Conservation community hit hard by COVID-19: Why the planet’s guardians need support now

With health and economic impacts at the forefront of global concerns, what’s happening to the people whose job it is to protect the future of our health, wealth and wellbeing – the planet?   

Rangers and researchers, fundraisers and filmmakers worldwide seek little recognition as guardians of the planet for future generations – the oceans we fish, the forests we harvest and the species that have intrigued and inspired us for millennia.   

Once labeled a field for ‘radical environmentalists,’ today the conservation industry draws thousands of passionate people through its doors each year. They are the youth who envision a world where decision-makers don’t compromise their futures. They’re the professionals who wake up mid-career seeking more than a paycheck and security. They’re the people who put meaning before material gains, community above competition and tomorrow’s prosperity ahead of today’s profit.  

And contrary to common belief, the conservation industry isn’t just for people saving sea turtles, gorillas and lions, but a diverse and booming sector that employs hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide, from community experts to policy analysts to environmental economists, with hundreds of new jobs posted worldwide every day.  

Conservation Careers, a global online job board for conservationists, has posted over 26,000 conservation jobs and over 12,000 different job titles since 2014 – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the sector. But how has the employment sector for conservationists been hit by COVID-19? 

Conservation Jobs: on hold?  

“As of April 2020, conservation job and internship opportunities worldwide have dropped by an estimated 50% compared to their normal levels,” said Dr. Nick Askew, Director of Conservation Careers.  

“Conservation Careers scours the job markets globally each day to find the best opportunities to share, and have seen daily job rates drop from 130-240 to around 50-100 new job and internship opportunities per day, with the most dramatic decrease during the last two weeks of March 2020.”   

A map showing a snapshot of U.S. conservation job, internship and volunteer opportunities listed on Conservation Careers in 2019.

 

Conservation employers share a similarly grim story. Of 67 conservation employers who responded to an online survey by Conservation Careers during March and April 2020, over 90% said their recruitment or staffing has already been negatively impacted by COVID-19.   

These include shorter-term impacts – such as a shift to personnel working remotely, decreased hours, staff unable to fully perform their roles due to restrictions and extended hiring periods – and major impacts, including frozen donations and funding cuts, staff being laid off, seasonal crews or internships being cancelled and uncertainty looming over future funding.  

For many of the organisations surveyed – based in countries including the UK, U.S., Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Madagascar, Costa Rica and Paraguay – recruitment has been suspended indefinitely in the face of uncertainty.   

Before COVID, we were looking to recruit part-time development staff/consultants, and now our entire budget is dedicated to keeping staff on board,” explained one conservation professional.

“My hours have now been cut to quarter time – 10hrs/week; although we still have reserve money, our organisation doesn’t want to spend it down.” Other organisations that are still hiring are struggling to fill roles with a dramatic drop in applicants.   

And if conservation organisations are uncertain about their futures, conservationists find themselves even less certain of their careers.  

In a survey of 330 conservationists by Conservation Careers in March and April 2020, 78% reported that their job search or career has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, while 18% aren’t yet sure how they’ll be impacted. Fewer than 4% have not been impacted – yet.  

Many conservationists have been laid off or put on unpaid leave or sabbatical indefinitely, while those looking for jobs and other opportunities have found their prospects greatly diminished. Others who’ve recently made it to the interview stage or received job offers have had their applications postponed indefinitely or offers put on hold or withdrawn.  

Conservationist Nadia Balduccio had just finished an interview for her dream job in Africa with Panthera, an organisation devoted to wild cat conservation, when hiring was put on hold. “I received an email regarding my interview, saying that for the moment they are not hiring anyone because it’s an international job and requires traveling to a different country,” said Balduccio. “It’s sad but understandable given the circumstances.”  

“I’ve been offered the dream job!” wrote another conservationist, Tania, to her peers online. “I was offered the job of project manager in a very remote location with a great NGO – it’s an amazing place and an amazing role, two weeks ago I would have said yes instantly! But now I’m very worried about accepting, given the current COVID-19 situation…”  

To accept her new role in July, she would need to give notice to her current employer – giving up paid isolation and risking future unemployment for both herself and her husband if airports and borders remain closed and she cannot travel to her new employer’s location.  

