Lonely Conservationists

Caitlin (Elephant in the room: travel, climate change and the conservationist.)

Written by Caitlin Brant

I’ve met so many biologists and other young people passionate about the environment who absolutely love to travel. Don’t we need to get to remote places to find animals? Or to get to a big conference? The effect of these activities is contributing heavily to climate change, something that is so intertwined with the survival of many species. I usually see climate change and wildlife conservation sold as separate issues, but they are intrinsically linked.

I love to travel. In fact, I’d say it’s my second greatest passion after wildlife. I started working as a coordinator for a sustainable transportation initiative six months after I graduated with a master’s in conservation biology, to pay the bills. I also created a website to help people travel on a lower income and to teach people about places they may not have heard of. My love of travelling the world and my passion for wildlife conservation seem to be totally at odds with one another. It’s no secret that travel can be, and often is, extremely resource intensive. I found myself feeling guilty about doing something I enjoy as well as something I very much want others to experience.

I know what you’re probably thinking, you should feel guilty as travel and leisure greatly increases our carbon footprint. I stopped writing for a while and even considered shutting my website down, after all, why should I encourage people to do something that harms the environment and wildlife?

Here’s why I didn’t: travel and tourism are a growing industry. I know that some conservationists see things in black and white. For example ‘all palm oil production is bad and the industry should be shut down’. I must disagree however; everyone has different passions, some people help out children in need and others like to fly model planes. I’ve learnt in my job as a sustainable transit coordinator and educator that, at the end of the day, some people are not interested in learning about or changing their habits for climate change or conservation. Especially when oftentimes, they do not see the consequences of our carbon footprint or even our resource use (E.G. Borneo rainforest destruction for palm oil). Does that mean we should give up? No, of course not, the world needs conservationists to save wildlife. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I, as an individual, and conservationists as a whole, can have a distinctly positive impact on this world.

The conclusion I’ve come to is to move to sustainable practices. The word sustainable is thrown around a lot these days and in my opinion, is totally overused. However, we should educate and encourage people to live less resource intensive lives and learn to live with wildlife instead of against it. The tourists interested in environmental issues go on to make informed decisions and show interest in sustainable practices that drive real change, from everything to where a hotel is built to the treatment of wildlife in tourism. As interest in climate change and wildlife conservation has grown (thanks Planet Earth!), people have begun to think about their resource use. This has led the number of certified sustainable hotels to increase to unprecedented levels.

Travel is also a method of showing people the consequences of their resource use as well as how widespread habitat destruction reaches across the globe. For example, travelling to China for my thesis was extremely eye-opening. The effects of industrialisation on wildlife and on human health were astonishing, but so were the conservation initiatives by the Chinese government. Like I said before, nothing is black and white. Seeing how large China is and some of the environmental problems they face taught me a lot about conservation.

Conservationists who are in a position to inform government policy with their research and force change through law is an amazing way to lessen the human impact on wildlife. Unfortunately, as a 26-year-old recent graduate, I am not in a position to do much of either. The internet and social media is a way I can have my voice heard, even if it is only to a few people. When I have time, I still work on my travel website and while sometimes I still feel bad about travelling. I try to balance teaching people about how to conserve and be more sustainable while travelling using positive stories on interesting places. This includes everything from taking public transit to using reef safe sunscreen and to look out for “fake” wildlife sanctuaries abroad. Accepting that people will always travel is important, and helping them do so more sustainably I think is the best approach. At this point, it’s worth noting that I don’t want to come across as ‘preachy’. A study found that doom and gloom wildlife conservation often makes people feel helpless, giving the perfect justification for them to give up and not care at all about climate change or conservation.

Ever since I was very young, I envisioned myself working with animals in one way or another, and like so many other early-career conservationists, I’ve found it extremely difficult to find paying work in this field. Some full-time volunteering expeditions even cost thousands of dollars! So what can we do? We find other jobs, other passions, and say we’ll keep looking for conservation work. That’s what I’ve done anyway. My contract as a coordinator of sustainable travel is coming to an end and soon I’ll need to find another way to pay my way. I hope that by finding my voice and helping people to make more informed decisions, I can help to drive change.

For more of Caitlin, check out @caitlin.brant and @budgetbreaksblog on Instagram and @budgetbreakblog on Twitter

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