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A rich person’s profession? Young conservationists struggle to make it

Lucero Vaca with a jaguar (Panthera onca). Photo courtesy of Lucero Vaca.

Lucero Vaca with a jaguar (Panthera onca). Photo courtesy of Lucero Vaca.

  • Mongabay interviewed young conservationists about their experiences launching their careers.
  • Many of them related similar stories of having to reconsider their career choice as a result of the conservation sector’s tight job market, high educational and experience requirements, and often-temporary entry-level jobs.
  • To meet prospective employers’ demands for experience, many graduates become stuck in full-time unpaid internships or long-term volunteering.
  • As a result of these trends, the field of conservation may be hemorrhaging passionate, qualified, and innovative young people.

Nika Levikov swore she would never work as a waitress again. But, today — with a master’s degree in conservation science from Imperial College London — she’s taking orders, delivering drinks, and cleaning tables to support herself.

After two years of looking for paid work as a conservationist around Europe and ten months doing unpaid work in East Africa, Levikov moved to the island of Malta to work at Greenhouse Malta. Levikov, who owes over $100,000 in student loans, described her work at the small environment NGO as “casual” and “freelancing” — some hours are paid, others are volunteer — while the group looks to secure more funding.

“The reality many of us face is that we will have to babysit, clean toilets, and serve drinks as we try to gain the experience we need in conservation to finally get that dream job,” said Levikov, a former intern at Mongabay, who just turned 30.

“I’m not blaming anyone for my current situation in which I am utterly broke and still crossing my fingers that in the near future my career will finally take off,” she told Mongabay. “Indeed I was wrong in thinking that all my hard, unpaid work would lead to something or that having a degree from a…highly-respected university would give me a leg-up.”

Levikov is not alone.

Mongabay interviewed over a dozen conservationists for this article, many of whom related a depressingly similar story: serial unpaid internships, crippling student debt, short-term work for little or no pay, dismissive attitudes, and entry-level job requirements that include expectations of considerable field time and experience.

Other young conservationists declined to comment out of fear that their candidness would come back to haunt them in their job hunt.

Nika Levikov searching for Grevy's zebras (Equus grevyi) in Tanzania. Photo by Mathew Mutinda.
Nika Levikov searching for Grevy’s zebras (Equus grevyi) in Kenya. Photo by Mathew Mutinda/Marwell Wildlife.

“A rich person’s profession”

The world is undergoing vast ecological change. Last year, the international NGO WWF’s “Living Planet Report” declared that wildlife populations have dropped 58 percent in the last 40 years — at least among the 3,706 vertebrates (out of around 10,000) that it surveys. Added to all this, as if we needed it, is climate change: biologists have already catalogued its mark on thousands of species worldwide. Scientists have also declared that we are in a new age, the Anthropocene, that may see a mass extinction as devastating as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. What this will mean for humanity no one really knows.

Amid this upheaval, conservationists are our environmental doctors. They are trying — against all odds — to mitigate the damage humans have inflicted by saving species and safeguarding ecosystems. There are already many species that would not be here at all if not for conservationists’ steadfast work.

Yet today’s rising conservationists are at risk of being forced out of their career by trends, structures, and decisions they had no part in. Of course, conservation isn’t the only career facing hardship — art, coal mining, postal work, and journalism are other examples. But there’s a bigger problem here: if young conservationists can’t turn their education, experience, and passion into a lifelong career, what will become of life on Earth?

“Conservation is a vocation as well as a profession,” said E.J. Milner-Gulland, a biologist at the University of Oxford. “Young people entering the job market are more highly trained than ever, and they tend to have a lot of experience as well…But because of the vocational aspect, it is really hard to get paid work.”

Unfortunately, there is no hard data on conservation employment or pay. For a job that requires an advanced degree and research skills, it’s surprising how little research has been done.

Conservation Careers, the field’s biggest jobs website, says it shares around 6,000 jobs a year. Its director Nick Askew said there may by as many as 30,000 jobs available annually. He calls this his “best guesstimate.” There is no data on how many people are seeking these jobs.

