In this exciting episode of the Chats with Conservationists series, we meet Emily. Who shares her journey into plastic and wildlife conservation…
Hi there! My name is Emily and I am an Animal Scientist from Wiltshire, United Kingdom. Last year I graduated from university with the ambition of, one day, achieving a career in conservation. After 8 years of volunteering in animal-based industries, I am now fortunate enough to be pursuing this goal, working as a fundraising officer for Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
Inspiring a career in wildlife conservation
From the age of seven, I have been fascinated by all the weird and wonderful creatures that we share our planet with, and have dreamed of a career working with animals. Like many children, I had always had a fondness for animals but became truly inspired by a two-week safari in Kenya in 2006. I was privileged with the opportunity to observe a wealth of indigenous species running wild and free across the African plains. From windsurfing in the Indian ocean to coming face-to-face with an 18-foot giraffe; what an adventure!
Throughout the ten years that followed this trip, until I turned 17, I had aspired to many occupations (all involving animals of course); zookeeper, veterinarian/veterinary nurse, dog walker, wildlife rescue – you name it! It was then in 2016 that I was lucky enough to spend 10 days trekking in the Bornean rainforest, carrying out river hyacinth cleaning and tree planting, that I felt inspired all over again.
At this time, I was studying animal management in college and was at a point where working with animals was almost a reality. I had built a portfolio of volunteering within a number of animal-based industries and had the prospects of university just around the corner.
My conservation heroes
My love and appreciation for the natural world has not only been sparked by my own first-hand experiences but also through admiration of some of our great conservationists and naturalists; namely, Sir David Attenborough. I hold an enormous amount of respect for Sir Attenborough. He has captivated the attention of millions throughout the years and there is so much that we can, and must, learn from him and his work.
His documentaries have the ability to instil a combination of feeling, overwhelmed by the wonders of planet earth. Yet, also an immense sense of guilt for the devastation that we have brought upon wildlife and the environment.
Tackling a sea of plastic
Having always lived in a land-locked area of the UK, marine mammal conservation had never really crossed my mind. I guess I always assumed that without moving to the coast, it wasn’t really an option. I think as a child and during my early teens, I was naïve to the fact that conservation doesn’t always have to be in-situ.
It is important to highlight that ex-situ conservation is just as significant as in-situ conservation; almost every aspect of wildlife conservation is a fight to reverse the damage that we, as humans, have caused. Yes, we can, and should, go out into the ocean and collect plastics, fishing nets and all sorts of other pollutants and threats to marine life, but this is not a solution.
The solution is at the source of the problem, and that is us! Considering that plastic was only invented just over 100 years ago, it is astonishing to think just how much of it is a part of our day-to-day lives, and the millions of tonnes of plastic that we produce and waste each year.
Discovering the effects of plastic and wildlife
Whilst studying for my degree, I carried out a research project along the Cornish coast, in which I investigated the effects of plastic pollution. Cornwall is a popular tourist destination, known for its stunning scenery. Upon first glance, Cornwall presents crystal clear waters and golden, paradise-like sands. But on closer inspection, plastic pollution is very apparent.
Having been trained by the Marine Conservation Society in carrying out line transects and quadrat surveys, I decided to dissect the beaches of Cornwall, from the most secluded to one of the most popular surfing destinations, to investigate the extent of this plastic nightmare.
My findings – microplastics; minuscule beads of plastic, just 5 millimetres in size. Abundantly scattered and to be easily mistaken as food by an array of marine life. In addition, plastic straws, fishing string, golf balls, sweets wrappers, rubber bands, plastic toys; the list goes on. Whilst I had been aware of the major issue of plastic pollution prior to this project, it was a real eye-opener to the severity of the problem.
From Plastic to marine conservation
From carrying out my research project to watching countless documentaries and reading horrifying statistics on the state of our planet, specifically the effects of plastic pollution, it has become my ultimate goal to conserve wildlife whilst tackling plastic pollution and climate change. This is something I am actively working towards in my role at WDC through education and fundraising.
It is hugely rewarding to connect with supporters that care just as much as I do about conservation and the protection of whales and dolphins. I one day hope to fulfil a scientific role involving research, data collection and field-work in order to utilise my experience of in-situ conservation and data collection techniques. These are skills I have developed through various conservation projects including marine transect surveys alongside Malta University, Phase 1 habitat surveys in local green spaces as well as large carnivore tracking in Poland.
How to get involved with wildlife conservation
Whether you aspire to a career in animal conservation, or just simply want to do your bit, there are countless ways in which you can help animals and the environment. Like most, my journey towards a career in conservation was certainly not an easy one.
I am extremely grateful and fortunate to have been able to travel, as well as gain the experience and education that I have, but with this came lots of hard work. Between volunteering roles and studying for my diploma and degree, I spent my weekends and days off working retail and hospitality jobs; sometimes working two jobs. Each of these positions allowed for more experience and funded my trips around the world to carry out conservation projects.
This ultimately has led me to where I am now. Doing what you love for free and getting paid to do something you don’t particularly love can seem exhausting and like a dead-end, but these are all stepping stones towards the light at the end of the tunnel. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain and difficulty”.
Getting involved with wildlife conservation from home
Animal-related work is an industry that generally requires lots of experience; this is every conservationists’ most valuable tool. However, this does not require expensive travel and trips around the globe. The first steps into becoming a conservationist can be as local as your back garden through taking part in collective efforts such as the ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’, or planting bee-friendly flowers in your garden such as foxgloves.
Watching documentaries can be highly educational; many of which highlight areas of significance in terms of conservation. Some of the most impactful documentaries, from personal experience, include Blackfish, The Cove, A Plastic Ocean…and pretty much any David Attenborough series!
Reflecting on my journey through plastic and wildlife conservation
There are numerous avenues into conservation and a huge variety of roles and opportunities involved. I am guilty of trying to have a finger in every pie; I have developed a fondness for marine conservation and cannot see myself moving away from this area of conservation, at least not for a long time. However, I have never really found my specialism.
That’s the beauty of conservation – if you have a particular area of expertise or have a passion for a certain species, there are opportunities to hone in on these and become an expert in your field.
Alternatively, you may just fall into a specific sector and find your specialism that way. This is another reason to go after any volunteering opportunities that come your way. You may find that the reality of a job you thought you always wanted, is not quite for you. Likewise, you may discover an interest in something you would usually steer away from.
My conservation journey has truly been a rollercoaster. From wanting to be a zookeeper, to a veterinary nurse to eventually finding my way within conservation. I was once told by a teacher of mine that I would never work with animals because I couldn’t get the grades.
That may have been one of the most soul-destroying, yet the best thing that has happened to me. I wanted to prove to myself that I could and would achieve the career I had always dreamed of, so I worked as hard as I could until I got here. I am now looking forward to, hopefully, a long and rewarding career in conservation!
To anyone considering a career in conservation or currently working towards that goal, I wish you all the success and I hope this has provided some useful insight. Thanks so much for reading!