Dr Valeria Boron | WWF Brazilian Amazon Conservationist
Dr Valeria Boron is a conservation scientist who is passionate and committed to wild cat conservation. Starting off volunteering with ocelots in Bolivia to studying jaguars for her PhD, Valeria is now Regional Manager (Brazilian Amazon) for WWF UK where along with her other responsibilities she continues to be involved with jaguar conservation. Due to habitat fragmentation, illegal trafficking and hunting jaguar populations are decreasing. WWF is continuously working to stop deforestation in the Amazon by supporting sustainable development and protected areas in turn helping to protect species such as the jaguar. Valeria discusses her career path, insight into working for a large NGO and advice for all aspiring conservationists wishing to follow her footsteps!
What is your current role?
My current role is Regional Manager in the Latin America Conservation Programmes Unit at WWF UK. Here I work on projects in the Brazilian Amazon and on jaguars, both in Brazil and at the regional level. Jaguars were my PhD focus so it remains one of the areas I most enjoy in my work!
What are the activities in your role as an Amazon Conservationist?
WWF works as a network and the UK is a donor office which sends funds to other offices such as Brazil and Colombia to then implement projects. My role as regional manager is to oversee and support the projects that the country-offices implement with UK funds and being that point of contact between the field staff and the UK office. This involves establishing good relationships with the teams on the ground, and understand their work, context, conservation strategies, and priorities. I also work with teams to make sure we have the best possible conservation impact and sound impact monitoring, learning and adaptive management.
We are constantly looking at what is working, what is not and how we can improve it to maximise conservation success. Part of my job is to facilitate fundraising where I work very closely with the fundraising and communication colleagues in the UK office to maximise opportunities for our projects in Brazil. Another important part of my role is to support WWF jaguar work and helping to develop a range-wide jaguar strategy. So it’s quite a varied role!
What would you say are the highlights and challenges of your job?
The highlight for me is the jaguar work we are developing! Where I am able to contribute and use my PhD skills and knowledge to develop conservation strategies for jaguars. A second highlight is being able to visit the field, the amazing Brazilian amazon, whilst still getting a work/life balance! WWF-UK provide great work/life balance. You are not expected to work evenings, weekends and they are supportive of flexible working and working from home.
I would say one of the only negative sides of working at WWF-UK is that we have a strict carbon budget. Which makes sense as we are a conservation organisation so we are trying to reduce pollution, however this means we only get to go to the field twice a year. It makes it more difficult to build relations with field teams and fully understand the context. The nice thing is that it is a very flexible and supportive environment so while we cannot travel often you can try to stay there for longer. But in the day to day it is an office job and you are far from the field, which is the main challenge.
What motivated you to move from research to WWF?
I think I always knew that I wanted to do a PhD to then move into the NGO world so in my mind I didn’t think I would stay in academia and then for personal reasons I preferred to be based in the UK. I was keen to learn first-hand how conservation can happen on the ground I knew WWF were a big respected organisation so I thought if I wanted to have conservation impact it was a great place to be as they are able to mobilise funds and government support in country to achieve large-scale conservation impact!
I respect WWF for their systemic approach; they work from species which is something I really love but then all the way to sustainable diets, finance, markets, policy. So I thought it was a good opportunity to broaden my skills and try to keep some work on jaguars but force myself to move away a bit from species and learn about everything else and the ultimate drivers of species loss.
Do you still feel part of a team in such a big organisation?
I feel like part of my team – my smaller team is the Latin American unit (4 people) and my bigger team is Conservation Programmes, where there are 17 of us so it’s not big. I think it took me a while to adapt as I came from a small group of PhD students sharing an office and now I am in an open space office with 300 people! Because it is such a big place ownership of what you do and empowerment can be quite low compared to academia. In academia it can be all you, your project, your grant, your papers, all under your name, you own it – which is nice but also stressful because it is all on you.
In an NGO everything is much more collaborative much less about you and your name and much more about inputting about something bigger especially in large places like WWF. I find it personally less stressful even if the work pace is very fast.
There are pros and cons of everything!
What made you choose a conservation career?
I think I always loved animals and wondered: should I just do behavioural studies, can I be out in the forest and observe a group of animals or just do a pure ecology study? But the more you learn about it the more you are pushed towards conservation and wanting to make a difference to the animals you love so much. I think that’s what attracted me to conservation and the more you do conservation the more unfortunately you get away from the animals and more into policy and economics of it all.
What were the key steps you took in your conservation career?
One really life changing experience for me was to volunteer at an animal rescue centre in Bolivia, there I was taking care of an ocelot for two summers and I think that is what really got me interested in cat conservation. I had a Biology degree and continued in Italy with a post graduate course in Biodiversity and Evolution. As part of that I did a one-year research internship on reproductive technologies for the conservation of the Iberian lynx as I knew I wanted to be involved in the cat conservation world. However, it was lab based and made me realise I wanted something more field based.
I would say the turning point was applying for the Master in Conservation Science at Imperial College and being accepted! This gave me a great breadth of knowledge on the conservation world internationally. As part of that I contacted Panthera to do a MSc project on jaguars. That’s what got me into a PhD and finally into WWF!
