conservation career abroad

The secret to getting a conservation career abroad | Francesca Cooke

A big appeal of conservation work is the opportunity to travel. But, increasingly, countries are favouring to hire internally. Obviously, this approach is commendable, as governments understand the importance of community buy-in. It has, however, meant those who want to work in these countries find it tougher to gain access and employment. Yet, you needn’t give-up on your dream of a conservation career abroad. Instead, look at where the gaps in local knowledge are and fill those, Francesca Cooke, General Manager at Conservation Lower Zambezi (CLZ) told Conservation Careers.

Francesca is from the UK but has been visiting the Lower Zambezi in Zambia since she was just 10-years old. Following a stint of volunteering at CLZ during her gap year, she went back to the UK to gain a masters in conservation biodiversity.

But she knew she wanted to return to Zambia. So, three-and-a-half years ago, she used her contacts and previous experience to get her foot in the door at CLZ. Since then she has worked her way up to the position of general manager.

“A big thing people fail to understand, which needs to be emphasised, is that you need to bring skills to fill capacity with the country you are coming to. You can’t just say I want to work in Zambia to build my career abroad. You have to be able to say what you can bring to the table to help build local skills,” she said.

A lot of people come in with the mindset of being out in the field. But many countries already have trained staff in these positions. Instead, you are more likely to be hired if you can bring technology, communication, social media, PR and fundraising skills.

“These are the requirements now and a huge asset for an organisation. These skills do not reside here as much as they would in somewhere more technologically advanced,” she explained.

For Francesca, she used her communication and fundraising understanding to gain a permit, which requires her to pass these skills onto local Zambians.

“A big thing in my role is to make sure that in the future there is a place for someone who is not only capable but also from Zambia,” she said.

CLZ is a non-profit organisation, which began life in 1994. It is committed to the protection of wildlife and to the sustainable use of natural resources in the Lower Zambezi through supporting the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW).  Of its 60 employees, just four are expats. All the expats are training Zambians to eventually take on their role.

“Here, there are some great skills in project and wildlife conservation management. The other cogs of conservation such as financing and fundraising, still require input, however. On the anti-poaching side, someone who has GIS training or smart monitoring, will bring a skill that is not necessarily here,” she said.

conservation career abroad

Cogs of conservation

Wannabe conservation expatriates often overlook the administration side in favour of the more hands-on approach.

“Constantly number-crunching is not something you ever imagine in conservation, but is a huge skill to have. Albeit not the glamorous, sexy, side. But it is vital and rewarding. To succeed as an entity – even a non-profit one – you need to look at the finances and you need to have a successful operation and that is going to mean some unsexy jobs,” she said.

The work behind the scenes is what provides the funds to allow the implementation of anti-poaching units and community education.

It was because of these efforts that, last year, DNPW Lower Zambezi, with support from CLZ, reported more than 11,000 patrol man days, while 173 poachers were apprehended, 85 firearms and 60 pieces of ivory were recovered and CLZ set-up its first rapid response unit. It also resulted in close to 3,000 students being taught through  their outreach programme at more than 65 local schools, alongside the introduction of E-Learning.

“For me it is rewarding to see all the little cogs that make the big things turn. What is nice is we all play an important role and, at the end of the year, when we look at the success and the impact, you can say that the excel spreadsheet you worked on for three hours allowed us to be able to do X Y or Z,” she said.

Get your face known

If there is a particular country you have your heart set-on for a conservation career abroad, then Francesca advised traveling there to build-up connections and experience.

“There is only so much you can do from England. If you can, get out here, work away, do it on a budget. Yes, it is expensive but come and meet people and make your face known,” she said.

“There are a few resources to do that and there are also career fairs. It’s a long way to come, but that will put you in front of the people you need to meet. Especially in the conservation world where it is very, very small and everyone knows everyone,” she added.

Volunteering also plays an important part in making your job application stand-out from the crowd.

“A big thing is to get field experience. Volunteering is a huge thing, which is not ideal as a lot of places you have to pay to do it and not everyone can afford that. But if you gain field knowledge and you know what happens on the ground, then you are going to stand a better chance of gaining employment,” she said.

Be prepared, however, for a complete change in life. Not everyone is fully aware of how tough it can be living in the bush

“Living away from home has its challenges. I would say that adjusting to this new lifestyle and living in the bush with no phone signal was one of the biggest parts,” she said.

“When I first came out, I definitely think in my head I believed this was a temporary thing. I thought I would get my foot in the door, meet people and then go back to London and live my London life with one foot still in the conservation world. I was afraid of staying and living this life,” she admitted.

Persevere, she advised and don’t have a strict plan of where you think you need to be. While it is good to have a goal, the posts can shift, so it is good to be flexible.

“Back then, I would have told myself that I should just go with the flow and enjoy every minute of it, then I would have adjusted easier. Saying that, it was the best decision I have ever made to stay on three and a half years, because if I was working for an organisation in London, would I have this amazing life? Also, would I see the results first hand? I don’t think I would,” she added.

conservation career abroad

Tangible results from a conservation career abroad

As CLZ hits its 25-year anniversary this year, Francesca said some of her biggest achievements is seeing the projects get funded, often against a very difficult backdrop.

“We are 25 years this year, so to see what we have done over that period is amazing. In 2013 we had our lowest level of poaching ever, and then 2016 we had the worst. This put a huge damper on everyone in all aspects of conservation. It was pretty tragic to be honest as it was every day. And that was an Africa-wide thing, it wasn’t just here, it was everyone feeling it,” she said.

For the poaching to end, immediate action needed to be taken. Off the back of strong funding efforts and donor help, DNPW and CLZ were able to set up a dog unit, a rapid response team and put in a digital radio system to stop the leakage of information.

“To be able to see a team and area respond to something so well, was special. While we are still losing a few elephants, we have brought that number back down. Working with other partner organisations such as Wildlife Crime Prevention, bringing in a lawyer and strengthening the investigation side, while becoming more high level at what we do, has been a huge achievement.

“My reward is to be able to say I am part of something and making a difference. It is a cheesy thing to say, but I never wanted to go into a job where I couldn’t see the kind of impact I am having. I knew I needed to do something where the tangible results were there, to see what both my work, and our teamwork, has done to get us where we are today,” she said.

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Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Organisational Manager