Insight into the NGO path of Conservation with Sophie Lewis

Sophie Lewis is the Responsible Whale Watching Project Manager at the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA). The WCA is a global coalition of organisations dedicated to the protection of whales, dolphins and porpoises across the world. Here, Sophie discusses her career path and gives advice on how she ended up working for this wonderful organisation.

Why do you work in conservation?

To be honest ever since I was little I just loved animals and nature, as I didn’t grow up in a town I spent a lot of my childhood running around the woods and looking at bugs and butterflies. From a really young age my older sisters and my family were all very conservation minded and it is a theme that has run through my life. I am incredibly passionate about protecting animals, species and habitats and I don’t think there is anything more important than protecting our natural world as it affects everything in our lives.

What are the main activities in your role?

I have been managing the project that coordinates the development of a global set of best practice guidance for whale and dolphin watching operators and destinations that have whale and dolphin tourism. I also support WCA’s work building relationships and bridging gaps with a variety of stakeholders in the whale watching industry, from non-governmental organisations and researchers to tour operators and accreditation schemes.

What motivated you to work with WCA?

I really like the structure of the organisation, I was always very passionate about the fact that BirdLife International ran as a Partnership and that the central office helped support the work of the partners in different countries. When I found out that there was an organisation that was mainly marine focused following the same model with BirdLife International as their advisor I was very interested. This local to global approach is something I am really passionate about. 

What are the highlights and challenges of your role?

Having the opportunity to speak to all our partners around the world and hearing about the amazing work they are doing, it really is a never-ending stream of inspiration! However, we’re a small team of staff in the secretariat with huge ambition so managing that can be challenging. Other challenges include digesting the expertise and experience of a wide range of people and translating this into what is best for the animals and best for habitats. Finding this balance has been a steep learning curve for me but is also very rewarding. 

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

Attending, presenting at and helping facilitate the World Whale Conference in Durban, South Africa. The WCA holds a World Whale Conference on a different continent every two years. It was an amazing experience, I felt a huge amount of pride to be working for such a great organisation bringing all those partners together. There was so much passion and inspiration in the room so being able to go there and to actually see the work we were doing making a difference is really my proudest moment. 

What key steps in your conservation career have you taken?

I did a Masters in Climate Change that really helped me gain a lot of fundamental skills. It linked me with a lot of professionals and I did a lot of field work which helped me to realise where I wanted to go. I also did volunteering with the Indonesian Manta Project, that was amazing as I had never really been drawn between terrestrial or marine but that swayed me. In general I do think volunteering has really helped, it allowed me to really understand the industry from a variety of different viewpoints whilst gaining some really valuable experiences. Fundamentally, I started off at the WCA as a volunteer three days a week, I quickly realised that this was a really exciting organisation to be involved with and wanted to make a difference working for them and I think this really helped lead into the fulltime position I am in now.

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What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

“I reckon just go for it, I found the whole conservation industry quite intimidating due to it being quite competitive and you look at all these big NGOs and think you need so much experience. But really it comes down to having a strong passion for it, willingness to put in the work, being flexible and showing your enthusiasm”.

Do you think it’s necessary to have a scientific background to pursue this career?

It depends on what area you want to go into, in some respects I would be far more set up for certain aspects of my role having done a business degree for example. As the industry is progressing there is more room for different skills like artists, communicators, business minds and marketing. I think that people who have a talent that is not academic or they aren’t a scientist but want to help with conservation shouldn’t be put off. The everyday running of a charity doesn’t strictly have to involve science unless you are on the ground working on a specific project – it’s administration, finance, social media, communication, branding and engaging with the public. Sometimes it’s the people who don’t have a scientific background that are best for those roles.

If you are keen to find out more about Sophie and WCA’s fantastic work, please go visit their website http://worldcetaceanalliance.org/  for more information and how to get involved.

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