with a degree, it is still incredibly difficult and competitive. The Guardian recently wrote an interesting article around the difficulty of graduates finding paid jobs within conservation which is certainly worth a read here.
Expand your Skills
Keep an eye out for opportunities to improve your skills in the following areas;
- Team leading
- Project management
- Wilderness survival and First Aid
- Communication skills
- Mapping and identification skills
Keep your skills varied. It is not always sensible to focus on only one or two skills as all employers have different skill sets that they are looking for. Take a look at some of the job requirements listed on advertisements for organisations you would see yourself working for and create your own list of skills based on this. If you are interested in working within marine conservation, why not learn to scuba dive? This was a path that I decided to take only last year, and now as a qualified PADI Instructor, it has opened up a lot more opportunities for me. Not only should you be working to expand your skill set, but you should be reading. A lot. There is always something new in the world of wildlife conservation and keeping up to date with it is necessary. Read, read, read, and read some more. Extracurricular reading can go a long way in improving your knowledge and perspective on hot topics in the media.
Network – Get Your Name Known
Most the time it is who you know rather than what you know. With the digital era we find ourselves in, networking with people in the industry is easier than ever. Use social media to your advantage and reach out to people and make your interest in their work obvious. Doing this can also help you link into that first point, volunteering for experience. Use the web to seek out any talks and conferences that may interest you, you’ll probably be surprised at how accessible these events actually are. Whilst at university, I was a member of the Royal Society of Biology and would often attend different talks organised by them in the local area. It gave me the perfect opportunity to meet people with similar interests and learn more about their research.
Networking via the internet was the only way of developing a camera trapping project I was working on when I lived in a small fishing village in Thailand. Some of the important contacts I made during this time were a result of reaching out to old colleagues from the zoo that I used to work at. Thanks to these contacts I managed to speak to a few people that were chairmen of one of the IUCN Specialist Groups, which then led to further connections and project development that would have been impossible without them. My main point here – keep old contacts contactable, as you never know when you may need their advice!
Chase it For Passion, Not Money
Protecting wildlife and their habitats is, unfortunately, often not a well paid job and you are unlikely to get rich from working in wildlife conservation. There is the worry of how you will be able to pay off your university debts and maintain financial stability and continue working in the industry. This is a common feeling, not only with myself, but with many others working in conservation across the world. It is a huge shame. There are people trying to save the world by dedicating every aspect of their life to it, yet these are the people that sometimes have no option to leave the industry because they cannot afford to remain in it.
There are some areas of wildlife conservation that may offer a bit of a better pay pack but may need you to compromise and adapt to a position that wasn’t quite what you originally imagined. For example, Eco Tourism is a booming business in many parts of the world and working within this hospitality industry would allow you to find positions in hotels and resorts that have a main role to educate visitors and possibly the development of small eco projects. Being in this kind of role will also put you in touch and allow you to work alongside other conservation projects in the area. It is a great route for anyone that has previous experience within hospitality.
Whatever area you decide to go in, it should be fuelled by your passion to protect the planet. Let that passion shine and don’t be afraid to say yes to new things that may have not been planned for. The rewards and experiences are better than any money could buy, and the planet will thank you for it.