Part of the difficulty of estimating the ratio of conservation jobs to demand is the sheer breadth of conservation work, everything from grant writing at a climate NGO to caring for rhinos at a zoo to doing field research on tree kangaroos in Papua New Guinea — and all that lies between.

Still, conservationists interviewed for this piece — some of them professors, some young people who have spent months to years looking for work, and some who gave up altogether on conservation — all agreed that jobs are often few and far between.

“Many of the jobs which are entry level are unpaid, low paid, or temporary, yet have high expectations of your education,” explained Jessica Williams, 35 and Cornwall-based, who left a career in retail management to pursue conservation in the U.K. To achieve her goal, she spent six years getting a second bachelor’s in natural science while working full time. She is now volunteering while looking for a job that actually pays.

“It’s more competitive than ever before,” Askew said of the conservation job market — one of the reasons why so many young conservationists are willing to work for nothing. Conservation Careers did a survey in 2014 asking if it has gotten tougher to get a job in conservation: 94 percent of surveyed conservationists said “yes”.

Lucas Ruzo. Photo courtesy of Lucas Ruzo.
Lucas Ruzo. Photo courtesy of Lucas Ruzo.

Lucas Ruzo, 26, with a master’s degree in conservation science from Imperial College London, spent a year searching for jobs before he “threw in the towel” and started his own NGO, Citizen Zoo — “admittedly still unfunded,” he said.

Ruzo, who lives in Cambridge, England, said that structural problems have made it increasingly difficult for young conservationists to get good jobs. In his view non-profit donors contribute to the problem by being unwilling to put money into core funding. This pattern leads organizations to “lose the ability to grow, innovate, and retain a competent workforce,” he said.

Of course, donors aren’t the only funders of conservation work: governments are also a big source. Yet in an age of neoliberal austerity, interviewees said that government funds were either shrinking or nonexistent, especially in developing countries.

“Conservation is not a priority in my country, even though Mexico is considered one of the mega-diverse countries in the world,” said Lucero Vaca, 29, a Mexican conservationist studying for her PhD at the University of Oxford. She pointed out that in 2016 Mexico only invested around 0.5 per cent of its GDP in the sciences.

Nick Askew of Conservation Careers pointed out that most conservation jobs, and NGO headquarters, are in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, making it especially difficult for conservationists living outside the industrialized world to make their way along their chosen career path.

“I envy the countries where it is possible to work in nature conservation and it is a career for [one’s] whole life,” said Juraj Svajda, a conservationist in Slovakia. Svajda had worked for Slovakia’s environment ministry and national park system, but lost his job along with many government conservationists after political purges in 2007. Today he works as an assistant to a professor.

“[In Slovakia] we are now living in era of early capitalism so environmental issues are at the bottom position of social importance,” he noted.

A 2011 overview of the master’s program at Imperial College London gives a look at some of the challenges. Based on interviews with 63 people who graduated between 2007 and 2011, the analysis found that less than half (32) had actually been employed by a conservation organization. More than half had their first “job” under voluntary circumstances. Yes: volunteering with a master’s degree.

By their second job over 70 percent were doing paid work. Still, most jobs were temporary. Fewer than 30 percent of first jobs and fewer than 50 percent of second jobs lasted longer than a year.

Exacerbating the dismal job market is this trend of graduates becoming stuck in full-time unpaid internships or long-term volunteering.

“Internships are an extremely valuable way for people to test-drive their chosen role, to build their experience for their CV, and to grow their network. If done well an internship really can launch a career of a young conservationist,” said Askew.

But many of these internships aren’t given to college students testing a career during the summer, but to graduates with advanced degrees and a long CV already. Some young conservationists are even paying to work, handing money over to nonprofit volunteer tourism outfits, like London- and California-based Frontier, to participate in research for months at a time.

It has become a vicious cycle. Students, even those with advanced degrees, are told that they need more experience, especially field experience, before they can get a job. But just about the only experience available is through unpaid internships or volunteering. Pretty soon one unpaid internship isn’t enough and now two, three, or more has become the unspoken standard.

After he got his master’s, Ruzo did two four-month-long internships before he “buckled under the weight of the financial pressure.” He has friends who spent an entire year doing unpaid work.