“What if the whole world is still in lock down for months! Nobody knows how long it could last…”, Tania asked. “How can I ensure a contingency plan? How can I safeguard and lower my risk? How can I even negotiate a higher salary in a time when stocks/donors have lost so much money – but I now need more security than I did previously…”  

The growing number of career switchers seeking work in conservation are also seeing fewer windows of opportunity to make a change and less job security.  

William Boteler, a career switcher currently enrolled in Conservation Careers’ online Conservation Career Kick-Starter course and hoping to get his foot in the door in the sector, wonders how the pandemic will affect his chances. “I think the Montgomery Parks Department has closed all indoor exhibits,” said Boteler. “That would include the butterfly exhibit where I had my job interview last month. I wonder if it will open again later in the season and what will happen to the interviewees.”  

Layoffs, fewer job prospects and delayed recruitment aren’t the only way conservationists are being impacted. Many have had to return home from contracts abroad, lost seasonal contracts, or are unable to pursue planned or prospective internships, projects and expeditions abroad. 

“At Natucate, we had to cancel a large amount of our bookings,” said Daniel Kaul, Founder of Natucate, a company that offers voluntary service abroad on nature conservation, environmental and animal protection projects. “Several conservation projects that we support can no longer operate and have to shut down activities, some of them even permanently. As crucial conservation work in these areas no longer takes place, nature and wildlife are put at risk again in the long term – a fact that deeply saddens us.”  

Students training to become certified Trails Guides with Natucate in Africa. Credit: Natucate.

 

Others have had the field component of their honours, master’s or PhD dissertations postponed, cancelled or replaced due to lost research funding and travel restrictions; are unable to attend congresses and conferences to share their research and build their networks; or are struggling to collaborate with other organisations.  

“All universities in Nigeria have been shut down for a period of 30 days and the lecturers have gone on an indefinite strike action,” wrote Nadonna Phinehas on Twitter.  “… we partner with institutions here in Nigeria to create awareness and launch projects / programs. We need the assistance of professors and [researchers] in the departments concerned like Forestry, Botany, to go on air through radio programmes to shed more light on a given issue. And they also serve as guides to help us undertake a project in the right way, for example tree planting, biogas projects and so on. They play a big role here in Nigeria as academicians.”  

Five reasons why the conservation sector is vulnerable  

COVID-19 is a window into the current vulnerability of the conservation sector and survey responses show at least five ways the conservation sector may be particularly hard hit by the pandemic. 

#1 Reliance on donations and funding

Often seen as an afterthought to economic growth by industry and government, conservation rarely pays for itself – in the short term – and is often highly dependent on funding from grants and donations to carry out vital projects and programs. For many organisations, that funding is now on hold or its future flows uncertain.  

In Canada, an emergency coalition of 200 charities called on government support to prevent the collapse of the country’s non-profit sector as grants, donations and revenue from events “dry up.”

#2 Tourism-based business models

In places where conservation can’t rely on sporadic funding – like tropical rainforests and coral reefs where biodiversity and poverty are at a peak – many organisations develop tourism-based business models to sustain conservation projects year-round via ecotourism, voluntourism and support from local and international staff.   

“The project where my guiding job was based in South Africa was closed down as we rely on [international] volunteers to join our monitoring project,” wrote wildlife conservationist Selina B. on Twitter. “With the recent lockdown, all national & private parks have closed in and it’s uncertain when the safari tourism sector will recover fully.”  

“The repercussions for local communities and livelihoods almost [don’t] bear thinking about”, conservation biologist Angela Ferguson said. “Whilst being without work for a few weeks or even a month will be hard enough, no one knows how long this might last nor do people know when they will go back to work, if at all. Most people are already living on the edge, and with job losses they will not be able to pay for basics like food, medicine or school fees which could cause some to turn to illegal activity such as poaching. Who knows how things will develop, but we are anticipating a massive humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.” 

Tourism-based business models are often necessary to sustain conservation projects year-round, but can mean that COVID-19’s impact on travel will also impact wildlife. Credit: Natucate.

 

#3 Project-based contracts

Saving ecosystems is a project-based endeavour – and whether those projects are environmental impact surveys for proposed developments, or developing alternative livelihoods to stop turtle egg poaching, the result is project-based contracts.  

