Podcast: Ruben Hoekstra | Future For Nature Academy
In this episode we’re speaking to a young, budding conservationist, Ruben Hoekstra, at the very start of his career. Ruben attended the prestigious Future For Nature Awards, where talented young conservationists from across the globe win support for their projects alongside a tasty cash prize of €50,000.
Normally in these podcasts we speak with professional wildlife conservationists who have been working in the sector for some time and share their career stories and advice to help and inspire you in your careers. But today is a little different.
Ruben was so inspired by what he saw and the people he met and wanted to experience for himself how it feels to be a successful conservationist day-to-day. As a result, he set out to visit as many Future For Nature award winners as possible.
In this podcast Ruben tells us why he decided to take on the exciting global journey and what he learnt from his first-hand experiences, incredible efforts of his conservation heroes.
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RUBEN: My name is Ruben Hoekstra, I’m 24 years old and last year I finished my bachelor’s degree, forest and nature conservation at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. So yeah, I’m a Dutch student. And actually, choosing that course made very much sense to me, as from an early age I was interested in nature. Not in conservation per se, that came later but when I was a little kid, I loved to go a great nature reserve that’s close to my parent’s place together with my dad to watch a lot of birds. It’s a beautiful place, it’s called Lauwersmeer National Park and it’s a wetland basically, so the vast fields of reeds and the occasional willow and it’s a birding paradise.
NICK: Would you consider yourself a bit of a birder nowadays?
RUBEN: Yeah, a little bit. I know quite a few species but there’s people around me who know loads and loads more, so yeah. Just as a hobby, as an interest, yes but I’m by no means a professional birder, if you can say that.
NICK: But something you are obviously interested in is travel, you know, we’re here to talk about a journey that you’ve been on over the last twelve months or so, a really exciting journey actually, to go and visit different conservation projects, yeah and I’m looking forward to talking about that. But I think before we do, it would be interesting just to hear a little bit more about this Future For Nature Academy that you’re involved with.
RUBEN: We’re based in the Netherlands, that’s why we’re most well known in the Netherlands. So what happened was during my bachelors degree, I mean I learned a lot about ecology, about nature and the relation between people and nature and how people can manage nature, etc. All of a sudden, a teacher of mine approached me and he said, well we’re basically setting up a network of students and young graduates with a passion for nature, and especially a passion for conservation, so that was basically the first time that real conservation drew my attention and what we are, we’re now a national network, we’re based in seven locations in the Netherlands, I believe. We’re basically a network organising a variety of activities ranging from documentary evenings to workshops to lectures, just loads of things, and by organising those activities, we try to create a platform for people to meet people with a passion and interest in conservation, basically.
NICK: Right, ok. And you’ve been involved from fairly near the beginning, is that right?
RUBEN: Yeah, I was one of the first students who was approached by the teacher, yeah he basically just asked me what I thought about it and if I was willing to join, and right from the start, it sounded very, very interesting.
NICK: Yeah, and it still got you hooked and it seems to be growing, it seems to be, yeah kind of snowballing and gaining more momentum as time goes on. And one thing that is done through the Future for Nature academy is these awards, right? The Future For Nature Awards. Now tell us a little bit about that, because that kind of leads us into this journey that inspired you. What are these awards?
RUBEN: The Future for Nature academy is inspired by the Future for Nature awards. And what happens every year, the Future for Nature foundation hands over three awards to three young, successful conservationists from all around the globe. So the award ceremony is at the Burgers’ Zoo in the Netherlands. It’s just a celebration of conservation and all the people who receive such an award have done tremendous work on a variety of conservation-related topics, so we earlier discussed Conservation Optimism and the event, the award ceremony is a very optimistic event and… but unfortunately it was not very well known among younger people in the Netherlands so there’s loads of famous conservationists related to the award ceremony and to the Future for Nature awards.
NICK: Such as?
RUBEN: Well, Jane Goodall has been guest of honour, Sir David Attenborough, Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton is related, so yeah, there’s lots of big names but…
NICK: These are big names, yeah sure.
