By Tori Wilson

When I was asked to compose a blog entry about my path into the conservation sector I was a little bit taken aback. I’ve had ample opportunities in the conservation sector, but I feel like I’m still dancing around the edges of the field, trying to find my big break and score that dream job. Although I don’t exactly feel qualified to describe how I got into conservation just yet, I do know that there is no one way into this field, so I suppose it’s entirely possible that evaluating my decisions in the pursuit of a career might help the next person with their path.

So how did I get started? Like most in this field, I’ve always been interested in animals. My first word was ‘turtle’ after my parents had taken me to the zoo the day before and it just snowballed from there! I grew up in New Zealand playing barefoot in the dirt, going to the park to check out the ducks, visiting friend’s farms, and watching Attenborough documentaries. I took Primary Industries in high school so I could work with the animals and learn practical farming skills in my urban setting, and by the end of year 12 had submitted an essay to gain early entry into a Bachelor of Animal Science with Charles Sturt University. I didn’t shop around for my degree; I saw it in one of those catalogues they give you in the final year of high school and was sold right away. I didn’t even apply for a back-up program anywhere. In hindsight I would definitely recommend having multiple options, but lucky for me that essay paid off!

I decided early in my undergraduate that I wanted to focus on conservation-based subjects. I was convinced at one point that I wanted a career in the zoo industry, which led me to some fabulous placements in seven zoos across Australia and New Zealand. These placements provided me with great variety in my animal handling and husbandry skills, and they also gave me an insight into the conservation issues facing a wide range of different species. I also completed a placement in a sanctuary in Northern Thailand where elephants from the logging and tourism industries were retired into lush green fields, free of the chains and left to form family groups and express natural behaviours. I found this experience particularly enlightening as it gave me first hand perspective into some of the issues I had only previously read about, such as human-wildlife conflict, and the welfare issues associated with elephant use across parts of Asia.

I loved the variety in species I got to work with during the placements I completed in my Bachelor’s degree

At this point I was beginning to wonder whether I would feel more fulfilled working to actively conserve these species, rather than educating the public about their plight. I recognised that this was still a vital part of securing change, so I enrolled in a Graduate Certificate of Captive Vertebrate Management, just in case. Unlike my bachelor which I had studied on campus, I took the graduate certificate online and worked at the same time, starting off with a stint in bush regeneration on one of the government’s Green Army projects. My study up until this point had involved little to no plant work and I enjoyed being introduced to flora. The project I worked on was a novel trial to control a weed grass in wetland areas, so we experimented with different methods to that effect, as well as learning about plant propagation, plant identification, and gaining experience with chemical use and tools. When the project was over I moved into the landscaping sector and spent some time learning new skills, while still developing my flora identification. Landscaping contracts are somewhat unreliable, so I also took on a job as an egg packer at a local poultry farm to keep me occupied.

While all this was going on I finished the grad cert online and despite initially thinking I was done with study for a while, I came across a Graduate Certificate in Environmental Management (Conservation). This was closer to the field I wanted to work in, so I enrolled again! I took this course by distance as well, while landscaping and packing eggs. There was a stint where I worked in a boarding kennel too. Three jobs, seven days a week, and studying; looking back now I’m surprised it went as well as it did.

Before the second grad cert had started I also took a spontaneous trip to Laos, in South-east Asia, after a post by the Lao Conservation Trust for Wildlife calling for volunteers to help them create pools and climbing structures in their ‘bear fields’, so that they could release rescued Asiatic Black Bears into them. It was a part of the world I hadn’t seen before, and I knew I could be useful, so off I went! Again, I picked up a lot of first-hand experience with conservation issues surrounding not only the bears, but other wildlife inappropriately purchased as ‘pets’ and later surrendered, such as slow loris, macaques, and gibbons. I spent my time over there with some amazing like-minded people from around the world, and benefited from the experience just as much as the bears did!

Building outdoor bear fields for Asiatic Black Bears with the Lao Conservation Trust for Wildlife

As part of my second graduate certificate I attended a residential school for a ‘Principles of Ecology’ subject. The res school was a three week trip with around 20 other students and 3 lecturing staff to the Sturt National Park and surrounding areas in NSW. All three of our lecturing staff were birders (a common term for those enthused by feathered friends) and by the time we reached our intended destination I was hooked! My bird knowledge going into the trip extended only as far as common species, but by the end I was able to recognise a few species by ear, and I’d seen some species people often travel great distances to find. I also learnt a great deal about the intended lessons of the trip: various trapping and survey methods, animal handling, and practical field ecology; and it was more than enough to sell me on the field!

My friend (who was also on the trip) and I took up birding when we got back and joined our local bird club (yes that’s a thing!), Hunter Bird Observers Club (HBOC). HBOC provided us with an opportunity to get involved in a community of people with similar interests, helping us learn as we went. We’d attend monthly meetings where the club would get a speaker in to hold a seminar about bird research or a related field, expanding our knowledge greatly. I later joined Birds SA as well, and have been out with them a few times too! We started birding with cameras so we could take terrible identification photos and then look through the bird guides to work out what we’d seen. Eventually we got to a point where we could pick the birds by sight and sound. Although neither of us knows how to use any of the settings on our cameras still, the photos improved a bit as well.

