Dear 15-year-old Leyna,

 The numbers that break your heart never end. I know that all the statistics on declining species may be overwhelming. But that does not mean that you are the only one who reads these numbers, listens, cares, and tries to act. I promise you that there are many kids, teenagers, students, scientists, reporters, educators, land managers, and people outside of the scientific fields that care too! When you find a group or club that shares your enthusiasm for animals and conservation, you will feel the burden of all the numbers be lifted off your back. 

I remember the joy and relief I felt when I joined a volunteer group at my local zoo. It was amazing to finally see others care and talk about conservation, green issues, and the future of the environment. We all discussed and brainstormed ideas that each of us could implement at home to benefit the environment. I remember we would sit in a circle in the education building – just a few hundred yards from elephants, cheetahs, and hippos – and go through various facts. Then, we would discuss how we could reduce our personal environmental impact. One of our leaders, Lauren, would discuss vampire energy and how it draws electricity from the outlets even when the toaster, for example, is not in use. Then we would all go around and say what we do to reduce the negative impacts of vampire energy or ideas for what we could do. At the next meeting, we may focus on composting. Finally, it felt as if we could all make a difference because we all cared, developed ideas we could share with our families, and even impacted those who came to the zoo. 

That is not to say that one individual cannot make an impactful difference on their own, because they can! Think of the zoo teen volunteer leaders, Lauren and Evelyn, they have led this program aiding and supporting young conservationists, scientists, and students for many years. This support of youth has led to countless conservationists, educators, and well-informed young adults. Their program’s legacy lives in all of us and whatever careers we choose. 

A more science-focused program at the zoo was on box turtles, where another team of leaders had an impressive legacy as well. Two partners were living the dream of studying conservation from a health perspective and an ecology perspective on the same study systems, in a program that spanned multiple continents. Man did I think they were so cool with all their stories of studying Congo elephants, publications on tortoises, and their Prius. You and a few other teenagers were responsible for radio tracking ten or so turtles, including a turtle named Steven, that had been tagged for a few years as a part of this program. One day, we could not find Steven’s signal in the normal area where he spent most of his time. For weeks we searched for his signal all over the reserve when we had extra time. I remember one day we hiked eight miles looking for that beep from the radio tracker (our boss did not like us to use a field vehicle!) and all felt hopeless. A few weeks later we picked up his signal on a road in the adjacent park and he was down this steep valley making his signal hard to find! When we finally go to him after all the confusing beeps off the hillside, I remember picking him up and counting his ID over and over because I could not believe this little fellow had moved SO FAR away from where he had been living for years! This one little turtle helped me understand the ups and downs of being involved in conservation. Sometimes things work themselves out, but other times you can do everything right and not get the outcome that you are hoping for. Occasionally you might lose a turtle and not know why, but the project still goes on. This lesson has helped me throughout my other projects to not be as disappointed when the study does not go as planned because this is quite common in ecology! I still lose track of a turtle here and there, but I can work through it and continue the project to, hopefully, lead to some useful information for conservation.

All in all, even though helping a child make a colorful giraffe holiday ornament or finding where a box turtle is sitting may not seem of ground-breaking conservation importance, everything that you do to make others empathize with the environment or understand it better is valuable. I remember the twinkle in a little girl’s eye as she constructed her ornament and the glow on a small boy’s face after he came in from seeing a penguin parade. Every moment like this is inspirational and do not overlook its significance. This hope and these moments will lead you through rough times when it may seem as no one is listening or taking action on the grim outlook of Amur tigers or Leatherback sea turtles. There are countless species success stories and effective conservationist narratives that you can delve into or share when you and your friends/colleagues are feeling down. 

As soon as you can get involved in science clubs, volunteering, and even field research you will meet so many incredible people that will aid you in becoming a hopeful conservationist. Find others like you! It can be scary, and the facts may be daunting, but talking to others with alike interests is the best thing you can do for some peace of mind, to create greater action, and even move forward in your career. Hint: reading is the second-best thing you can do, but don’t always read the dreary stories!


Twenty-five-year-old Ph.D. Student Leyna

Illustrated by Kimberly Hoffman @kimhoffy