RUBEN: That’s great but it was very remarkable that not many students, even in the field of biology and nature conservation, didn’t know about that award so that made two people, the teacher of mine as I told before and a PhD student decided to set up a platform to spread the positive message of conservation, to spread the passion across the younger generation, so mainly students and young people with a passion for conservation.
NICK: And it’s incredible really, because the awards not just being quite a prestigious prize and internationally recognised nowadays, each of the three winners also gets $50,000, am I right, to spend on their conservation work?
NICK: €50,000, ok. Yeah. Which is a really significant amount so I’d expect you to have a huge amount of applications each year.
RUBEN: Yeah, to be honest, I don’t really know much about the application process. The only part of the ceremony I see is the actual ceremony, so when people get the awards and there’s such a positive, great atmosphere around the entire event. So yeah, the €50,000 is a great reward for all their hard work and efforts, but it’s also a way to stimulate them to keep going. They’re all young people, I think average age is around 30 years old or so, and they already achieved so much and the €50,000 really helps them to continue doing the great work they’re doing.
NICK: So you heard about the award ceremony, obviously you’ve been involved, and you heard about some of the projects that were going on and it inspired you, is that right? Your stage in your career, you wanted to understand more about what it’s like to work on the front line as a conservationist and to find different ways of getting involved and helping the conservation movement also. And you kind of put those two things together, is that correct?
RUBEN: Yeah, because when I was at university, I learnt a lot about science, ecology and through the Future For Nature Academy, I was also involved with a lot of activities we already, we already had organised but still there wasn’t enough for me, and I remember at the awards ceremony of 2017, I got to meet one of the previous award winners and I just asked them if I could volunteer at his project. He immediately said yes and that made me thinking, well this is one project but again, I want more and then I just sent a bunch of emails to previous award winners with the same question – what can I do for you, how can I help you while being in the field? And so after a lot of emailing and waiting also, because conservationists are really, really busy all the time, I managed to get in touch with five of the Future for Nature Award winners and in three months’ time, I wanted to visit their project and also contributing to their projects in various ways.
NICK: Right, that’s… that’s really impressive actually, a lot of people nowadays understand that volunteering and internships are really important, getting hands-on experience really helps you to understand the type of job you might want to do, to build your network and your experiences, that sort of stuff, and at the same time there’s been a bit of a push back about having to spend money to go to a lot of volunteering projects. You off your own back wrote to a bunch of projects and you had five opportunities, right?
RUBEN: Yeah, and it was quite a journey, it required a lot of preparation. Like I said, in April 2017 was the award ceremony, that’s where the idea began and in June 2018, I finally left for the Philippines, my first destination. So it took me over a year of preparing, loads of working of course to save money, because that’s the way… how I financed the trip. Yeah also just learning a lot of new skills because I wanted to do volunteering work and I did a variety of activities while being with those organisations, but I felt really honoured that I could be there but I wanted to share my hands-on experienced, really the experience within the field, with people like me. People, students, young people with an interest in conservation. So that’s why I came up with the idea to report on my adventures by making videos and by writing short blog posts. Those were also skills I needed to learn. I really needed a long time to prepare everything.
NICK: It’s a lot of work to prepare the journey, to get the needed funds to go on the trip and also to kind of learn the skills that you’re going to require in order for you to kind of share your experiences and share the lessons you’ve learnt with a wider audience. Let’s hear about this journey then, so you’ve planned it, you’re gonna go off and visit different projects, you said the first place you went was the Philippines? Briefly you know, where did you go, what were the different places you visited en route and then we’ll maybe hear about some of them as well?
