Diving into Conservation, with Sharks!
Since a young age Guido Leurs has been fascinated by wildlife.
At first, he was into snakes and reptiles in general, heavily influenced by the late Steve Irwin. Later, his fascination moved to the underwater world and specifically towards sharks. This world inspired him so much that Guido decided to try and get into marine sciences, which would allow him to learn as much about the underwater world as possible.
Becoming an expert in Shark and Ray Conservation
After finishing high school, Guido started a Bachelor in Applied Biology at the Dutch University of Applied Sciences HAS Den Bosch. During this study he assisted in shark behavioural research in the Bahamas and conducted his own research project on white sharks in South Africa.
He continued his studies with a Biology Masters specialised in Marine Biology at Wageningen University in The Netherlands. During his masters, Guido continued working in the Bahamas on a project that was testing a novel technique to identify and measure great hammerhead sharks underwater. He also studied the habitat use of Caribbean reef sharks and nurse sharks around Saba in the Dutch Caribbean, and the commercial market behind the shark and ray fishery within the Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania.
After his studies, Guido consulted NGOs with information and advice on elasmobranch (i.e. sharks and rays) matters, before he started as a PhD. candidate for the University of Groningen and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) in The Netherlands.
Guido is more than happy to share his conservation career advice with us; find out what he has to say!
Could you briefly describe what work you do at the moment?
I am currently working as a PhD. candidate at the Conservation Ecology Group of the University of Groningen and Coastal Systems department of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. With my research I try to determine what the ecological role is of elasmobranch fishes in large intertidal mudflat ecosystems. For this I mainly work within the Bijagos Archipelago in Guinea Bissau. This includes studying what sharks and rays are actually still living within the archipelago, tagging the animals and taking biological samples, determining the status of these species within the archipelago and what would happen if the species disappear due to overfishing.
Why do you work in shark and ray Conservation?
I think for me that comes down to two aspects: (1) I have a great interest in these animals and want to use my curiosity and ambition to learn as much about these animals that I can, and (2) at the same time you want these animals to survive. Sharks and rays are one of the most threatened species group in the world, and I am determined to help local governments or NGOs to protect these species more effectively based on our data.
Can you tell us more about the activities in your current job, and what challenges you face?
I think the best thing about my job is that I like the balance between office work and field work. For my research, field work is concentrated in expeditions of 4-8 weeks at a time, after which I come back and work on the data, supervise students, write grant proposals and work on manuscripts. I think the biggest challenge of the job is working in a remote area like the Bijagos. To ensure our safety, a lot of thought has to go into the expedition preparations. On every expedition we have satellite phones, safety beacons and materials for a whole hospital with us. This also means that we have to plan our field work very well, because we cannot get any additional materials locally. This means you have to be flexible to be able to make an expedition a success, and often also creative!
How did you get your job? What career steps did you take to lead you where you are now?
I think for me the most important part was to distinguish myself from others. I knew I wanted to go into science, so that meant I had to publish my research. Having one or more publications under your name gives you an advantage and shows your motivation. Besides that, you have to use your network and try to collaborate with potential colleagues!
What’s the best thing about your job?
I get to do what I have always wanted to do. Besides that, I get to see a lot of nature, meet a lot of new people and experience new cultures.
What’s the worst thing about your job?
Science can be a very competitive world with a lot of pressure. Getting into science, especially focusing on the more popular marine life, can be very daunting and difficult. This also causes the workload to be high. But don’t forget you’re in conservation or science because you have a deep passion for nature, and experiencing and helping nature to do better is the most rewarding feeling you will ever have.
What is your proudest achievement in your job or conservation career so far?
Honestly, I am proud of how far I have come already. But I think I am most proud of choosing to work in a developing country (Guinea Bissau). In these areas conservationists can have a real impact if you commit to it for the long run. While being in the field I have never regretted it for a second; the nature and the people are incredible!
What advice would you give to someone looking to get involved in conservation?
The world needs you! The United Nations has devoted the next decade (2020-2030) to be the decade of ecosystem restoration. I would say there is no better time to shine for scientists and conservationists! Try to follow your passion, have goals but try to break them down in smaller steps. This is probably the most difficult thing ever…!
If you would like to find out more about Guido Leurs’ work, visit his website for more information: guidoleurs.org
Main image: Guido Leurs with a Carribean reef shark. Credit: Amanda Nicholls – © All rights reserved.