Exclusivity in conservation

At the start of this year I invested a great deal of time researching and enquiring about potential internships for my summer break. These plans have, unfortunately, had to be amended slightly.

So many of these ‘internships’ cost in excess of £1000 per week, and that’s not even including flights, visas, travel insurance or any essential equipment.

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Above the clouds, on route from Kilimanjaro to Istanbul

I did manage to find some opportunities that were free or even offered partial funding, but these are few and far between and many of them were not suited to me (as an undergraduate student) or required more time than I could commit.

(Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances last summer, I began my first year of university with very little money and this has at times been a bit stressful, so I am keen to get back into full time work this summer and hopefully gather some savings together to support me through second year – so spending the entire summer volunteering is not an option for me.)

Despite not being able to find a suitable internship for this summer, I am planning some photography trips and may even venture abroad at some point, so all is not lost and I still hoping to make my time off uni worthwhile!

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Berat, Albania

Anyway, back to the subject of expensive internships…

I joined a Facebook group where lots of conservation careers opportunities are shared, and I have noticed that many people question how much good a lot of these ‘providers’ actually do.

It is my belief that these organisations should be there solely for the protection, restoration and research of the natural world, and anybody interested in contributing to this great work should be welcomed with open arms.

But instead, profit seems to take precedence over inclusivity, the ‘visitor experience’ is more important than the task at hand, and it almost seems as though in many cases these businesses are trying to sugar-coat the situation.

The reality here is that we are failing our planet, and even in the midst of people who are supposed to care, money is still placed at a higher value than caring for the natural world.

We need to be encouraging people from all backgrounds to take an interest in conservation, yet there is this elitist attitude that is preventing people from accessing it.

Of course, providing food and accommodation for volunteers does require some contribution, but there is a significant difference between covering costs and expecting students (or their parents) to pay several thousand pounds for the experience.

It is perhaps a little ironic that I am now about to discuss the expedition I went on to Tanzania and Kenya when I was eighteen, with an organisation called Camps International.

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Elephants in Tsavo, Kenya

This was in itself a significant financial commitment, and I spent close to a year and a half fundraising and working to get the funds together for it. During the fundraising events that I held (with the help of my parents) I had to become an advocate for Camps International, talking about the many projects they conduct around the world and persuading people that it was a worthwhile cause to donate to.

The month that I spent out there was perhaps one of the most influential times of my life. We worked hard and achieved a lot while we were there, from building a house for a lady whose children had died, to planting trees, to constructing elephant deterrent fencing to reduce human-wildlife conflict.

Towards the end of the trip we had a talk from the women’s group that had been founded by Camps International in the community surrounding our camp in Kenya. The camp was near a busy highway which had hundreds of trucks passing through every day, and it was common for women from the surrounding villages to sell themselves as prostitutes there. Camps International had provided alternative jobs for these women, and as well as helping them directly, had also helped to prevent the spread of HIV, which was rife in the community.

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Tumaini women’s group

Of course, we did get days off from volunteering, and during our month there we had the privilege of going on a safari and engaging in a diving course off the coast of Tanzania.

Returning to my previous comment about many of the trips I have seen advertised catering more for the visitor experience than actually being for the benefit of the wildlife or people, I recently saw an expedition being sold to students on the fact that ‘you can take selfies with turtles’.

Somehow, I don’t think satisfying students’ social media egos is quite what the turtles need, and I think that this kind of advertising will attract the wrong sort of people onto the expeditions – not to mention that this could actually be quite a stressful experience for the turtle, which is a wild animal and would not likely be comfortable being so close to a human. In my opinion, contact with wild animals should be minimised, and volunteers should only be approaching them when absolutely necessary.

The planet desperately needs our help, and if students (or other people) are searching for conservation-related opportunities to participate in, they should be able to engage with projects that are affordable, but that also have a meaningful impact. We shouldn’t be putting a price on our planet’s well-being.

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So you want to work in a zoo?

You study zoology? So what do you want to do with that then, work in a zoo?

It’s a question I have heard over and over again.

I suppose that part of me finds it amusing, but another part of me just wants to beat my head against the wall.

I suppose for anyone who doesn’t know what the subject of zoology entails, thinking that I want to work in a zoo is a reasonable assumption – in reality, I wouldn’t need a degree in zoology to get a job in a zoo; a qualification in animal management would be sufficient.

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‘Zoology’ is derived from the Latin ‘zoo’ – of animals – and ‘-logy’ – denoting a subject of interest

Zoology encompasses a broad range of topics relating to animal life; for example so far in my first year I have studied modules in biochemistry, cell biology, animal anatomy and physiology, ecology, animal behaviour and genetics.

I appreciate that zoology is a somewhat unusual subject (the reaction I get anytime a person asks me what I study is a testament to that), but I have to admit it is rather frustrating to have to repeatedly explain that I won’t be mucking out rhinos for a living.

Personally, I’m not actually particularly keen on zoos. Initially they were simply exhibits where people could pay to see interesting animals, although in recent years the focus has shifted to the conservation of endangered species and I believe that zoos can be used to produce insightful and constructive studies into animal behaviour and disease.

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Green mamba at Chester Zoo

Studying animals in a captive environment compared with their natural habitat does present challenges in itself and could produce results that are not representative of wild populations.

Behavioural studies in particular are likely to form very different conclusions when they are conducted ex situ as opposed to in situ: captive animals often develop repetitive behaviours that arise from stress or boredom. However, studies into how animals learn could be successful in zoos, as the environment is more easily controlled than it would be when studying wild animals.

I was pleasantly surprised on a recent visit to the Yorkshire Wildlife Park to only see a couple of animals displaying the stereotypical pacing behaviour that I had been expecting – the enclosures there are well enriched, and I saw many animals actively engaging with the materials that had been provided for them.

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Ring-tailed lemur at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park

Research into diseases can be conducted in zoos: for example, Chester Zoo is leading the way with research into elephant endotheliotropic herpes virus (EEHV), which can be fatal and currently has no effective cure.

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Asian elephant at Chester Zoo

While this aspect of conservation would no doubt be a fascinating and rewarding place to work, it is not an area that I feel particularly drawn to.

Studying zoology here in Lincoln is a stepping stone to the career I would like to build and I am constantly thinking about what I would like to do after I graduate… at the moment I am not entirely sure about what I would like to focus on; I am keen to become involved in conservation projects and I find reptiles, birds and insects especially captivating. Whenever I get chance, I head out to practice with my camera and I am considering options that would take me down the route of wildlife photography and film-making.

Studying ecology over the past few weeks has given me a new appreciation for considering ecosystems as a whole, and the complex network of relationships and fine balance maintained between species is proving to be fascinating.

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Wild elephant herd in Tsavo National Park, Kenya

The next two years could present opportunities that I haven’t even thought of yet, so I am trying to remain open-minded about the future – one thing I do know however, is that I am unlikely to end up working in a zoo!