Advice from The Conservationist Island Girl

Mauritian conservationist and Fulbright Scholar Véronique Couttee talks about the challenges faced by local staff in conservation, her six-year scholarship journey and her blog – The Conservationist Island Girl.

How did you begin your conservation career?

“I always liked nature but growing up I didn’t know that could even be a career. I ended up volunteering for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. There was an open-door policy for Mauritians so, after two weeks, I made the transition to staff. I was given responsibility quickly because I didn’t need to be micromanaged and I was determined to get things done.”

Véronique spent two years with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation and worked as a Team Leader on their flycatcher project.

What unique challenges do local staff face?

“In Mauritius, conservation is this big adventure where you live on a remote island. I enjoyed it but having trained a lot of Mauritians I can see how this is a challenge. People aspire to have a life which is equal to western lifestyles. So, you are asking them to drop all of that to work in conservation.

“I saw this in the Seychelles too. Everyone was talking about pay raises, better conditions, uniforms, shoes etc. If we want local people to be involved in projects then I think there needs to be more focus on what they offer for local people.”

Véronique was employed in the Seychelles for 10 months as an Invasive Species Project Officer.

What skills have you found most valuable in your career?

“I have good interpersonal skills and that has undeniably worked in my favour. I’m a bit of a social butterfly. I found myself in a position where I had to train a lot of local people in the first two weeks after they arrived. It is a critical stage because they have to be comfortable about staying and working with you. My interpersonal skills helped achieve that.”

Currently based at the University at Albany in the United States, Véronique won a Fulbright Scholarship to study a Masters in Biodiversity Conservation.

How did you win a scholarship?

“I was applying for six years. I did an awful lot of digging on the internet and found lists with all the opportunities that were available for Mauritians. I was constantly checking for new ones being added and applying. There was a lot of back and forth to drop off documents. I was even applying in the Seychelles and had to have my Dad deliver documents for me.

“The rejections hurt a little bit but I was also making progress. I went from a point in the first year where I wasn’t getting any responses, to getting an interview and a second interview and it slowly progressed until I finally got the scholarship.”

What kept you motivated?

“I knew that it was crucial for my personal development. I’m from somewhere that still offers a lot of resources, and I’m very grateful for that, but I think it’s very important to experience the education system abroad. I also understood that a scholarship opens up a lot of doors and to have an impact you need a strong network behind you.”

Véronique’s research interests are in leadership and the lack of good leadership in conservation. 

What have you learned about leadership?

“Saying the right words at the right time to people and being there for them can really influence whether they choose a career in conservation. I am trying to use the knowledge gained in the US to further conservation effort in developing countries.

“I believe more in a collective of leaders. Each individual has to find their own strength and exploit it to the maximum. You don’t necessarily have to have a title. I never considered myself to be a leader but when I left Mauritius, people came up to me and said I had inspired them and I realised that was a form of leadership.”

Why did you launch The Conservationist Island Girl blog?

“When I started on this career path a lot of people discouraged me. Everyone thought it was going to be a hobby or something I would do for a year because I was confused. I wasn’t confused but I still felt kind of ashamed to say I wanted to pursue a career where it seemed I would always be underpaid with not much to show for it.

“I want to give people an insight into the many doors that can open for you in a field like this. I blog about things I would like people to have said to me.”

Is there any advice you would give to someone looking to following in your footsteps?

“Find yourself some good mentors because you’ll need them. No matter how strong or intelligent you are, having mentors is very important because the higher up you’ll get the more isolated you’ll become. With mentors you are always going to have this little pocket of people which you can turn to and can trust to give you advice.”

If you would like to read more about Véronique then be sure to check out The Conservationist Island Girl.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Wildlife