- Created by a 26-year-old Australian, a new online community called Lonely Conservationists is bringing together young and struggling conservationists.
- Members post about their experiences, including unpaid jobs, financial woes, mental health issues, and, of course, loneliness.
- The community has succeeded in creating a space for candid, sympathetic conversations about the difficulties of working in conservation.
Last year, Jessie Panazzolo, like many young conservationists (and some middle-aged ones too), didn’t so much feel her career had stalled as that it had been cut out by the root and lit afire.
On paper, the then 26-year-old Australian looked quite successful: she had an honors degree from Adelaide University and a good decade of experience; she’d been volunteering in conservation since she was 14. She’d worked on a research project studying tourism impacts on black lemurs in Madagascar; she’d assessed a newly restored forest in Sumatra; she’d worked with wildlife organizations in Thailand, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Panazzolo had also won awards and presented at conferences.
Yet, to her, the reality was different. Many of these jobs weren’t actually paid. Some she paid out of her own pocket to do, a common occurrence for many young conservationists. And some involved distressing and poor working conditions.
“Either I was always paying to work or my bosses were treating me [poorly] and every time, I had to leave for another reason and then there was a lag period applying for jobs,” she says. “Then I have to go through it again and again.”
In late January 2019, she hit a moment of crisis. Panazzolo had been volunteering for the past six months at a conservation group with little hope of the position turning into a paid job.
Over drinks one night, her friends gave her an “intervention”: they said “as long as I was working for [the conservation group] for free, I was never going to get a paid job. I just went home … defeated,” she tells Mongabay.
It’s a moment many conservationists can sympathize with. Indeed, the next morning, Panazzolo heard from another friend in Spain who was dealing with similar issues.
“I thought if I’m a lonely conservationist and she’s a lonely conservationist, how many are out there in the world? That’s when I started to blog. I told my story and my frustrations,” Panazzolo says.
It was with this first blog post that Panazzolo created the online community Lonely Conservationists. In the past year it has exploded, drawing in more than 2,500 members and 55 posts by similarly frustrated, exhausted, undervalued, and once-isolated conservationists — now finding community.
“It’s like a global group therapy that you can always access …We share job postings, memes, mental health posts, and support,” says Sean Washington, a 21-year-old conservationist in the U.S. who was one of the first members. “Someone always is available to talk, and everyone has a story to share and ears to listen.”
No longer alone
Louise Cordery was one of the first, after Panazzolo, to write a deeply personal post about her career as a lonely conservationist, in which she described suffering an emotional breakdown in remote Indonesia.
“I had felt totally alone, a failure and like I was stagnant in the field,” says Cordery, 29, who is based in the U.K. “That experience had been yet another unpaid one and I felt so demotivated moving from voluntary role to voluntary role … I all but gave up on a career in conservation.”
She didn’t though. Cordery says the Lonely Conservationists’ community helped her believe in herself again — and know she is hardly the only one struggling in this field.
“It gave me the confidence to dive back into my passions,” she says. Cordery has since started a podcast, Turn on the Light, that focuses on positive stories of species recovery.
“It is still a baby project at the moment, but it wouldn’t even exist without Lonely Conservationists,” she says.
Similar stories abound. Members have not only found confidence and camaraderie, but also kindness and, sometimes, even opportunity.
Lonely Conservationists “aims to find all of us in our believed isolation,” says Washington, who wrote about aspiring to be a conservationist from the African American community, “thinking that we’re too alone in this battle to talk about it with anyone or that we chose this plate so we have to eat it all. And gives us a whole flock of people who have gone … through the absolute worst of the industry.”
In spearheading the community, Panazzolo has seen that many conservationists share similar struggles: deep financial insecurity, abusive bosses and mentors, poor working conditions, and mental health issues including impostor syndrome.
Although there is little hard data, conservationists have long pointed out that jobs are few and far between, a trend that seems only to be getting worse.
“The job market that barely exists is stretched at best,” says Rachael Lowe, another Lonely Conservationists community member who wrote about overcoming difficulties with mental illness.
Many young conservationists, already saddled with student loan debt, spend years working in unpaid internships, volunteering, or even paying to work, all to gain experience or to keep their résumé current while they wait tables, work as nannies, do retail work. Or they jump into a Ph.D. as the only way forward.
“I’m doing a Ph.D. because to get any paid job in conservation in Africa at the moment, it is a minimum requirement,” Lowe says. “It is a gift that I now get paid significantly below minimum wage to research elephants every day.”
She adds, “And it won’t last.”
The dearth of paid jobs is due partly to a global lack of funding for conservation work, much of which is managed by nonprofits. But it’s also a product of governments around the world cutting back on conservation and environmental protections even as the Earth heats up, species vanish, and ecosystems are hammered.
The job market is not just tiny, but incredibly unstable.
Panazzolo says many conservationists are afraid to talk candidly about their very real and understandable struggles, even with peers, for fear the word might get out and it might somehow make them less hirable.
So, how did Panazzolo overcome the fear that creating Lonely Conservationists and going public about her own experiences could torpedo her shot at the next job?
“[I] had nothing really to lose,” she says. “I was really happy to start this conversation and to air my frustrations because I feel like something had to change.”
To date, everyone who has written a post for Lonely Conservationists has done so with their name attached: in many ways it’s a community of courage.
