Written by Amy Tobin
In 2022, I travelled to Indonesia on my third trip to see orangutans in the wild, but this trip was different. On this trip, I attended with my work colleagues and visited places where my work was supporting the restoration of habitat in Borneo through donations from our kind and conservationist supporters. This trip, like a lot of my journeys, gave me time to reflect, and it guided me to question many things.
I’ve thought a lot about what I’d write for a Lonely Conservationist Blog and I’ve been wanting to share my story here for a long time, after reading the guest post blogs, and being inspired by the authenticity and the earth warriors in the community. I have been nervous to share my words though, because I don’t own an animal sanctuary, I haven’t started a business protecting the planet, I haven’t tied myself to trees or machines, and I haven’t ridden around Australia on my bike to raise millions for charity. ‘I haven’t done anything special,’ says my ego. ‘I haven’t done enough’… ‘The other authors deserve to share their story, but not me’, says the child in me who doesn’t believe in her potential. Have you ever looked up what a conservationist is? By a simplified definition, it is ‘a person who advocates or acts for the protection and preservation of the environment and wildlife’. That is me. And that is you – for those reading this.
I have many passions. I care deeply about connection to land and protecting sacred sites in Australia, travelling from my home country of Boonwurrung Land in Victoria to Kuku Yalanji and in Far North Queensland. I care about unlearning our racist systems and focusing our energy on learning to embrace the spirituality of the Indigenous connection to Mother Earth that intertwines everything we do, from breath, to water, to animals, to food, to trees, to our connection to others. I care deeply about animals, every single animal. I am passionate about sustainability, and sharing easy tips with others to reduce our consumption of meat, palm oil, and plastics.
I first became vegetarian over ten years ago when my philosophy teacher told our class about a book about pigs and it taught me just how intelligent and sweet pigs were – and I never ate meat again. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of my animal welfare and conservationist journey, a journey that would lead me to my purpose. I then changed what I wanted to do in my career, and dreamed of working in animal welfare. My mind opened up to the world of climate change, and the horrible things we as humans were doing to this planet. I learnt about palm oil and my naive early 20’s self could not fathom that not every single human I knew was learning about orangutans, that the issues weren’t taking up their whole brain space, and not everyone knew that there were only a few hundred left in the wild. They share 98% of our DNA and it is our fault that they are endangered. We had decimated their homes, and we were still doing it – for no reason. Surely if we knew these facts, everyone would jump out of bed wanting to do everything in their power to save them, right? After all, the orangutan is the person of the forest.
I’ve always volunteered for different groups. My mum regularly volunteered throughout my childhood, and I joined her when we were younger to visit the elderly who didn’t have family. We would sit with them, ask them questions and bring them treats. I loved it. And then, just after high school and during university, I volunteered at my local op shop. I was given the role of Volunteer Supervisor and gave my time every Monday for over 4 years there. I had cups of tea and biscuits with the older ladies working there, and I got to get the best op shop finds for clubbing outfits on the weekends. It was perfect. So naturally, when I found these new interests after becoming a vegetarian, I looked towards volunteering to gain experience and connect to people in the industry. I volunteered for every group I found focused on animal welfare and environmental justice. I did beach clean-ups, worked at stalls for non-profits, went to protests, volunteered at animal shelters and sanctuaries in South East Asia in India, Indonesia and Thailand; and it took me a while to get my foot in the door – and find people I connected to. I thought I would find my community quickly because we all had this shared value of protecting animals. But I soon learned that you need more to connect than a shared value. It took a while to find belonging in this space, and sometimes I still feel out of place. After learning that most of our cosmetics and household cleaning products were tested on animals, I volunteered for an anti-vivisection society in Narrm called Choose Cruelty Free, which focused on education and campaigning to the Australian government to ban cosmetics tested on animals. After two years, I was promoted to a staff member, then a manager, and I ended up being with them for over 6 years. I got to work with a group of fearless women, which was incredible and inspiring enough seeing people who literally wake up thinking about protecting animals – and actually do something about it. I got to work with and meet other inspiring animal advocates through collaboration. I learnt the power of collaboration early on in my career, and if you let it push you, that competition is soul-destroying when you are working for the same goal – to protect animals, wildlife, and this sacred planet. We are better when we join together, and this integral value of collaboration has been embedded throughout my career.