RUBEN: So what I liked about all those organisations is that they’re doing completely different things, working on completely different species, completely different ecosystems, so that provided me also with a nice opportunity to show the audience of my reports that there are lots of different ways you can be involved in conservation. So the first NGO I visited, it was a home-match actually, an NGO called the Sea Ranger Service, and they’re based in the Netherlands. It was a nice way to practice my first vlog and to prepare and I already found out that stuff always goes differently than you expect, but that’s the nice part. So after the Netherlands, I went to the Philippines to a small island where an NGO called C3, Community Centred Conservation is working together with local communities to conserve marine ecosystems and after the Philippines, I went to Sumatra, Indonesia to visit two award winners who were working in the same ecosystem. And I went to the northern parts of Sumatra where it is a massive rainforest, it’s called the Leuser Ecosystem, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it.
NICK: I’ve only read about it through your blog so it was new to me.
RUBEN: It was also new to me. But it was incredible to be there and to see how two NGOs work with the same goal but they’re doing totally different things. This is one NGO, it’s called HAkA, they’re doing a lot of conservation work in the legal domain basically, because by law the Leuser Ecosystem, it’s a massive rainforest, it’s protected by law but there’s lots of illegal economic activities taking place so they’re fighting their fights in the courtroom, basically and raising awareness about the problem, mainly involving palm oil companies. I don’t need to explain that issue, I think a lot of people are aware of it. And at the same time, there’s this other NGO called FKL, the Forum for Conservation of Leuser, and then their fight is totally on the ground, so they have about 100 rangers who patrol the ecosystem day and night and they’re walking for miles and miles just finding any illegal activities, but also camera trapping, finding snares and they’re confiscating them, obviously. It’s great to see how two NGOs working the same area do totally different things while keeping the same goal in mind.
NICK: And what was your role while you were there then, let’s talk a little bit about Leuser, what were you doing? You visited both projects? What was it like?
RUBEN: Well my role over there was the same as in the Philippines basically because I wanted to do a lot of NGOs in a relatively short amount of time so there were not that many opportunities for me to do volunteering work, but I already explained that I brought my camera for taking photos and making vlogs and basically, all the NGOs said well, we always need new promotion footage, so my job was basically creating short videos, taking a lot of photos that the NGOs could use for promotion and raising awareness.
NICK: And then where did you go after Indonesia and Sumatra then, was there other projects en route?
RUBEN: The final destination was Vietnam, in the northern part of Vietnam there’s an organisation called Save Vietnam’s Wildlife and what they basically do is they’re trying to fight the wildlife crime over there. So Vietnam is a wildlife trade hotspot, especially for pangolins, and my volunteering work over there also lasted a month and over there I worked in the wildlife rescue centre. So it was really, really hands-on so nothing to do with the camera or whatever, but just taking care of the rescued animals, help them to recover before eventually they would release the wildlife again.
NICK: Looking back, what were some of the memorable moments from your trip? Obviously I’d like to talk about each of the projects in a huge amount of detail but it would be really interesting to kind of hear about some of the kind of the really stand-out moments, you know, when you kind of think about the journey you’ve had.
RUBEN: Those are a few actually and if people want to know more they can always check out my vlogs and blogs, because there’s a lot of memorable moments on there too.
NICK: Yeah, which we’ll link to in the show notes too, yeah.
RUBEN: One of the most memorable moments was actually working with pangolins because nowadays you read on lots of places on the internet, BBC Earth, National Geographic, every big conservation organisation pays attention to the wildlife crime with the pangolin becoming the symbol of wildlife trafficking. Just seeing them on pictures, they’re quite remarkable but working with them, it was incredible to actually observe the animals and to work with them and having the feeling that you actually contributed to the wellbeing of those animals, although it was just a very small percentage of all the work you’re doing, I mean I was only there for a few weeks but yeah, it was very rewarding work.
NICK: That sounds nice. What’s a pangolin like, I’ve never seen one? I don’t think many people have.
