Lonely Conservationists

Em (The Long Road)

Written by Em Hull

Before I begin my story, I want to lay out a scenario for you.

There’s a little girl, maybe four or five years old. Her parents are alcoholics and her mum is bipolar. She never knows what she’s coming home to, but she always knows her dog will be there. Fast forward a few years, and the situation hasn’t changed, but now she knows she can also depend on horse riding to calm her down, or a long walk in the rain to act as an escape. She’s learnt that animals and nature provide her with a stable connection that her home life and friends don’t give her.

Skip ahead to high school, and somewhere along the way, her connection is broken. Her dog passed away when she was 12 and horse riding was given up due to bullying. She chooses to sit in her room instead of going for walks in case people think she’s ‘weird.’ The school support system is broken and she doesn’t even know that a career working with animals or in conservation is a possibility for her. She has so little knowledge and self-belief that she thinks these careers are set aside for people with solid backgrounds, people whose parents communicated and spent time with them and believed in them. She doesn’t know who she is or what she wants. She can’t see any kind of future at all.

Now that kid is a 24 year old, working full time at a coffee shop, dissatisfied with life. She’s tried several different courses and never felt like she gained a purpose. She knows she doesn’t want to work in a coffee shop forever, she knows she’s academically smart and she’s started to understand that she has the same opportunities as everyone around her. Working with animals was never off-limits to her except for in her own mind. She’s come a long way, and she’s ready to find a career for herself.

Here, the real story begins. At 24, this kid, i.e. me, found a level 3 course in Animal Science and Welfare. I went along to an open evening, but since I was 24 and had already completed a level 3 course in Art and Design (it was awful, although it did spark an interest in photography, which reconnected me with wildlife), they encouraged me to apply for the Foundation Degree instead. I went for it. It was scary. I had previously quit a mental health nursing course before it had even began because somebody told me it was packed with science, and at the time, I was ‘not a science person.’ I didn’t think I was smart enough. Now, I was about to start a course two levels beyond all my science knowledge, and 8 years after I even looked at a science related book. But I knew I wanted to do this course. Somewhere in the mess of my life, I learnt that we can break boundaries if we want to hard enough, and that’s what I did. Two years later, I finished the course with a Distinction, but the real life changer was a course field trip to South Africa.

South Africa is not somewhere I even dared to dream I’d go to one day. To see these immense animals, the ones that David Attenborough had told me about as a kid, in the wild? No way was I ever going to be able to do that. I’m just not brave enough to travel all the way to Africa. But there I was, a year and a half after signing up for the course, on a wildlife reserve in South Africa, collecting rhino poo so we could conduct a dung beetle preference experiment, and seeing actual real life wild rhinos. There I was, hearing real life hardships from a family on the frontline of a war against rhino poaching. There I was, being asked by a reserve team member when I was coming back to volunteer. Me, volunteering in South Africa?! That staff member will never know it, but being recognised as someone who could go back, who was brave enough and capable enough to go and volunteer in a foreign country, really helped me on my journey. By the time I got home from the 12 day trip, I knew I was probably going to do a BSc Hons top-up in Wildlife and Conservation.

And that’s what I did. Part way through the year, me and another student (and friend) were given the opportunity to go back again with the student group, and we did, and we loved it as much as the last time. More so, even, because now I was familiar with the reserve team. Leaving it behind was harder than before, I bawled my eyes out on the entire flight home, and we both agreed we’d be going back as volunteers within the year.

I’ll put a little piece in here just to mention my tutors for animal science, and wildlife and conservation. My tutors were freaking ace. Both of them encouraged critical thinking and both were incredibly supportive. I needed the gentle nurturing of my animal science tutor to maintain my self-belief in the first two years, and I needed the slightly harsher (but really massively kind) push from my tutor in the third year to focus my views a bit more. My wildlife tutor opened my mind up to really questioning some conservation methods that most of us accept as law, e.g. eradication of invasive species. He introduced me to the topic of rewilding which really captured my attention and motivated me greatly. He made me aware that I’m an incredibly passionate person, something I never would have described myself as before doing that course. I would not be where I am today if they weren’t for the people they are.

To continue, we finished our degrees in June 2018, and flew back out for a month (with another friend, too) in September 2018. It was incredible. Rhino behaviour observations, spatial location data, Tsessebe sexing and spatial location data, putting out and collecting baited hyena camera traps, doing veld condition index surveys, grass burning and management, ostrich rehabilitation, and occasionally helping to nurse a zebra back to health and so, so much more. This reserve just kept giving and giving, and every time I went there, I grew as a person. This was the one place in the entire world I felt I could be 100% myself, 100% of the time. People at home get bored when I go on a rant about how wildlife needs our help. They’re not interested in my views of rewilding or invasive species because in their minds, none of this affects them. At this reserve, we could have great big discussions and nobody got upset. The bond we formed with the team we were with was incredible. I made some true lifetime friends, something I often struggle with. I gained skills and took on experiences I never thought I’d get to be a part of. All of this broke more boundaries within myself than anything else in my life. It was going to this reserve that really nailed it in that I could make a life for myself in conservation, that I had valid knowledge and opinions.