“This is completely unrealistic for most people,” he said.

What happens next? Most people interviewed had not yet secured jobs. Some young conservationists give up and move on to something else. Some try to build their own NGO, like Ruzo. Many continue to look while working other jobs to pay the bills. And some shrug their shoulders and get a PhD, largely to support themselves financially for a few years, however low the pay, before entering the humiliating job market.

A source who spoke on condition of anonymity has been looking for a job since December 2015 with no success. During that time the person worked for free with WWF, the Nature Conservancy, the Tropical Biology Association, and the Whitley Fund for Nature, and did short-term paid gigs with BirdLife International. The source claimed to have applied for more than 70 jobs and interviewed 15 times, coming in second four times.

“One of the jobs I came second for was at an NGO I had volunteered full time for at that stage six months prior to the interview. Devastating,” the source said. “It has been beyond exhausting. Many tears have been shed.”

The source eventually moved back home with the parents to reevaluate.

Milner-Gulland said she worries that conservation is becoming a “rich person’s profession,” that only people with a wealthy background can survive the years of higher education followed by months or even years of unpaid work.

“It does feel like a field you have to be able to buy your way into,” Williams said.

Lucero Vaca with a jaguar (Panthera onca). Photo courtesy of Lucero Vaca.
Lucero Vaca with a jaguar (Panthera onca). Photo courtesy of Lucero Vaca.

“We will never be able to do all the conservation work we want to”

In 2015, Auriel Fournier co-wrote an opinion piece entitled “Volunteer Field Technicians Are Bad for Wildlife Ecology”. Her team’s argument was this: not paying field technicians excludes anyone who is unable to work for free, undermining science and conservation by erecting financial barriers to a creating a truly diverse pool of students.

Currently a PhD candidate at the University of Arkansas, Fournier, 26, said she co-wrote the paper because she has seen how unpaid internships, volunteering, and pay-to-work schemes have made it impossible for colleagues to advance their careers.

“These [unpaid] positions are often the first step towards paying work” in a field where entry-level jobs often require considerable field experience, Fournier said. Many people simply can’t afford to take them, particularly people from underrepresented groups, such as people of color, foreigners, and parents, she added.

Spokespeople for the world’s largest conservation groups — Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, WWF, and the Wildlife Conservation Society — were largely reluctant to discuss their internship policies in detail for this story. But all four groups offer both paid and unpaid internships. (Unpaid ones can sometimes be used for college credit; paid ones are sometimes dependent on funding).

These groups are also big employers in the field with sizeable bottom lines (WWF-US brought in $248 million and paid its CEO $730,666 last year). Williams said that “it can seem like a cynical move” for larger organizations to offer full-time work for no pay when the higher education requirement to get even unpaid internships often comes with “high personal cost.”

Some smaller NGOs argue they are financially unable to offer paid internships. And obviously even unpaid internships represent an investment of an organization’s staff time, overhead, and sometimes hard cash, that can be substantial.

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust offers only unpaid internships in order to focus its funding on its conservation mission, according to spokesperson Alexandra Shears. But she said the small Jersey island-based NGO is “clear and upfront” with potential interns about the financial realities and does “try to help with accommodation and travel.”

Juraj Svajda measuring erosion of trails in High Tatras National Park in Slovakia. Photo courtesy of Juraj Svajda.
Juraj Svajda measuring erosion of trails in High Tatras National Park in Slovakia. Photo courtesy of Juraj Svajda.

The group recently offered a six-month internship in Bath, England, requiring at least a bachelor’s degree and full-time hours, but with zero pay. Interns may be able to secure help with rent, daily transportation, and lunches equaling at most about £3,500 ($4,550). But that’s all, so they live way below the poverty line.

“Many sectors, including conservation journalism, use unpaid internship programs…to provide an opportunity for those looking to get practical experience, build a resume, network, and receive coaching and support,” Shears said, pointing out quite rightly that Mongabay also runs an unpaid internship program — one I work as an editor for. (Mongabay’s is not meant to interfere with a full-time job; the program requires a commitment of approximately 10 hours a week.)