In some sectors it’s common to change jobs every five years, but in conservation it’s common to hold five or ten different jobs in that same time period. To many conservationists, particularly those in the early years of their careers or self-employed as consultants, fixed-term contracts are their bread and butter, and job stability runs on the scale of months, rather than decades. 

#4 Field-based professions   

Being focussed on wildlife and habitats means that conservation is also inherently field-based and many professions – like rangers, researchers, environmental educators, community liaisons, consultants, photographers and filmmakers – depend on being in the field. Even purely office-based roles often rely on applicants having early experience in the field to understand the context sufficiently to be competitive and effective.    

“I am a post grad student at university and teaching has been cancelled. I was also due to go on a field trip to the Amazon to learn valuable skills but that has also been cancelled. I was due to go to a bat surveying training day but again, that was also cancelled. I am worried I now lack the skills to get a job in this sector,” said Laura Phillips, based in Salford, UK.

#5 Prevalent internships and volunteering

Conservation is also a notoriously competitive sector, and, while internships and volunteering aren’t a requirement, they are one of the fastest ways to get a foot in the door.   

“I would like to apply for jobs or internships in Africa once I’ve graduated, however COVID-19 is causing a lot of uncertainty and less developed African countries will struggle to deal with the pandemic even more so than western countries,” said Alice Edwards, a student studying Wildlife Conservation at the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. “Travel to Africa during this time is likely to be restricted and unadvised.”  

Like the threatened species they work to protect, conservationists often live on the edge, choosing to forego higher pay, job security or other benefits to pursue causes that benefit society as a whole. Before COVID-19 hit, many conservationists already felt lonely, underpaid or undervalued and struggled with the scale of the global issues they’re tackling. In a crisis, they may be vulnerable because they don’t have financial reserves to fall back on.  

“The number of vacancies on job websites … has more than halved since the virus,” explained one early career conservationist. “I lost my seasonal retail job that I got to save for my master’s course which starts this coming autumn. My volunteer placement has been postponed/cancelled, my level 2 powerboat course was cancelled and my driving lessons have been put on hold.” 

Field-based professions, internships and volunteering are all vital to the conservation sector. Credit: Natucate.

 

If nature adapts, can humanity adapt too?  

It’s taken only a handful of weeks without human interference for nature to remind us of its capacity for resilience, if we give it a chance.   

In the absence of cruise ship visits offloading tourists and motorised boats kicking up sediment, Venice’s La Serenissima’s canals have been transformed virtually overnight, revealing the unique Venice lagoon ecosystem, complete with shoals of fish, crabs, plant life and even duck eggs.  

Satellite images show air pollution has fallen in China and northern Italy, and air quality improved in countries like the UK within a week of lockdowns on non-essential travel. In the U.S., vehicle pollution has declined dramatically over major cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Chicago and Atlanta.  

These improvements may be temporary, and could disappear as quickly as they came if business goes back to normal, but that doesn’t mean business should go back to normal.   

At Conservation Careers we’ve interviewed over 500 professional conservationists on our website and podcast. We know that a love of nature often comes from time spent outdoors, or – for those without access to nature – via zoos and documentaries. Perhaps all we need to care about our planet is time and space away from our usual fast-paced schedules and latest devices to stop, listen and learn. 

A lone giraffe in one of Kenya’s national parks. Credit: Kristi Foster.

Surely this is a wakeup call big enough to shift our short-term, fragmented attention away from social distractions and toward the role biodiversity plays in our health, wellbeing and economy. Despite its devastation, COVID-19 has given us a rare gift to pause and reflect on what’s really important in life – and question whether we’ve gotten our priorities wrong lately.  

“We have been living in a bubble, a bubble of false comfort and denial,” wrote George Monbiot for The Guardian. “In the rich nations, we have begun to believe we have transcended the material world. The wealth we’ve accumulated – often at the expense of others – has shielded us from reality. Living behind screens, passing between capsules – our houses, cars, offices and shopping malls – we persuaded ourselves that contingency had retreated, that we had reached the point all civilisations seek: insulation from natural hazards. Now the membrane has ruptured, and we find ourselves naked and outraged, as the biology we appeared to have banished storms through our lives.”  