Once we got home, we immediately planned our next trip, which happened in March this year. I was there for two months this time, and my friend is still out there. She’d saved a lot more money than I did. While I bounced in and work throughout uni and afterwards, she’s maintained a stable job for a number of years so has actually saved up. I never knew what I was saving for, so most of my money went on rent, until I ran out and moved back into my parents’ home. This never lasted long, and living there for a couple of months gave me the determination to start working again so I could move back out. Anyway, this particular trip didn’t start so great – I had a personal circumstance that changed things for me a little bit, and I also managed to trap my sciatic nerve on the travel out there (don’t ever carry your laptop and camera and other heavy goods in a shoulder bag when you know you don’t have the strongest back in the world. Always use a backpack). I couldn’t do much in the first few days. In fact, the volunteer co-ordinator (who has also became a great friend to me) had to physically get me up off the floor on my second day there. I swore at her a lot, but she knew it was from a place of love. I’d spent half an hour trying to stand up so I could go and brush my teeth, but I ended up in a crying heap on the floor. Though with help from her and some home physio, I was able to just about enjoy my third day there, which was also my birthday. It’s strange having a birthday card being signed by several people who you’ve barely said a word to, but I got some incredibly thoughtful presents both from my friends and the reserve management team, who I knew well by this point. Anyway, eventually I could take part again. Once again, I was blown away by the experience, even if I did bring home a bite from a cytotoxic spider (all clear now!).

I got home at the end of April, and this is where I’m at right now. At 28, I’ve only truly been on the conservation path for two years. I have no practical experience in the U.K., as my voluntary experience has previously been with domestic animals or at the reserve in Africa. In that two years, I’ve learnt as much about who I am as I have about wildlife conservation. I’ve set up a ‘zero-waste’ group, I’ve started my own blog and I’ve got dreams of writing a book one day. This path I ended up on has taught me so much strength and courage, and taught me that my biggest asset is my passion. Right now, I don’t have any kind of job. I’m applying for anything, with the solid knowledge I’ll need to save some money before I can relocate for a conservation related job (two years of checking job boards tells me there’s absolutely nothing for me in the area I live in right now). I’m keeping an eye open for volunteer opportunities abroad, but also plan to volunteer locally when I have an income. I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a master’s, but I’m not sure which subject I want to start specialising in yet. I don’t even know if I want to stay in the U.K. long term, or find a way to move to another country. I don’t know if I want a solid wildlife job in the U.K., or if I just want to save up and disappear back to Africa, or maybe somewhere else next time, for a few months, come home and start the process again. I know that I really enjoy field work. I know that I enjoy camera trapping. I know that I have controversial views on some big wildlife issues, and I know we need some major nature restoration and attitude changes if we don’t want to lose our wildlife completely.

That’s not a lot to go on. That’s broad mix of interests. There’s a million questions that need answering at some point and it’s easy for me to sometimes get frustrated that I’m 28 and still don’t really know what I want to be when I grow up. To bring me to the purpose of this message though, I’m sure many of you feel the same, and I’m sure that throughout the rest of my career, there will be moments where I question what I’m doing. Each time I’ve come home from Africa, I lose my purpose for a minute and feel like I have nothing much to go on. At 28, my friends are all getting career jobs or married. They’re all settling into life, and I’m over here like some nomad, flitting from my parents to living by myself and back to my parents, and flitting from the U.K. to this incredible reserve in Africa. But I’m learning to be okay with that, because I know I love wildlife and conservation as much, or sometimes more, than they love their careers. I know that I don’t want children right now, and I know that I’d rather spend another month in Africa than get my own place right now.

My point is that if I can go from someone who couldn’t even see a future, who never saw themselves going to Africa and having that opportunity, who thought they weren’t ‘a science person’, to someone who is determined to make a future, to someone who’s been to Africa four times now, and to someone who is most definitely a science person, you can achieve everything you want to achieve as well. It’s tough, but it’s possible.

Not all of our passion comes from the same place. My passion comes from nature being a saviour to me as a kid in tough situation. I value nature and other animals over most humans because it was nature and animals that gave me support when I needed it the most. Now I have the tools to try and support them back. Your passion might come from a similar place, or it could come from wanting to be the next Attenborough or Goodall.

Wherever it comes from, I know my passion will see me through, just like it will for you guys. I know that, at some point, some new experience or opportunity will make something inside me click, and I will decide to follow that path. Just like how being bored of working in a coffee shop caused me to look into animal related courses, and like how that first trip to Africa persuaded me to switch from animal science to wildlife, and how my tutor advising me to read ‘Feral’ by George Monbiot set me up to study rewilding for my BSc dissertation.

We all share this passion, just as we have all shared the same frustration over jobs or feeling like we’re ‘behind’ and many other things. And we will all share success and the feeling of accomplishment when we get there, even if it takes a minute.

For more of Em, check out her Instagram @emily.jo.h

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