Written by Laura Perry
Conservation can be a dream career. Certainly, the stories from my day-to-day life sound good at dinner parties. But is it as good as it is cracked up to be?
Objectively, I’m a fairly successful conservation biologist. I have relationships with National Geographic, the WWF, and the Explorer’s Club, to name a few. I am attached to the world’s leading carnivore conservation group, WildCRU, at the University of Oxford. And I currently work on two amazing projects: one in the Chyulu Hills, in Kenya, and one in Niassa National Reserve, in Mozambique. But in conservation – perhaps as in all careers – success can look better from the outside than the inside.
Once upon a time, conservationists arrived in the discipline along a variety of strange and wonderful paths. Today, there is less diversity. I, like so many of us, came to conservation through academia. I studied Biology as undergraduate degree, then carried on to a PhD in conservation psychology and human-wildlife conflict [Tip 1: choose a respected, broad undergraduate. ‘Conservation biology’ may be what you are most interested in, but a broader, more academically respected degree will get you further. You can always specialise later]. But I didn’t pursue academia and forget about field experience. You can’t. If, by the time you finish your degree, you have no practical experience, it will be difficult to access those opportunities. I was able to take a year out between school and my undergraduate degree, in which I worked on a variety of projects in southern Africa – from censusing leopards in Mpumalanga, to monitoring African wild dogs in Kwa-Zulu Natal. [Tip 2: rather than going on expensive ‘pay to volunteer’ trips, email academics, particularly PhD students. They often need the help, and may be happy to help cover your costs].
By the time I started my first degree, I knew exactly who I wanted to work with for my PhD. I sometimes wonder where that scarily determined teenager went. Throughout my undergrad (I do not necessarily recommend this approach) I ignored my actual degree, and focused on networking with my chosen research group. In practice, that meant volunteering to do whatever jobs were needed – from sorting camera trap images to helping radio tag hedgehogs. It took a lot of time, but it also worked. When I finished my degree, I was employed by my group for a year, to give me time to write my own PhD proposal. But what exactly did I want to research?
This bit took time. About a year, while working for my group as a researcher. But how do you make such a tough decision? And what factors go into the choice? Obviously, it needed to be academically interesting; something my boss would think valuable. And it needed to have real-world conservation implications. But academic/conservation factors aren’t the only valid criteria – personal preferences are just as important. I knew I wanted to be in Africa – it’s where my experience centred (and really, where my interests lay). I also wanted to move around – so many PhDs focus on one location, which gives a very in-depth thesis, but very little broad applicability. For me, that didn’t seem useful. I’m not interested in knowing one place inside and out. I’m interested in being able to generalise rules that can lead to evidence-based conservation interventions, across a much wider scale. And personally, I’d worked on enough field sites to know that you should never commit to a place, unless you’ve spent time there first. Three years on a site that could be great, or could be awful? No, thanks. [Tip 3: only ever commit to a PhD you fully love. Ideally, write your own. If you don’t love it at the start, you won’t end up finishing it].
In the end, I settled on focusing on human psychology. Yes, zoology is fantastic. I love a good game count as much as the next girl. But do we really need more people to count the spots on leopards? The interface between humans and wildlife is what actually threatens wildlife, and understanding how to reduce these issues means understanding human behaviour. Even better, this work would allow me to move around, see lots of things, experience lots of different techniques, and hopefully position myself for a successful career in the field.
Having done the hard planning work, I next needed sponsorship. Again, this isn’t always easy – in fact, it is mostly very difficult. But it does get easier with time and experience. Conservation funders are like businesses: if you can make a compelling case for why your work is important, and why it will deliver necessary information/outcomes, they will support you. [Tip 4: funding applications take time. If you rush them, it will show. A rough rule is every two pages of application = one day of work]. Eventually, after six months of applications, approvals and permits, I set off, funding in hand.
Over the course of my PhD, I’ve worked in Kenya, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. I’ve worked on eight sites, and had time in between to get caught in cyclones, move in with inappropriate men, and generally have the time of my life. I thoroughly recommend it.
But, like anything, applied conservation isn’t without issue. It’s a very masculine field. In the past 20 years, we have seen increasing numbers of successful female conservationists be highly successful, but it isn’t the norm. On all the sites I have worked on, there has never been more than one woman working in each place. Personally, I work better with teams of guys than teams girls, so it’s broadly fine. Apart from the times when it isn’t fine. When people don’t treat you like an experienced professional. When you have to be twice as good as anyone else in the room, to get your voice heard. Or worst, when people actively sexually harass you. In most workplaces today in the Western world, there are avenues for dealing with sexual harassment. But my fieldwork isn’t in the Western world, and often your options are limited. Either stay (and suck it up), or leave. At best, harassment is frustrating; at worst, it is actively scary. But the idea of leaving a project because of other people’s behaviour is – for me – even more intolerable. At some point, I may have to; but not yet. [Tip 5: choose your colleagues very carefully. In the field, even if you don’t particularly like someone, you have to feel safe around them].
At the moment, I’m working on a project in Kenya, and in the final planning stages for another in Mozambique. I should also finish my PhD this year. And I think I have a plan. But there is so much variability, so much change, so much chance in this field that really, who knows. I want to stay in conservation, but I can’t control all the factors that go into that outcome. I personally struggle with uncertainty, so I’ve had to come to terms with a back-up plan. If this field doesn’t work out, plan B will. There’s a freedom in feeling I can leave, if things don’t work out in a way that makes me happy. It is a shame: I see so many talented young conservationists leave the field, whether due to job instability, poor compensation for their work, or oppressive conditions, and conservation has surely lost many shining stars. But the more dedicated young people who manage to stomach the difficult early years, the more power we will have to shape this field, and improve conditions for the conservationists of tomorrow.
For more of Laura, check out @theoxfordconservationist on Instagram