Written by Madhushri Mudke
Ten years ago, the dilemma of finding an appropriate career in wildlife that allowed me to ‘work with wildlife’ was a daunting path to take. One begins to ruminate – ‘I love animals’, ‘I love being in the wild’ or ‘We must save wildlife and forests to combat climate change’. Back in 2010, climate change was haunting humans like it is today and biodiversity losses were still alarming. Despite the popularity of NatGeo and Animal Planet, choosing a career that would last a lifetime and allow you to work with wildlife is more difficult than performing a pole vault.
The thing with careers in wildlife is that they aren’t as straightforward as any other professional careers like law, engineering or medical sciences. After graduating from a generic professional college, most people end up getting jobs at established organisations. Such jobs not only provide financial security but also self validation, societal respect and a sense of community through conferences, work meetings and events.
Focus on your strengths to pursue a wildlife career
Let’s start by acknowledging that it is extremely difficult to understand yourself, leave alone understand professional working conditions within the ‘wildlife’ sector. It is important to look beyond the pleasures that being ‘in the wild’ or ‘being with animals’ can offer. A career in wildlife is diverse and knowing your strengths is important for a great start. So your first step should be to note down all your strengths: personal and professional.
Imagine you have a vast canvas in front of you – what’s the most prominent colour, sorry strength, that you want to see in there. Your greatest strength is basically your biggest skill that allows you to reach a larger goal. For example: spoken and written language, filming, coding, social media, creativity, drawing, writing, a successfully completed degree, all of which could be enlisted as your strengths. Now work out a path that begins with your own strengths and encampasses wildlife within it.
For me personally, working in academia is fulfilling and fun. However, no one told me about the challenges in academia for a woman researcher in a developing country. Through all these years, I learnt that an important skill is to navigate through the difficulties and look beyond academia – to look at larger interests and problems that require you to continue working or do what academia prompts you to. For example – writing a small academic paper can help you in writing a big and an important one down the line. When I was choosing research as a career and looking for opportunities to pursue a PhD, I thought generating new information scientifically is the only way forward. Since I love reading, writing and analysing data, my skills and strengths have allowed me to navigate through the challenges of scientific careers. Recently, I have come to realise that scientific careers are not for everyone and that pursuing one can be mentally, physically and financially extremely exhausting!
Therefore, when anyone asks me how to ‘work with wildlife’, I start by stating that there are too many subfields and facets to wildlife. Along with that, just like me, there are several people who believe that they are doing the right thing. They’ll tell you that there’s only one right way of working with wildlife, but trust me there are several varied paths.
Thinking beyond existing wildlife career options
Scientific research, professional filming, photography or even working with established NGOs/organisations as project managers or leads can set one on a successful wildlife career path. Despite these well-known options, trying out teaching, entrepreneurship, writing, art and content creation might also allow you to ‘work with wildlife’.
A professional degree and building interpersonal relationships will surely help a newcomer. But these established paths might seem daunting due to the inability to maintain a proper work life balance, difficult working conditions during field work, financial security and added mental health issues. The lack of support system and internalised misogyny has been highlighted as one of the major reasons why women tend to fall out from these well known career paths. Given all of this, leaving out established career paths and venturing into the newer ones might be ideal.
There’s ample scope for independent entrepreneurs who are now coming up with ways to work with biodiversity and material goods.Technology is being used extensively to create space where wildlife could benefit with capitalism. Have you heard of the biodiversity friendly coffee? Apart from that, there is also a rise in grant programs for creative writing and art. This may allow creators to travel to forests and learn about animals while pursuing art. Such projects will also put food on the table.
A career in wildlife could mean anything from running a charity for supporting wildlife to working at a zoo. However, one must start by appreciating various (unexplored) nuances to careers in wildlife.
The constant lack of self-worth
Most people seeking to find their wildlife career paths end up feeling dejected, lonely, financially unstable and under the ‘imposter syndrome’ at some points in their lives. This is mainly because wildlife and environmental concerns are largely value and convenience driven. Each person ends up setting his/her own goal while trying to fulfill a larger goal of ‘working with wildlife’ or ‘saving the forests’ at one’s own personal level. For instance, if I am making a film on red pandas, I am helping the cause of ‘saving the red pandas’. But a film may not directly stop a poacher or a large infrastructure project that encroached on the red panda habitat. There’s a missing link here that one needs to understand.
Additionally, putting environmental and wildlife concerns before your own individual self can cause mental exhaustion. The lifestyle choices one prefers can add to the constant lack of self-worth and demotivation. Questions like, are my daily living habits sustainable or are they further endangering biodiversity and forests, should I buy groceries packaged in plastic that threaten more than 250 species of animals or shall I find ways to reduce my plastic waste? Living with such thoughts can lead to agitation and disquiet.
Entangled thoughts at the back of the mind of an environmentally conscious person will make things worse even before one chooses an appropriate career. However, let me tell you that this is a great start in knowing who you really are. Therefore, choosing an appropriate ‘career in wildlife’ that’ll also allow you to lead (a somewhat) environmentally conscious life might actually be the right thing to do.
Wildlife and environmental crises are too large to tackle at an individual level. This, I think, is the number one reason behind a lack of sense of community or togetherness among people who are pursuing wildlife careers. There’s no right or wrong. There is no single goal and no single answer. Everyone involved has set their own separate goals via different approaches that are convenient to them. People working in wildlife sectors have different worldviews, opinions and methods available to keep the ‘living with wildlife’ or ‘I am saving the forests’ spirit alive.
For more of Madhushri, check out @girlgonebirdzz on Instagram