Shears also noted that most internships with Durrell last two to three months to accommodate students and the financial challenges of interning.

Still, not all small conservation groups depend on unpaid internships. Blue Ventures, a London-based marine conservation NGO, recently offered a six-month internship with a pay of £8,750 ($11,400).

“I am very aware of the controversy around unpaid internships and the risk of taking advantage of volunteers,” said Cathy Dean, the head of Save the Rhino International, which runs a well known paid internship.

It comes with an annual salary of £18,000 ($23,400)— but the intern spends 11 months in London, one of the most expensive cities on Earth, as well as a month in Namibia. Dean said she feels the pay is fair considering that other salaries at the group range from £21,000 to £39,000 ($27,300 to $50,700) — and of course it’s miles better than working for free and above the U.K. poverty line. The internship is highly competitive; Dean says there are usually around 250 applicants.

“I can’t speak for other organizations; I can only say that the paid internship program works very well for us,” she said.

Conservation remains hugely underfunded compared to many other non-profit sectors. According to the website Charity Navigator, environmental and animal-rights groups raised $10.68 billion in 2015 in the U.S., representing only 3 percent of the total amount given to charities that year. And if you look at what’s needed to save life on Earth (one report put the figure at $150-430 billion annually) the current funding is laughable.

So perhaps unpaid work is a necessary evil? When asked if paying interns could hamper conservation efforts, Fournier responded: “Yes.”

“So could paying for gasoline, truck repairs, and for the equipment to ethically care for and handle the animals we study,” she added. “That is not an excuse for doing it. We will never be able to do all the conservation work we want to, we need to ensure the work we are doing is being done in a way that moves conservation forward.”

“Egos and attitudes”

Of course, many of these financial trends are not unique to young conservationists. The Millennials have become a generation of super-educated individuals doing customer service jobs. In many countries, salaries have stagnated or fallen even as the cost of higher education and health care skyrockets. Students often graduate saddled with debt while having fewer options for good jobs, many of which come with less pay. That story of a science PhD applying to Starbucks — oh, it’s real.

But the conservation sector has exacerbated these issues due to high educational requirements, super high experience quotas, and low salaries for entry-level jobs.

On top of all that, many sources also said that early job experiences were demoralizing as they encountered difficult personalities and disrespectful work conditions.

Natasha Ballal. Photo courtesy of Natasha Ballal.
Natasha Ballal. Photo courtesy of Natasha Ballal.

“The biggest challenge is dealing with other conservationists’ egos and attitudes,” said Natasha Ballal, 29, who currently works at an NGO in India as an education officer.

Early in her career Ballal said she found herself stuck taking on all aspects of a conservationist’s field work, including daily logistics and visiting around a thousand villages to conduct interviews. All this, she said, for “extremely low pay with very little appreciation.”

Ballal’s early experience was echoed by a number of other sources, who said one of the biggest issues young conservationists face is dealing with the egos of their elders. Working for free only exacerbated the disrespect and humiliation.

“What always got me the most was the fact that because you’re working for free, your time is essentially considered worthless, and so you might be asked to do things that are absolutely pointless, but no one cares because they didn’t pay for it,” said Soizic le Courtois, 30. Despite obtaining a master’s in conservation science and spending nearly a year doing volunteer work overseas that she had to pay for, le Courtois eventually left conservation for education.

“Conservation is like any other profession, we’re just people after all,” Milner-Gulland said, noting that any prevalence of egos may be caused by conservation being a purpose-driven field that promotes “a bit too much of a sense of our own moral superiority.”

Despite impressive credentials, including various awards, and being one of the first Mexican women to attend Oxford for conservation, Vaca said senior conservationists still refused to hear out her ideas.

“If we stop underestimating people based on their age and let young conservationists [carry] out their innovative ideas, we will have awesome results in conservation,” she said.

One area where young conservationists could be especially effective is in employing technologies.

“As an extreme example, a member of a board of trustees I sit on once asked [me] what we needed a webpage for, I was lost for words to say the least,“ said Ruzo.

The world changes. It may just be that kids who grew up in this increasingly technological, globalized, and complex world have big ideas that could transform conservation for the better — if only we valued them.