All the cool kids are birders: Purple-backed Fairywren; Striated Pardalote; Eastern Whipbird

A few months after returning from the ecology field trip, I got a message from one of the other students that had been there. He worked at Arkaba Conservancy, a private property in the Flinders Ranges, and they’d be looking for a new field guide for next year. The role would involve on-site conservation activities including feral animal control, remote camera trap work, flora and fauna monitoring, and guiding. I jumped at the chance and moved interstate. My role in that company gave me the chance to develop a range of useful skills and has provided me with experience with 4WD and MR vehicles, conservation education, group management skills, and field guiding in all its glory. It was a pretty impressive ‘office’ too!

Aerial view of Wilpena Pound in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park; Female Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby with Joey; Feral cat control; Guiding on Arkaba Conservancy

I spent just shy of two years living remotely in the Flinders, guiding guests from all over the world through the stunning 64,000 acre property I lived on and the adjacent Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, before deciding I wanted to move on to a position that had an even stronger focus on ecology and conservation.

The view from the Red Range on Arkaba Conservancy

I moved back to NSW for a few short months, where I was able to jump straight back into bush regeneration work with a local council (there’s always weeds that need controlling!), all while looking for the next big move for me career-wise. My job search led me to the Arid Recovery Internship applications for 2020. I applied, hoping my experience with remote living and my passion for the very same work they were already conducting would be enough to get me over the line. Lucky for me, it was! I packed up my things and drove back across to SA, arriving in the outback just in time to ride out the COVID situation as it hit the world.

Some of Arid Recovery’s reintroduced species. From left to right: Burrowing Bettong, Western Quoll, Western Barred Bandicoot

My internship with Arid Recovery has taught me a range of new skills and developed those I already had. In my first two weeks we conducted Arid’s annual pitfall trapping survey. I’ve used pitfalls before but this was my first experience with taking the project the entire way through from set-up to write-up. Not too long after, I participated in the annual bettong trapping and was taught to process and collar Burrowing Bettongs. Having only previously collared a few feral cats before, I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn this skill. I learnt how to take measurements of quolls, bandicoots, bilbies, and bettongs as I came into contact with them on the reserve, and was even tasked with catching a sneaky female quoll who’d managed to get herself into an area where she wasn’t supposed to be (spoiler: I got her!). Fencing and drought response monitoring have also become a big part of my time with Arid Recovery.

In addition to the activities that occur in the field on the reserve, the internship has also provided me with opportunities to get a feel for the office work conservation involves. I’ve been entering and proofing data, plotting GPS points, identifying invertebrates in a laboratory, writing and delivering content for the science education and community engagement work Arid Recovery does, running tours, and learning anything and everything else I can.

A Mallee Military Dragon; the lab set-up for processing the 2020 invertebrate catches from the annual pitfall surveys; and a microscope close-up of a velvet ant

My time at Arid has given me an opportunity to develop my field skills, as well as my science education and outreach skills, and network with some major names in Arid-zone conservation. The experience has been hugely helpful for me, and while I feel you should never stop learning, I think the experience has given me the resources to push out into the industry and keep the dream of a conservation career alive!

My advice to anyone else trying to make it in this field is as follows:

  • You are going to have to volunteer (repeatedly) to get anywhere in this field, so start saving those pennies now, and start looking for opportunities anywhere you can find them!
  • Speaking of pennies, you don’t get into this field to make them (you may as well have that smashed avo because you’re not buying a house any time soon). You have to love this field to be satisfied in the work, and the work itself is the reward you’ll get.
  • Everyone else that works in this field loves it! You’ll be surrounded be people into birds, bats, plants, mammals, insects, you name it! It’s such a nerd fest, but it’s awesome! Network as much as you can, as often as you can! Be warned though, that enthusiasm is catchy and you’ll end up with a bunch of new interests.
  • Your days will be full-on. Trapping animals involves early mornings and late nights, and often equal amounts of frustration and success. You’ll get to do things other people could only dream of though.
  • The more practical skills you have, the better off you are! There’s a good chance you’ll be your own mechanic, maintenance person, vet nurse, public speaker, and scientist-sometimes all in one day! The more hands on you are the easier you’ll find the problem solving side of field work.
  • Never stop learning! It’s a competitive field, if you’re not keeping up with the latest news and research then you’re falling behind.
  • Persevere! Eventually it’ll pay off.

Where to from here for me? Back to the job market of course! I’ve got plans to upskill again too, and am looking to do a chainsaw course and start learning to band birds. Before coming out to Arid Recovery I went along to a banding day with the Australian Bird Study Association (ABSA) and loved it, so it’s the next big training move for me. All I need now is a job to do alongside it!

Processing birds during banding with ABSA