Letters to young conservationists

Letter to 13-year-old Astrid

Dear 13-year-old Astrid,

I am currently writing this letter to you from London, where you have lived for the past couple of months. Over the past five days, you have been self-isolating in your room due to testing positive for the COVID-19 virus, which has spread rapidly worldwide, becoming a global pandemic. This sums up the world’s situation for the last two years, so although this may seem like a scary concept to you right now, it has become the norm for so many people. While in isolation, I have had time to reminisce on your life and experiences, and I wanted to share how proud I am to have seen you grow into the woman you have. You have not given up on yourself and your childhood dreams during many life challenges, which have led you down the unique path that I am now on. 

Today, at 13, you are watching a magnificent rhinoceros graze while listening to the birds chirping around you and feeling the last warmth of the South African sun setting on its beautiful landscape. I have to tell you that you have created a dream that I get to live in now. When you promised yourself that you would come back and spend at least a year in the bush, little did you know that this would happen sooner than you imagined and shape your future in ways you could never dare to imagine.

In 2018, after completing your undergraduate degree in psychology, you will fly to South Africa to undertake a field guide course. Throughout this time, you will have the opportunity to discover a new world and passion: conservation. During this year, you will understand that nature is indeed beneficial for the well-being of humans, and you will feel those benefits yourself. However, you will also realise that this environment is more complex than it seems and that working and living in remote areas of the bush can be difficult and even toxic. Unfortunately, you will notice that there is a lack of help and support provided by remote conservation organisations to their employees. This realisation occurred early on in your new journey.

During your field guide course, you will share your experience with 15 people from all around the world. You will all decide to learn more about the South African bush, its fauna and flora, and live amongst some of the most beautiful animals on Earth. You all have the same desire to live amongst nature and connect with the natural world’s wonders. As amazing as this experience will be, you will notice that being in constant contact with the same people can have its ups and downs. You will create close bonds with these people and consider them family. However, as you can imagine, sometimes it is difficult not to have a choice of who you spend your time with. During the day you will spend all your waking hours with these people, and at night you will share a tent with one person. You won’t be able to spend the day elsewhere, as the closest town is more than forty kilometres away, and you can’t go for a walk as you share your living space with dangerous animals. Therefore, even though being surrounded by the most beautiful natural environment you could dream of, the social environment will impair the benefits those can bring, and this is a feeling that all your course-mates will share with you. 

As a part of your course, you will need to complete an internship. With your student supervisor, you will develop a plan to create a pilot project where you will give your time to help the other students. The idea was to spend time with the students, listen to them, and see what could be put in place within the camp to support them in the ways they needed. You would then report this data to the management team so they could put these solutions in place to provide their students and employees with the support they needed. Unfortunately, even though you are resilient and adaptable and can find answers to any possible problems that may arise during the project’s duration, the management team will still turn your project down.

As a result of the unwillingness of the organisation to participate in your project, you will complete your internship in Namibia with a conservation organisation aiming to protect and rehabilitate carnivores. You will deepen your knowledge and discover more about conservation for nine months. However, you will learn that your experience during your course was only part of a larger issue, and this organisation will show you how difficult it can be to work in this field. The organisation carries out great work to protect endangered species but does not treat staff and volunteers ethically. Later on, you will realise that this divide between animal and volunteer care seems to be a pattern within the conservation field worldwide. 

You will soon discover that in the majority of conservation organisations, people live and work in the same place. Most of these places have lodges and restaurants for visitors to bring in an income for the program. This means that the food the organisation provides to their guests is usually good quality; however, it is not always the case for the meals given to the staff. In this particular organisation, you will realise that this lack of consideration for the workers’ diet will significantly impact you and your co-workers’ well-being. People who have not had these experiences might think that complaining about the food at a conservation job may be too small to care about. However, the small details that we ignore tend to build up and create big issues, which results in more extensive impacts on the well-being of the staff. 

After noticing the impact of the poor diet on the staff members, you reported the issue to one of the managers, who advised you to do a survey. After surveying the staff and figuring out the changes needed, you will talk to the staff members and develop a realistic alternative plan that could be put in place to improve the meals. Sadly, this good-natured problem solving is not how the manager-in-charge of the meal plan perceived your actions to be, and when you submitted your survey results to her, she decided to stop talking to you altogether. 

Those two examples of your experiences are only two stories from thousands of stories from people across the world who work in the field of conservation. Many people before me and many after continue to work towards a better working environment while their qualms are continuously rejected and ignored by higher-ups.

The bush has shaped you more than you could ever imagine. Learning from great people, being in the field and being in constant contact with all of this mesmerising nature will make you realise that this is where you belong. You have started to grasp a small understanding of what is wrong with the industry, and without realising, you have created the quest you are now on: a quest that combines both psychology and conservation. Consequently, your dissertation for your master’s degree in health psychology will look at how the social, physical and working environment of the South African bush impacts the well-being of individuals. You will confirm what you have realised during your personal experience – the natural environment of the bush is beneficial for individuals working in the bush; however, the social and working environment can impair those benefits. 

The results showed that being in the bush brought people valuable lessons, such as gaining essential skills, confidence and even overcoming phobias. Being far from cities and in clean air seemed to be an important factor for people. This allowed individuals to feel more connected to nature, be less materialistic, and live in the present moment. The positive side of being in the bush is working with people who have similar visions, meeting people from all around the world, and creating solid friendships. However, as mentioned above, being in the bush can be challenging. Even though the social aspect can be positive, people struggle with it most of the time. As this lifestyle is demanding, it is challenging to find a separation between work life and personal life, and there is little to no privacy. In addition, despite doing what they love and being with people, people can feel very lonely in the bush. 

You have seen across the data you collected that all participants tend to say something like: “I don’t know, it might be just me who feels this” or “this is more on my side now. I don’t think everyone thinks this”. Yet, whatever followed after they said, was also shared by the other participants. This demonstrates that there is not enough light shed on working in the bush and how people feel in this kind of environment, which I believe might accentuate their feeling of being alone or lonely. However, throughout your research and reading, you will find out that what participants have shared in your study is seen worldwide by people working in conservation.

Consequently, while writing this letter, I am now trying to find a way to make your goals become a reality. I want to find a way to create a support system for conservationists’ well-being during their work placements. During this journey, you will meet many people who will help you realise that your work is important and worth doing! It is not an easy path, but you keep reminding yourself that it is worth it and needed. Currently, you are contacting people who can help you realise your dreams, and in the middle of all these exchanges, you are starting to create bonds and relationships with people who have a similar vision for the world as you do. Speaking to like-minded people gives you the strength and courage to continue to fight for what you believe is right. 

With the help of your friends and family, you are shutting down the imposter syndrome voice in your head, and you are starting to believe that you can make it. You grow stronger, too, by discovering The Lonely Conservationist movement, meeting new people and hearing stories. You are slowly gaining confidence and fighting for your dreams to come true. Life is very challenging and slow right now; you have not chosen an easy path, but this path is yours. Never give up on yourself or your dream, and you’ll see that your unique path is leading you right where you belong. No matter how long it takes, you’ll see that all of this is worth it in the long run. 

 Love from,

 25-year-old Astrid

Written by @titide_97

Illustrated by Kimberly Hoffman @kimhoffy

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