Of course the PhD at DICE, University of Kent, was the most important milestone of all by not only doing the project itself but also learning all those transferable skills of project design (I chose the topic and planned my own PhD), project management, fundraising, communication which really helped to get me a position at WWF.
If I had done a pure scientific PhD with no field work, no own management, no own fundraising it would have probably been harder to pass the NGO test.
What are you most proud of in your career?
Definitely achieving my PhD because it involved everything; from designing the project, finding a suitable university and supervisor, then applying for scholarships, finding funds for field work, doing the field work, coming back and finally writing it all up and publishing it!
All of that happened while honouring my teaching commitments (required by the scholarship I was awarded), and taking a part-time job during the third and fourth year. It was a hard, and sometimes lonely process but worthwhile. I haven’t faced another challenge quite like that yet although we’ll see what the future brings!
What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?
Being persistent, proactive, never giving up and keep trying and trying! I tried really hard to get a PhD in Rome and was not successful but I continued to reach out to lecturers in the UK, Spain, Germany and other places in Europe. In the end, the University of Kent gave me an offer and I was so happy. There is always failure but you have to just keep on going. PhDs are now a desired qualification to have even for NGO roles, so if you have the motivation and can live on a small salary for 3-4 years, do pursue a PhD.
I think it is also worth it to try and further your transferable skills such as project management, fundraising, communication, personal presence and all those soft skills that can get you far in making a good impression in an interview or even when you meet people more informally.
I think in conservation because it is a small world it is a lot about those soft skills – people trusting you, people respecting you and being nice! Sometimes it doesn’t matter so much if you’re not an expert on that statistical model or topic. Having experience and being are a nice trustworthy person can get you far. You can always learn the rest as you go. Do spend time in conferences, networking, reaching out to people and being proactive.
Additionally, learning languages really help – it was one of the requirements to speak fluent Spanish or Portuguese for my current role and to do research on jaguars with Panthera. If you would like to work in an international conservation organisation that can be an important one.
Finally, preparing for interviews is key. Do put a lot of effort into the cover letter and CV as a recruiting manager will go through them and make their first decision. I thought the WWF role was out of my reach in all honesty I didn’t think I had the experience yet. That’s why I prepared and prepared and over prepared for the interview and it really paid off!
If you want to find out more about WWF’s incredible conservation work in Latin America check out https://www.worldwildlife.org/places/amazon to see how you can help and get involved!
- Twitter: @ValeriaBoron
If you want to find out more about Valeria’s research:
- Jędrzejewski W, Robinson H, …, Boron V & Quigley H(2018) Estimating large carnivore populations at global scale based on spatial predictions of density and distribution–Application to the jaguar (Panthera onca). PloS One, 13(3), p.e0194719.
- Boron V, Payan E (2017) Percepcion del jaguar en un paisaje dominado por humanos en el Magdalena Medio, Colombia. In: Conflictos entre Felinos y Humanos en America Latina.Instituto Humboldt (IavH), Fundacion Herencia Ambiental Caribe & Fundacion Panthera, Bogota, pp. 269-282.
- Boron V, Tzanopoulos J,…, Schaller G & Payan E (2016) Jaguar densities across human-dominated landscapes in Colombia. The contribution of unprotected areas to long term conservation. PLoS ONE 11(5): e0153973.
- Boron V, Payan E, MacMillan D & Tzanopoulos J (2016) Achieving sustainable development in rural areas in Colombia: future scenarios for biodiversity conservation under land use change. Land Use Policy 59: 27-37.
- Boron V & Payan E (2013) Abundancia de carnívoros en el agro-paisaje de las plantaciones de palma de aceite del valle medio del rio Magdalena, Colombia. In: Plan de Conservación de Felinos para el Caribe Colombiano 2007-2012: Logros y proyecciones. CI, Procat & Fundación Herencia Ambiental Caribe, Santa Marta, pp. 165-176.
- Boron V (2012) Are Jaguars Paying the Price of our Thirst for Palm Oil? MSc thesis, Imperial College London.
More to come! Look out for:
- Boron V, Xofis P, Link A, Payan E & Tzanopoulos J. Conserving predators across agricultural landscapes in Colombia: habitat use and space partitioning by jaguars, pumas, ocelots, and jaguarundis. Oryx. Accepted.
- Boron V, Deere N, Xofis P, Link A, Quinones-Guerrero A, Payan E & Tzanopoulos J. A hierarchical approach to investigating factors influencing mammalian occupancy across human-modified landscapes in Colombia. Biological Conservation, Under Review
- WWF-UK Blog: Eight unique and wonderful Amazon species you did not know existed
- Panthera Press Release: Groundbreaking Jaguar Density Study in Colombia’s Unprotected Areas Highlights Possibilities for Long Term Conservation of the Species
- University of Kent News: Study recommends solutions to end unsustainable practices
- SAC Newsletter: Largest cats of the Americas were caught mating by camera traps
- BBC Wildlife Magazine: Colombian jaguars can coexist with humans, according to a new study