By ever-encroaching on habitats and forcing species to share space with humans, by allowing illegal wildlife trade to run rampant, experts warn, we’re also undermining natural safeguards and putting ourselves at risk of further outbreaks – and it’s not the first time we’ve been warned.   

“… a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19 … with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike,” wrote John Vidal for The Guardian. The global wildlife trade is the suspected perpetrator behind COVID-19, and the pandemic’s impacts on tourism and commerce could, at least temporarily, halt this devastating industry.   

Right now, with our routines upside-down, we have the opportunity to re-think our priorities and strike a better balance between what’s normal and what’s natural – a balance between appreciation and exploitation, between fences and mass overtourism, between poverty and unlimited growth, between low quality of life and addictive consumerism, between local economies and unlimited flights abroad, between our children’s rights and today’s needs. A balance better known as sustainability.  

Conservation is no ‘ordinary’ sector 

At Conservation Careers we’re seeing this trend as more and more youth and mid-career professionals look to conservation as a meaningful career. For many, COVID-19 is an opportunity to re-check the compass of their careers, and we’ve seen a recent surge in conservation job-seekers and career switchers signing up for online courses to do just that.   

Participants from a previous Conservation Career Kick-Starter course in the UK. There has been a surge in online signups during COVID-19.

The conservation community is no ‘ordinary’ sector. Conservationists consciously choose, every day, to pursue the work they do – not simply because they need to pay bills, put food on the table or save for the future, but because they have an unfailing belief in a better world for wildlife and for people.   

When a species is at risk, they hatch a plan to save it. When funding runs dry, they find a new source. When they’re ignored or turned down, they don’t turn away. They simply reject the status quo.  

Organisations can adapt by using new approaches and technologies to monitor the natural world and communicate key messages. Strategic planning that gets lost amongst busy day-to-day schedules can refocus efforts where they are needed most.   

The conservation community can use COVID-19 as an opportunity to recognise how much ‘necessary’ travel for meetings, conferences and regular work can be replaced with online collaboration platforms. “Using tools like Zoom to work remotely may increase productivity and make remote collaboration the new norm and travel the exception,” added Dr. Askew. 

Some organisations are going above and beyond to ensure their staff are supported to carry on important work. “My casual job offered me a permanent contract to ensure I was secure in the pandemic,” said Pia Crawford, who works for a wildlife rescue charity in Sydney.

If the conservation sector has something that makes it uniquely resilient to threats like global pandemics, it’s their limitless passion and determination, and a global community of people to turn to for motivation, creativity and inspiration.  

Conservationists are already recognising the pandemic as an opportunity for change. “In our country, Brazil, it is possible that science and nature will be valued more, and consequently conservation works more effectively,” explained Miguel Luiz Menezes Freitas, an agronomist with a doctorate in genetics and plant breeding who works for the Instituto Florestal (Forestry Institute) of São Paulo State, Brazil.

Female turtle tracks on Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Credit: Kristi Foster.

For decades, conservationists have been urging us to wake up before it’s too late.  

For decades they’ve been advocating for the species, habitats and biodiversity-dependent communities that don’t have a voice.  

For decades they’ve been warning that if we keep burying ourselves beneath gadgets and growth, we won’t value our planet’s wealth until habitats are stripped and species have slid too far down the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species to ever climb back up.  

Now is not the time to forget about conservationists or what they’re fighting for until the economy rebounds. It’s not the time to risk losing the skills and passion of new generations of conservationists who worry that jobs won’t exist or job security is too low. Now is the time to recognise that nature is the future of our economies and our health, and make conservation a key area of job creation in the future. Because even worse than what the world is suffering right now, is the risk of sinking back into old habits, distractions, denial and perceived invincibility – until the next disaster hits.

COVID-19 proves that governments worldwide can enact change quickly, at a global scale, to tackle an immense threat,” concluded Askew. “Why, then, aren’t they taking appropriate action on climate change or biodiversity loss?” 

“The recent surge in interest in environmental issues and their repercussions on people, thanks to activists like Greta Thunberg, shows the world is listening and we have the collective voice to demand a better world post-COVID-19.” 

If environmental leaders, governments and global citizens unite around clear steps to halt climate change and biodiversity loss, imagine what we could achieve together, before disaster strikes.  

 

A shorter version of this article was first published on Mongabay.com

Main image credit: Niall McCall.

 

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