“It is extremely saddening to see many young individuals who have been bullied and over-worked with low pay… realize they cannot continue in this field,” said Ballal.

“Being useful”

“I kept on going back to this idea of being useful. If I left, there would be ten people to fill my shoes,” said le Courtois of her decision to leave conservation for teaching.

“I tried to think of what the limiting factor was. There aren’t enough jobs in conservation because everyone is always fighting for the same pots of money. So how do you make the pot of money bigger? You fundraise, or you spend public money, but those are limited too. The only way you can increase it is by getting more people to care. So how do you make people care? Documentaries. Awareness raising. Or you teach kids to care about the environment. That’s how I became a teacher,” she said.

Today, le Courtois is three years into her teaching career and pursuing a master’s degree in educational research. She landed on her feet — and she’s teaching children to care about the environment. But she also gave up a career in conservation.

So, what’s the risk in all this?

It’s pretty straightforward: the risk is that conservation may be hemorrhaging passionate, qualified, and innovative young people.

Pretty much all interviewees agreed: the first things to do are to start paying early-career conservationists for their time, scrap the unpaid internship model for highly-educated applicants, and dump the expectation that entry-level conservationists should somehow have years of experience. One source suggested new government regulations to keep NGOs from having unpaid interns do highly skilled work.

Next, sources said, conservation employers should set up more entry-level positions and make sure they hire entry-level applicants to fill them — not people with years of experience and a PhD.

A number of interviewees also said they believe NGOs should prioritize hiring local people rather than bring in conservationists from developed countries to run projects. This, they said, could dramatically lower salary costs and create on-the-ground conservation champions who stay put.

Seth Wong. Photo courtesy of Seth Wong.
Seth Wong. Photo courtesy of Seth Wong.

“Foreign researchers and students arrive, conduct a project, publish a paper after returning home, and never go back again; is this conservation?” said Seth Wong, 26, who’s working on a graduate degree at Mississippi State University.

To help globalize conservation, Milner-Gulland called for more grants for students from developing countries to study conservation as well as for disadvantaged students at home. She proposed a program that would sponsor graduates to go to other continents for conservation training in a one-to-two year paid position, which she compared to the “type of fast-track graduate-level training that the big firms and civil service offer to their best and brightest.“

For Lucas Ruzo conservation is stuck in a non-profit model that is limiting.

“We need to move beyond the charity model, and embrace different legal operating structures,” he said. “Let’s fund innovation, innovation of the kind that doesn’t have a publication attached to the end of it.”

Of course, the one thing most of these ideas require is money. And that is always limited.

But the onus isn’t just on the system. Young conservationists — and you know who are — also need to take a look at themselves, sources said.

“Individuals looking to break into the conservation world should probably consider what they bring to the table,” said Wong. “What does conservation actually need and how could you achieve this? Perhaps more research and science isn’t the answer, and as a teacher, businessperson, entrepreneur, or social worker you could genuinely contribute more.”

But in the near-term, before any real solutions can be enacted, young conservationists are likely to come up against obstacles — one might even say financial impossibilities — that make it difficult to stay the course. Many will understandably give up, taking away talent and potential from an occupation vital for maintaining life on Earth as we know it.

The casualties are already mounting.

“I am trying and sending my applications worldwide,” said Svajda. “And for hundredth times comes the answer — you have amazing and impressive CV but we are not hiring you.”


Correction 8/16/17: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Juraj Svajda’s surname.

Correction 8/18/17: This story was updated to correct the conversion of Save the Rhino International’s base salary into U.S. dollars. £21,000 is equivalent to around $27,300, not $15,600 as was previously reported.

Editor’s note 8/19/17: At one interviewee’s request, this article has been amended to omit an employer’s name.

Correction 8/22/17: This story was updated to omit the assertion that Lucero Vaca was the first Mexican woman to attend Oxford for conservation. At least one other preceded her.

Correction 8/29/17: This story was updated to correct the number of months Nika Levikov spent in East Africa (it was ten months, not four as was previously reported) as well as the location where her photograph was taken (it was Kenya, not Tanzania as was previously reported).

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