Conserving mental health
Panazzolo says she suffered from what many do in the field: impostor syndrome.
Impostor syndrome is when someone doubts their accomplishments, feeling they have no right to be in their career. Often, they feel like a fraud — despite their successes.
“I walk up to a conference and I don’t feel like I fit in, because I don’t think that I’m worthy of being here or worthy of this opportunity,” Panazollo says, explaining how impostor syndrome can feel in the moment.
Although a common experience for many professionals and academics, impostor syndrome isn’t widely talked about in conservation though it’s clearly common here too, according to Panazzolo.
“It’s to the point where I’m asking people to write blogs about the struggles they face in the industry and a lot of people don’t even think they’re good enough to write about how they’re struggling,” she says.
At the same time, unlike, say, doctors, many conservationists are still not being paid fairly — or at all — for their expertise, lowering their sense of self-worth.
“It’s a cycle of volunteering-interning-job hunting for ultimately low-paying jobs in your degree … that can be vicious to people’s self-worth, confidence and mental or even physical health,” Washington says.
Mental health struggles go well beyond impostor syndrome, though. A number of those on Lonely Conservationists describe struggles with emotional breakdowns, burnout, anxiety, and depression. This is not only a field that puts massive expectations on applicants with little financial recompense, but also includes facing the day-to-day reality of climate catastrophe and mass extinction.
“We — particularly people of my age, a millennial — are going to have to work for the majority of our lives, so surely it must be in an environment that is at the very least not detrimental to our mental health?” Cordery posits.
On top of this, as the group’s name makes clear, is the loneliness. Conservationists often travel and live alone while working on projects.
Panazzolo says a job in her native Australia was so bad that she spent all her free time alone.
“That’s where I got my passion for bird-watching,” she says, making lemonade out of lemons, “because the only thing I could do … was go outside and look at birds.”
Conservationists also say that their family and friends don’t fully understand how challenging it is to try to make it in the field.
“You get a lot of people … claiming that you didn’t have a real job or [asking] when [are] you finally going to settle down?” Panazzolo says.
But the loneliness — and the vulnerability to mental illness that it brings — may be the worst during field work. Not only are conservationists often isolated then, but they may also experience culture shock and difficult working conditions.
Panazzolo says that when she worked in culturally and religiously conservative Northern Sumatra, she was “confined to one room” and couldn’t go out at night because it was unsafe for a Western woman. She was also harassed by a stranger who would peek in on her and once even entered her room.
Women face challenges
Not surprisingly, women, in particular, face distinct hurdles in the conservation field.
“I’ll never forget one time in North Sumatra somebody said they were proud of me, but as a man. They’re like, ‘Jessie, we think of you as a man.’ It was just really shocking to me that they couldn’t be proud of me as a woman,” Panazzolo says.
There is no question that Panazzolo’s experience in North Sumatra would have been different had she been a man — but blatant sexism is not relegated to more conservative or developing countries. Panazzolo says she’s experienced plenty of sexism in her home country of Australia.
“I think it’s something that we should still be talking about and take measures to make women feel more included. That doesn’t mean discriminating [against] men. It just means educating men and standing up for yourself when these conversations happen,” she says, acknowledging just how difficult it is to stand up for one’s self in the moment.
To better understand how women conservationists cope, Panazzolo spent some time analyzing the blog posts by women on Lonely Conservationists. She found the same factor that could bring women conservationists down, could also lift them up.
“Out of the blogs written by women last year, the most inspiring thing in their journeys was their supervisors and their teachers and also the thing that could crush their spirits the most and hinder them the most was their supervisors and their teachers,” she says.
Panazzolo has personal experience with this. She had an academic supervisor who “constantly pushed me down” and made her never want to go back into academia.
Unfortunately, many young conservationists have similar stories of supervisors or teachers who are belittling, jealous of their underlings’ successes, and even emotionally abusive. But, according to Panazzolo, supervisors and teachers can make all the difference by providing a healthy, supportive environment, one that allows stigma-free conversations around mental health.
Lonely Conservationists as an online community is not out to fix all of the problems in the field, but to provide community, support and resources to people in the trenches. At its core, Lonely Conservationists is about building a community of stories.
“The power of stories, to me, is incredible because it creates this honest environment, it immediately builds trust,” Panazollo says. She says her own storytelling — admitting her struggles — allowed others to trust her and tell theirs. And from there the whole thing just spiraled. Stories came in from Kenya and Florida, Costa Rica and France.
The reach of Lonely Conservationists may go even beyond community building; it could be changing the industry, person by person. Panazollo tells of how one young conservationist broke down in a job interview as they struggled to talk about the impacts of climate change. The interviewer, however, instead of shooing the person out, steered them toward Lonely Conservationists — and eventually hired them.
“For me, when I heard that, I just felt like everything I had worked on had paid off because these stories obviously had … built this notion of how important empathy is in the industry,” Panazzolo says.
Washington says it was the Lonely Conservationists community that gave him the confidence to apply for a job he’s starting soon — one that could turn permanent. Ever the naturalist, Washington says the community has gone from a single organism to an ecosystem.
“In the same way that a polyp makes coral makes a reef, Jessie [Panazzolo] just found a site to plant the first polyp and a reef sprang up and continues to grow.”