Written by Jax Bath

Hi, my name is Jax and I’m a lonely conservationist. I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and have only ever wanted to be two things: a singer, or a conservationist. I can’t tell you when my love of nature started, it has always been intrinsic to me, spurred on by the nanny who raised me and the way I grew up. I was a shy, introverted yet eccentric child and nature has always provided solace and a sort of “company” that I rarely find in people.

From saving bees from naughty boys at school, to questioning the fishing practices on a Mozambique holiday, to being horrified in Kruger Park when the staff working there disposed of a baby bat instead of saving it – I have always felt deeply moved by the injustice of the world and felt it my place to do something about it. I saved baby birds, made all my speeches in school about conservation, did public talks against canned hunting and for the conservation of Africa’s wildlife and volunteered, all before I turned 18.

I knew that I was getting into an industry that didn’t pay well. There was a lot I didn’t know when I started my first job at 18. I didn’t want to study because I didn’t feel that it was “truly living” so I started my career a month after I finished high school. Initially, I wanted to work with Africa’s terrestrial wildlife. I emailed over 50 Lodges to see if anyone would consider me for an internship…and no one got back to me. Then, when I was visiting distant family, I had the opportunity to work in their restaurant over the busy december holidays.

By chance that next March, I ended up on a whale-watching boat helping with capturing photographs and writing blogs. In my life, there has been some epic foreshadowing, and the writing had been on the wall that I would work on the ocean…but I ignored it.

Fate had found its way, and within a few trips, I had fallen deeply in love with the ocean in a way I could have never anticipated. Over the course of the year, I did my guiding courses and then fell into a job that encompassed everything I loved. I would guide, write, and take photographs every single day. Days were extremely sporadic, so I would also be called to photograph necropsies, work with volunteers, and head out for an Orca sighting. No two days were the same and I loved it. The work was heaven and I flet like I was making a difference every day, but the cracks begun to show, and the environment was extremely unhealthy.

As it goes in many companies, I was built up and then knocked down. I went from being “the prodigal” to being extremely disliked. I gave absolutely everything to my job, but there was always a problem, and it was never enough. I crewed, collected data, took photos, guided and I was extremely overwhelmed and undertrained. I might have been able to handle this if not for the pressure and the unkind ways in which we were treated. We also operated in rough seas which lead to a chronic feeling that something terrible would happen to my clients. I loved my work more than anything, but after 3 years, I became extremely burned out. I lost my sense of taste and was completely disassociated.

Eventually, I made the hardest decision of my life and I resigned. That was 4 years ago, and I still get tearful about all that I had to give up. Though there were many people who made my life hard. Many of the people I worked with at my first job are still the most important people in my life. At 19, I had a car, a job, a house, and a life I loved. My work felt so purposeful. I felt that I was contributing to conservation every single day. I’m 25 now and still trying to rebuild all that I lost after I resigned. Despite this, I am glad that I did. The work environment took a real toll on my health and several months after I left, I was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder after the extreme bullying and dangerous working conditions that I had endured.

For a long time, I disliked the field of biology, and I was intensely fearful of boat captains. I have put off doing a nature conservation diploma or biology degree because of the cutthroat culture I saw. I would still like to start my diploma, I am hoping to do so next year, but I don’t see myself ever going into being a full-time scientist.

For the past 4 years, I have felt like a lobster larva adrift, travelling thousands of kilometres, moulting many times but never really finding my feet again. Though in a weird way, I have found my place. I feel that every person has something unique to offer the world of conservation and I think that my offering is my voice. I love guiding, and I love using guiding as a tool to promote conservation, active citizenship, and more sustainable living. I believe that my words, my passion and most importantly – my sensitivity, vulnerability, and compassion- allow me to reach people. I work on the 1/1000 rule. If I can dramatically alter the course of 1 person’s life or at very least their behaviour, I am making the difference that I want to see in the world. 1 in 1000 sounds like a lot, but in my career, I work with thousands of people every single year.

I have worked for several other companies now, all with their own ups and downs. What I have learned over the years is that very few conservation/ecotourism organisations see value in having a good company culture. Most work on the burnout model. You arrive and you’re the next best thing until you’re not. You give it you’re all until you can’t, you crumble and change under the weight and then you become the “problem”, and then you leave and are considered a traitor.

I believe that only by having brave and uncomfortable conversations and by holding companies accountable, by speaking our truths as conservationists, will this change. I hope to be part of this change as hard as it is, and I read a lot of Adam Grant and Brene Brown in the hopes of being able to bring their philosophies to everywhere I work.

Despite all the hardships, I have hope and I would not trade the good people I have met and the wildlife I have seen for anything in the world. I have recently discovered the expedition industry, which is everything I felt I had lost when I resigned from my first company. I believe that in this industry, I can create a life where I work with wonderful people, earn a living wage, and make a difference to the animals I hold most dear. It’s been a ride trying to get new contracts, but one of the single greatest lessons I have learned in life to date is that life is not just about happiness, but about purpose.

If you’ve made it to the end of this, congratulations, it’s been one long story. My conclusion is advice I wish I had been given at 18. I hope that you never stay in an abusive work environment, because despite what you have been led to believe, there are workplaces where you will be treated with respect. I hope that you align yourself with a cause but never any one company. I hope that you will believe me when I say that there is life after everything you have loved the most, and that you will find joy and purpose again. I hope that you do not lose hope, but if you do, that you will find it again. Be kind to yourself, let yourself fall, heal and when you’re ready, get up again. Take breaks if you’re burned out, stick to your values always and hold on to the people that love you. Find solace in the wild and fire in yourself again and again. If you want to be a conservationist, you best get comfortable with being a phoenix.

For more of Jax, check out @jax_bath_ on Instagram