My wildlife conservation dreams started at the tender age of 13. I stumbled upon this career path after watching a wildlife documentary and was instantly intrigued. The idea of being paid to frolic with wildlife in the great outdoors was very appealing. However, as I progressed down this career path, it became apparent how competitive this sector is. Unfortunately, paid jobs in conservation are relatively thin on the ground in the UK. There just isn’t the funding available, and sadly, some would-be conservationists can miss out.
I have been working as a full-time member of staff for the RSPB, in the role of Capercaillie Advisory Officer, for the past 3 years now. Over this time, I have learnt which skills are really essential to be successful in this industry. The world of wildlife conservation has progressed with the digital age. The advancement of technology means new skill sets have emerged that employers value. In this article, I have listed the top three skills that, in my experience, are invaluable to obtaining a career in wildlife conservation.
Of course, being an excellent communicator is essential across career paths. Having a basis of good written and verbal communication skills will always be important. However, the platforms that are used for this communication have changed significantly in the past few years.
Social media is an obvious example. Try as you might, there is no avoiding it. It can be an exceptionally powerful tool and conservation organisations utilise this to connect with their audiences. Social media provides an unparalleled opportunity to raise awareness about conservation and the plight that much of our natural world is facing.
This awareness raising can be focused on encouraging donations or recruiting members, which are often primary funding sources for conservation organisations. In addition, it can be used to encourage behaviour change by providing information on how people can incorporate more environmentally sound practices into their daily lives.
Social media has also been used successfully to generate data through citizen science projects, such as the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ or Butterfly Conservation’s ‘Big Butterfly Count’. These projects can generate exceptionally rich datasets that can be used as a foundation for conservation action. Having a good understanding of the most utilised social media platforms is likely to make you attractive to employers, especially if you are interested in pursuing more public facing roles. It is also an excellent tool for networking and meeting fellow conservationists. Conservation is a small world, so sometimes who you know makes all the difference.
Ah, fieldwork. Often the highlight of a conservation career and the element that draws many people in. Having a foundation of good fieldwork skills has always been important in conservation.
I recommend spending some time learning about common survey methods and working on your wildlife identification skills. Don’t feel like you need to be able to identify every creature you may come across - I’ve not met a conservationist yet that can do this! Focus on getting to grips with some of the most common species across taxa. Apps can now be a brilliant identification tool and save you lugging multiple books around when out in the field.
Navigation skills are also essential in any fieldwork. Take it from someone who got lost a fair bit early on in my career! The best way to learn this is practise - perhaps consider taking a hill skills course, or similar to hone your skills. Modern conservationists almost always use a GPS when in the field. This is a key tool in fieldwork, both for navigating and to record data with GPS points. Being able to understand the basics of a GPS will make your life much easier, so this is something I highly recommend.
Fieldwork methods have continued to advance. For instance, camera trapping is very common now, this involves setting up specialised cameras in the field to record wildlife. This can be an excellent tool to capture data, especially on elusive species that are difficult to observe otherwise. Radio-tracking is another modern monitoring tool, where GPS tags are attached to wildlife to monitor their movements. This tends to be more specialist than camera trapping, but can be useful in certain roles. These skills may not always be essential, depending on the role you are seeking, but they might just give you the edge that can make all the difference in landing your dream job.
The dreaded statistics. As someone who barely scraped through her Maths GCSE, this was not something I was over-eager to learn. However, data management is crucial within wildlife conservation. No point doing all that hard work in the field if you can’t utilise the data!
Beyond the basics of creating spreadsheets and graphs, there are two data management skills that are often used by conservationists. The first tool is GIS mapping. This is becoming relatively common in conservation and I’ve seen it come up more and more as a required skill in job adverts. The second tool is statistical modelling, using programs such as R or SPSS. This is generally more specialised than GIS mapping, but having a basic understanding of this software is something to consider, especially if you want to go down the research route.
So that’s it. There are many more skills that might help you progress in the conservation sector, but these will serve as an excellent foundation, especially if you are looking at more entry-level roles.
The most important take-home message is to maintain your determination and keep moving forwards, no matter how slowly. That, and remember to have fun! I promise that it's worth it in the end. When I’m crouched in a hide nestled in a Highland forest and watching capercaillie lek as the sun slowly rises, I really can’t imagine doing anything else.