The next episode in the Chats with Conservationists blog series, where Natasha shares what it’s like to study an MSc in Global Wildlife Health & Conservation…
Hey there! My name is Natasha Soutar and I am an aspiring wildlife conservationist from Wiltshire, in the United Kingdom. While pursuing my fascination with animals, and a desire to preserve them, I have recently finished my master’s in Global Wildlife Health and Conservation at the University of Bristol. Before this, I studied Zoology as my undergraduate degree in Reading.
Inspiring a career in conservation
As a little girl enamoured by the animals that share our planet, working with wildlife was all I ever wanted to do! Like many of us, I watched copious amounts of David Attenborough documentaries and marveled at Steve Irwin’s close encounters with all sorts of incredible creatures.
Trips to the zoo were my absolute favourite days out as a child, and I thank my dad for nurturing my love for the natural world. He’s quite the wildlife lover himself, and to this day he will pause the TV and test my knowledge when an animal trivia round is on Pointless.
As I grew, and studied, and simply bared witness to the world around me, the reality of wildlife conservation work became very apparent. While our natural world remains a wonder to me, a great source of comfort and joy, the detrimental effects of the damage we have caused cannot be ignored.
For conservationists, our passion for wildlife is usually coupled with heartbreaking biodiversity reports and anxiety-inducing statistics. I have come to learn that celebrating every single win for wildlife, no matter how small, is so important to combat all the negatives. And so celebrate we do!
Juggling volunteering and whilst saving for a masters degree in conservation
In between my academic endeavours, while working a retail job to save for my postgraduate study, I volunteered at my local wildlife rescue centre and a nearby reptile zoo. I spent my winter months caring for hundreds of hedgehogs that were too underweight or poorly to hibernate, while in the summer I had a go at training giant tortoises, snake handling with nervous visitors, and generally helping out the wonderful keepers.
Working in retail for a year, after having such an incredible time at university, felt pretty soul-destroying at the time. But getting involved in volunteering really kept me driven to continue working towards my goals, and it also ended up being something valuable to put onto my masters’ application.
I do understand the frustration with having to gain so much unpaid experience in this field, it seems I may be back in this boat myself with how competitive the job market has become this year. It really does make conservation jobs very inaccessible to those who cannot afford to work for free.
However, while in a pit-stop job position earning a bit of money, I really do recommend aspiring conservationists to seeking some out volunteering opportunities, and even better if they can find something specific to their interests!
What it’s really like to do a Masters Degree in Conservation
Expect the unexpected
What really draws me to conservation is the sheer variety of work, from tackling tough data analysis for a research project to practising how to survey a habitat without losing all your notes to the wind and rain.
A particular highlight for me during my masters was learning from the vet staff at a zoo I did some clinics with, where I had the opportunity to practice some basic veterinary techniques and animal handling.
I also studied wildlife rehabilitation, captive wildlife management, animal behaviour and animal welfare, while practising zoo husbandry, animal handling, habitat surveying and conservation project planning. This introduced so many possibilities for career paths that I didn’t have knowledge of before.
Top tip for studying a masters degree in conservation
While it’s so valuable to experience all these different working environments and avenues in wildlife conservation, it does become challenging to choose which route you would like to take.
I thoroughly enjoy working with captive wildlife. Having volunteered at the reptile zoo and wildlife rescue centre, I love the hands-on, direct contact with animals. However, I also really enjoy getting out into nature, monitoring wild habitats and improving the areas where these animals truly belong. Tough decisions!
Choosing a specialism
This is difficult when you love so much of it, and you want a piece from every plate at the buffet! For example, within conservation, you could have a focus in zoo conservation, animal welfare science, zoonotic diseases, wildlife rehabilitation, habitat restoration, and so much more!
You could even specialize in particular species and their threats, such as the pet trade, deforestation, marine pollution or trophy hunting. Because I have always had a keen interest in science, especially animal biology and evolution, I believe that my heart belongs to conservation research, at least for now. Specifically, animal behaviour. I’m fascinated by how animals have come to live in the way that they do, and what selection pressures were shaping their lives over time to result in such complexity.