I never stopped being an animal activist, but I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into animal welfare. It was exhausting. At a time before society knew what to call it, or tools to heal it, I went through burnout again and again. I needed a break, and I also wanted to work for different passions of mine and challenge myself in a different field. When I left my role at Choose Cruelty Free, I literally thought my time in animal welfare and conservation was over. I thought it was a fluke that I landed my job, and that I wouldn’t get any more. I was at a point in my life where others told me that I was good at what I did, but I never believed it myself. I smile to myself when I think about the fear I had when leaving this role. I was so sad to leave the family I had made, and so scared I’d end up not working for something again that I so deeply believed in. Could I actually do it? It took me so long to establish myself in animal welfare, and now I want to move into the conservation and sustainability field. Was I crazy? Of course not. My fear and the protection of my ego was denying an important part of myself, that I am a damn passionate empath who is determined to make positive change for this planet. Further to that, when I first read that book about pigs, and stepped into the person I was meant to be, I couldn’t go back to the person I was, the younger version of myself: unspoken, an outsider, a girl who wouldn’t speak up because she was scared of what others would think.
A friend who I’d collaborated with through work in the non-profit sector called me a month after I left my position in an animal welfare role, and asked me to be their Marketing Manager. The girl who didn’t believe in herself could literally not believe it. The role was, drum roll please… in conservation, working for a palm oil free certification program, which focused on education and awareness of the palm oil industry, illegal logging in Borneo and Indonesia, and orangutans – my favourite animal.
Flashback: In 2018, I first went to Sumatra and saw the Sumatran orangutan in the wild, as well as volunteered with the Orangutan Information Centre, volunteered on a restoration site where the organisation had pulled down the monocrop of palm oil trees, and replanted native trees to restore the rainforest. We spent our days working in the nursery, walking in the forest, keeping an eye out for different bird and wildlife species, and planting trees.
In 2018, after my second journey to Indonesia in a Westerner’s naive wish to ‘save orangutans’, I left not knowing if I had any power within the palm oil industry and feeling quite helpless as an individual. Fast forward to four years later, and I was working for a palm oil free certification where businesses paid to get their products certified palm oil free, because they want to make a stand and say no to palm oil decimating Bornean rainforests. There was change happening. A lot slower than I hoped, but I have been part of the education and impact we were about to see in the local community, and for our precious wildlife. The first few years in this role saw me interviewing Birute Galdikas, my conservationist idol, joining the Eco Impacters podcast as a co-host, training volunteers, working with brands aiming to do better for deforestation, and working with a new bunch of fearless conservationist women I was proud to stand with.
Flash forward to the present day: 6 November 2023. The past two years have seen my career flourish, but more important than my career objectives, my life has flourished and I’ve been part of change through many avenues of incredible businesses in Australia. I’ve worked for conservation groups, an Indigenous business touring Australia and creating content for Aboriginal owned businesses, written articles about climate change and going plastic-free for sustainability businesses, worked for a regeneration project working towards planting an organic rainforest in Far North Queensland, worked for a palm oil free certification company, worked for an environmental social enterprise managing festivals and events in Australia, and conducted environmental consulting for Victorian councils, schools, businesses, and cafes. And now, I am starting fresh, again, establishing myself as a conservationist in a new country on Turtle Island in Canada. Frankly, it has been difficult so far. I’m continuing to remind myself what I offer, and that the right connections will form exactly when they are meant to. Until then, I continue to write about my passions on my blog, sharing the journey on Instagram and YouTube, volunteering for businesses I believe in, and networking every chance I get. All the while, trying to live in the present, live authentically and ethically, and continue creating a life I love.
A lot of conservationists and activists don’t take the time to celebrate how far they’ve come, or their accomplishments because they’re too busy putting animals and the planet in front of themselves (yes, I do this too), but I think it’s important to continue to congratulate yourself and share these wins for the planet, no matter how small. I used to think it was humble not to share it and believed that those who did share their wins had a large ego. In my late 20s, I finally unlearned and healed from the Australian tall poppy syndrome when I realised that other people’s stories inspired me to go for my own. Further to this, people who cheered me on when I doubted myself, motivated me to keep going until I could be my own cheerleader. Then, my own self-reflections and celebrations started to keep me going. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean the negative self-doubt goes away entirely; I have to continue checking my reality on the daily. Reflections of how far I’ve come, like the process of writing this article, keep me motivated, they keep me challenging myself doing what I love to do, being a change-maker in whatever role I’m in. More than that, the reflections and celebrations give me hope – that if I’ve accomplished what I have already in this life, I know that there’s nothing I can’t do – and there’s nothing one individual cannot do for this planet to make positive societal change. So, what are you going to do with your passion and personal power?
For more of Amy visit @shes_green on Instagram