Elana Mostert | Environmental Consultant
Elana Mostert began her career in conservation with a 14 month stint on a sub-Antarctic island, along with 21 strangers. She spoke to us about how she ended up here, some of the highlights and challenges of this role, and how it equipped her for her current career as an environmental consultant and ecological specialist in Cape Town.
Tell me about what you studied. Was conservation something you were always interested in?
I wanted to get into conservation for a long time. As a kid your interests tend to fluctuate, but I always had conservation in the back of my mind because I grew up in nature and loved it. Then as I grew a bit older I became a bit more aware about what conservation is and why it’s important. I actually wanted to study microbiology and become a health inspector initially. So I started off with a BSc in Microbiology, and got to like the Environmental Sciences, so I changed to a degree in Environmental Sciences after my first year. I did my Honours in plant ecology, getting me interested in invasion biology and restoration, and I ended up doing my MSc in invasion biology and botany at Stellenbosch University.
What was your first job in conservation? How did you get it?
My first job was as a botanist / field assistant, doing fieldwork on Marion Island, one of the South African sub-Antarctic Islands. I spent a lot of time on the internet looking for any environmental/botany related jobs. I had a list made up of all the organizations that I wanted to work for, from Greenpeace to government departments, and I came across the advert on a government webpage. I didn’t want to apply at first, but I knew the person advertising the position, so I phoned him and talked about the position, and it sounded like something I’d really enjoy.
How long were you on Marion Island, and what did your day-to-day role involve?
I was on the island for 14 months in total. A month of training, 12 months on the island, and a month training my replacement at the end. My days involved going out and collecting botanical data. Ecology and especially botany can be very fieldwork intensive and involve a lot of time spent outside, to collect about a column of data. So we would go out to a site, count grasses, or harvest plants, or walk transects and identify plants along the way.
What were some of the highlights of your job?
We were forced to go out a lot, compared to some of the other jobs on the island, to beautiful and remote places that not a lot of people get to see and work in, and we saw a huge variety of landscapes and environments on the island. We also had pods of orcas visiting the base pretty regularly!
What were some of the challenges?
The weather! It definitely took mental and physical willpower to sit through some of the conditions, because the weather was very unpredictable: it would look fine and sunny one moment, and then start raining and snowing. We would sometimes have to work through the weather, because it was an hour’s walk back to the hut or base camp, and then another hour back up the slope to the site, so we’d try to wait out the weather. That was tough – meeting deadlines and being constrained by the environment, and not by something that you can do something about.
What was it like working and living so remotely? Is it something you would do again? Maybe somewhere with better weather?
Yes, I want to do a tropical island! But I really liked it. I don’t necessarily think it’s for everyone, but I feel that you as a person will know whether or not you will be up for it. I liked being remote, very isolated and secluded, and being outside and knowing you’re the only person out there, and there’s a 1 in 100 chance you’ll run into someone else on the island. Also taking a break after Masters, which was such a rush, so stressful and very intense. To just get away from everything, and be somewhere very different, without a lot of people, was a good break for me.
Do you think Marion Island was an important step in you getting to your current position?
Yes, I definitely think it was. I actually had to choose between going to Marion Island and doing an internship. When I weighed up the pros and the cons, I thought that I would get more out of a year on Marion, especially as a first job. Marion gave me a lot, not only in terms of professional skills, but also physical and emotional skills. It was a lot more challenging than staying in an environment that you’re familiar with. I also met a lot of new people, both in conservation and in government. One of these contacts sent me the advert for my current job, so Marion Island was quite important in that sense.
And what is your current job as an environmental consultant?
I’m an environmental consultant, doing environmental authorisations and Environmental Impact Assessments; and also an ecological specialist. I do botanical assessments, wetland delineations, and also recently freshwater invertebrates. A range of specialist ecological studies.
What advice would you give someone wanting to follow in your footsteps, career-wise?
You have to work hard at whatever you’re doing, even if you think it won’t lead you to conservation. People recognize hard work and skills – you can always transfer your skills. People need to know that whatever you do, you can apply yourself and do it well. You also need to expose yourself to a variety of situations, volunteering opportunities, going to events and meeting people so that you’re aware of different opportunities. Read websites and studies so that you learn about the options available to you. And follow your heart: whenever you’re deciding if you should or shouldn’t do something, follow your heart and it will lead you to where you should be and what you should be doing.
Marion Island is one of the Prince Edward Islands, two islands in the sub-Antarctic Indian Ocean, and belonging to South Africa. Research teams have been visiting the islands since the 1960s, studying the weather and climate, plant and animal life, interactions between marine and terrestrial systems, ecosystems and their conservation. The research on the island has produced almost 1000 scientific papers, and the island’s long-term monitoring programmes will someday provide important insight into climate change as a result of global warming. Life on the island is difficult, with temperatures reaching well below zero, and wind speeds reaching 200kms per hour. The island forms part of an Important Bird Area, with 29 bird species breeding on the island, including the macaroni penguin and wandering albatross. In addition, several seal species (including the elephant seal), orcas, and some of the larger whale species are regular visitors to the island, and have been the subjects of some of the island’s past research.