Writing a thesis for a masters degree in conservation
From animal behaviour modules I took during my undergraduate, and also during my masters, I really took an interest in the social side of animals’ lives. Such as why most bird species are monogamous, while some (like turkeys and ostriches) ended up polygamous. Or why orangutans live solitary lives, while their fellow primate, the mandrills, have been recorded in massive hordes of up more than 800 individuals!
I wondered how our knowledge of sociality in species could be incorporated into conservation projects to protect and save them.
I met with a potential research supervisor who ad a similar interest to me, except he was interested in the social behaviour of zoo-housed wildlife, and its impacts on zoo conservation efforts such as breeding programmes. He had supervised a previous project on African penguins, a monogamous species, which seemed to exhibit more polygamous behaviours in zoos than in the wild. He thought this was possibly due to the relaxed environmental pressures that come with captivity, and I thought that was a really interesting avenue for research!
After quite a bit of research into this idea of captivity influencing social dynamics, I landed upon the perfect subject species – the golden lion tamarin!
Studying Golden Lion Tamarins
These monkeys have an extremely complex social structure in the wild. They live in large groups in which the un-reproductive members will help raise the young of the reproductive pair, and offspring will migrate when they come of age in order to find breeding opportunities of their own.
Despite this flexibility in the wild, golden lion tamarins are housed as small family units or monogamous pairs in zoos due to issues with aggression. Being a species with an active breeding program, I wondered if this unnatural social structure affected their reproduction and if more natural groupings would improve breeding outcomes.
I quickly learnt that golden lion tamarin babies have a very high mortality rate during the first week of life when in captivity. So, using a global zoological database and spending A LOT of hours sifting through records, I set out on my quest to find out which social factors are most important for infant survival in zoo-born golden lion tamarins.
My results suggested that keeping golden lion tamarins in larger groups with more helpers increased the likelihood of offspring survival. I believe this is because the burden of care can be shared between more members, and so raising offspring is less energy expensive for individuals.
Therefore, I suggested that zoos should consider keeping these primates in more naturalistic groups for their breeding program to be more successful. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed carrying out this project, and I’m extremely interested in continuing to study primate social behaviour in the future.
What happens after doing a masters degree in conservation?
So that now leads me to the present day. I completed my masters in Global Wildlife Health and Conservation, after carrying out my research amidst a global pandemic, and found myself applying for jobs while unemployment rates increased by the day.
One role I applied for had expected around 50 applicants, but instead received 400! Somehow, I managed to get a job offer for a remote position, so I will be working from home for the foreseeable future.
I’ll miss the great outdoors and interacting with wildlife, but it is ideal for the current situation and I will still reap the benefits of spending time amongst nature during my free time. I plan to save up and travel when it becomes more feasible, in hopes to gain some more research experience. For me, it would be incredible to practice behaviour observations in wild primates, and especially tamarins, which I have grown extremely fond of since my project.
I’m also interested in possibly carrying out a PhD in primate behaviour sometime in the future, but for now, I am enjoying a break from the academic world while everything feels very uncertain.
The future of animal conservation
Wherever I end up, I am sure I will never lose my love for wildlife. It will continue to be a huge part of my life and shape who I become. With the events of this year, I do hope our impact on the natural world will be taken more seriously, and we will start to make big changes to preserve the environments that keep us alive.
The journey into conservation is a long one, full of highs and lows, but it is well worth it to work towards something I am truly passionate about. And in the meantime, I will continue to celebrate all those little wins for wildlife.
Thank you so much for reading my blog, I hope it may inspires you to consider a career in conservation! If you are already in this wonderful field, I hope you can relate to my experience! If you would like to see where I end up next, check out my instagram @natasha.soutar and/or on Twitter @NatashaSoutar
All the best!