All work, no pay: the plight of young conservationists

I consider myself extremely lucky, indeed very privileged to have spent almost my whole working life involved with wildlife and landscape conservation: Working in spectacular surroundings; saving or re-creating precious habitats; the buzz of telling other people about the view around them; working with animals (well, most of the time!).  Yes there have been the downsides – office work, getting wet and muddy, clearing up other people’s mess and livestock having other ideas about where to be!  But hey, most occupations have their downsides!  Reading this article has really reinforced just how lucky I was back in the 1970’s to have got into this profession and what for much of my life, has been a charmed career.

All work, no pay: the plight of young conservationists.Jeremy Hance for Mongabay, part of the Guardian Environment Network,

Thursday 17 August 2017.  [ABRIDGED – Part of a longer article].

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 four 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 (£77,644) 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.  Over a dozen conservationists 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 affect their job hunt.

Nika Levikov searching for Grevy’s zebras (Equus grevyi) in Tanzania. Photo by Mathew Mutinda.

The world is undergoing vast ecological change. Last year, the international NGO WWF’s “Living Planet Report” declared that wildlife populations have dropped 58% in the past 40 years — at least among the 3,706 vertebrates (out of about 10,000) that it surveys. Added to all this is climate change: biologists have 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 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 EJ 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.”

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. 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 — 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 agree 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 UK. 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 pays.

Lucero Vaca with a jaguar ( Panthera onca). Photograph: Courtesy of Lucero Vaca./MongabayLucas 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 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 organisations 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, government funds are 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 about 0.5 per cent of its GDP in the sciences.

Most conservation jobs, and NGO headquarters, are in the US, Canada, the UK, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, making it difficult for conservationists living outside the industrialised 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 said.

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

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

A conservationist 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 conservationist 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. It has been beyond exhausting. Many tears have been shed.”

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.

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