“At the age of 18, most people don’t know what they want to do with their lives, what career they want, or where they want to be in 5 years time. I did. I knew I wanted to work with big animals in Africa, help save elephants from extinction and live in the bush. After my A-levels, I really wanted to train as a field guide and complete a FGASA course. Instead, I did the “usual thing” and went to university in the UK to study biology and geography. Taking two subjects was my choice but I didn’t foresee that I wouldn’t entirely fit into either department, and I ended up feeling quite alone.
My holidays were my escape from it all. During summer 2016 I flew to South Africa and volunteered on a Private Game Reserve in the Karoo. It felt like home to me, but it was clear that some of the other volunteers didn’t want to be there, and that they weren’t as passionate about conservation as I thought they would be. The following summer I knew I wanted to return to Africa and decided to do a bit more research into how I would get there. Most organisations offered ridiculously high prices for short-term and long-term trips, and people really need to be aware of this. If you want to volunteer, volunteer. Don’t break your bank.
In spring 2017, I came across Worldwide Experience. WWE offered inexpensive elephant specific programmes, such as “Conserving Desert Elephants in Namibia”. They have other experiences associated with African elephants but non as specific as this one. When I enquired, I was introduced to Claire, WWE’s conservation experience specialist who made the booking stress free and very personalised. In July I joined Elephant-Human Relations-Aid in Swakopmund, Namibia. I spent a month exploring Damaraland, tracking desert-adapted elephants, sleeping under the stars, and contributing to human-wildlife coexistence initiatives. I was surrounded by like-minded people and ended up making some lifelong friends. My most memorable experience was when an elephant broke into our camp in the night when we were trying to sleep on a wooden platform in a tree. Both EHRA and WWE felt like communities and I could not recommend them more for anyone searching for volunteer opportunities.
In 2018, I graduated with a BSc. I knew there were so many opportunities out there, but my direction wasn’t so clear. I realised how broad “conservation” really is. You can go into ecological consultancy, TV production, marketing, scientific research, reserve management, NGO development, politics, photography, fundraising, machine learning, corporate responsibility, anti-poaching, animal welfare, zoo management. The list goes on. And I panicked. I ended up doing a Master of Science by Research looking into the drivers of nature-based tourism across Africa and the UK. Research to me sounds exciting, but it’s not when you’re stuck behind a computer constantly, and not when everything you do seems to go wrong. I took some time out to volunteer in South Africa again as I didn’t have time to switch off from academia after my BSc. I took me nearly two years to complete my masters and I still haven’t graduated. My experience reinforced the fact that we need to think before we make decisions.
Last summer, I decided that after knowing I’d have to wait over three months to get my Masters feedback and that I wouldn’t be able to find work in Africa due to the pandemic, I would start applying for jobs. I went back in time and was at the same position as I was before my Masters, not having a clue what to do. I applied for reserve ranger positions, zookeeper positions, Community Engagement Officer positions and simply wasn’t getting anywhere. The feedback I received always stated I didn’t have enough experience. So how are we supposed to get the experience in the first place?
I changed my tactics and started looking at short term voluntary positions. A social media internship popped up on my newsfeed for Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. I’d heard about their work and was relatively knowledgeable of their Northern White Rhino conservation. I ended up applying for the internship after the deadline thinking I wouldn’t have much chance since I don’t come from a marketing or social media background. The interview didn’t go particularly well but I ended up being offered something that suited me better than social media.
In November I started researching methods of marketing to advertise ‘Secret Safari: Into The Wild’, a six-part TV series exclusively filmed on Ol Pejeta. A few weeks later I was made project lead. Gaining this opportunity has made me realise how important marketing skills are if we want to get our conservation messages out into the world. Yes, being outside is what most of us wish for but if you want to make a difference then you need to know how to share the information and gain support.
My top tips for young conservationists would be:
- Spend time researching programmes, volunteer opportunities or university courses – find something for YOU
- Travel when you can and network when you can but don’t pay ridiculous prices
- Try not to be shy or anxious; it’s okay to ask for help
- Build up your volunteer experiences; you never know where they might lead you
Secret Safari is available on Channel 4, please follow the below link.”
To join us on a Worldwide Experience, please email:
By Holly Appleby