RUBEN: Well, the thing that struck me most is that they’re incredibly strong. I think a lot of people may have seen a picture of them, they’re medium sized, they’re not very big animals but yeah, the first thing people always think it’s odd that they’re mammals, actually. Although they look quite reptile-like, I don’t know what they look like, they just look like their own kind of group of animals. So sometimes during the work at the rescue centre, one of the things I had to do was to feed them and seeing them eating, they’re nocturnal animals so you could see them only being active at night and then one of the things that’s really remarkable about them is they have an enormous long tongue, it’s a very long sticky tongue and they use it to eat ants and termites mainly and just seeing them foraging is already quite remarkable. So you have this weird animal covered in scales and then eating ants with a very, very long tongue. Pictures won’t do the animal justice because it’s such a remarkable creature and it was really great to work with them and to help them.
NICK: Yeah, they’re such a unique animal and such a focus of conservation attention, as you say, in the news but by conservationists too. It must have been exciting to have been involved, you know, hands-on with them up close as well. When you kind of look back on the journey that you had, what are some of the things that you learnt from that journey, you know, did anything maybe even like surprise you about how conservation is happening on the ground? Because a big part of your goal and motivation was to go and get hands-on experience to see what it’s like on the conservation front line. You know, did conservation meet your expectations or were there things that kind of, yeah, stood out as different?
RUBEN: Well, funny thing is that although I got only a small glimpse of the work at a conservation NGO, at a variety of conservation NGOs, the thing that struck me most was that I could really compare some of the NGOs I was visiting in a relatively short amount of time. And it’s remarkable to see how many different things you can do to contribute to conservation, to contribute to the protection of nature. So like I said, the NGO in the Philippines was really community-based, they were really working together with local communities, working on capacity building, doing educational programmes while in Vietnam one of the main activities was taking care of the confiscated animals. It’s all hard work. I already heard that through lectures and people who’ve been on the front of conservation and who told me that but seeing it with your own eyes, I was really intrigued by the dedication of every single conservationist I met, being a keeper at the rescue centre or a ranger in the Sumatran rainforest, just every one of them is so dedicated and it’s such hard work, but they’re all doing a great job so in that sense, it really… I think it exceeded my expectations.
NICK: Right, that’s nice, yeah. Of all the different types of roles and different types of conservation activities that you got involved with and you observed, is there any particular things that stand out as interesting to you personally? You’re still early stage in the career, you know, you’re going to be exploring your career and looking at jobs and securing work over the coming years, what areas do you want to look into that you’ve kind of seen and looked really interesting to you?
RUBEN: I also organised this trip as a tool to explore different fields of conservation, to see what suits me best and I’ve given it quite some thought, this question and I think the thing right now at the moment, I mean it can change in a few years obviously, but right now I’m really interested in the communications and raising awareness part, so there was basically the thing I was doing all the time through my blogs and vlogging, and that’s something I found really interesting and how can you make the general public aware of all these issues happening all over the globe. Yeah, I found out I really liked to tackle that challenge, to make nice photos, to create nice videos but also to just write down thoughts, I always loved writing at university, I was really interested in academic writing too and this is a whole different kind of writing but yeah, just observing things with my own eyes and trying to share my observations and my thoughts and also the issues I was observing with the rest of the world. That’s a role I’d like to fulfil right now.
NICK: We’ve spoken to quite a few people on this podcast now from, you know, CEOs right through to, you know, totally different ends of the spectrum and just through interviews on the website too, you know, we ask people, you know, what do we need to do more of as a conservation movement and time and again people talk about the need for improved communications within conservation, to be able to reach more people, different types of people, to get more people on our side if you like, so I find it inspiring that you’ve obviously found a real passion for that also because we need that sort of skill and when you think about who’s the most important conservationist on the planet, well arguably it’s probably a communicator called Sir David Attenborough, you know, so you know, these people have huge influence if you can do it well.
RUBEN: Yeah, but at the same time what I found really interesting is that there are loads of people working on the ground, they’re basically undercover, no one knows their name, they’re not a big name as Sir David Attenborough or Jane Goodall. It’s good that the people like Sir David Attenborough, as you mentioned, and Jane Goodall are creating awareness but what I found really interesting about my trip and seeing a lot of conservationists on the ground with my own eyes is to give a platform to those people too. I mean there’s rangers in rainforests and all over the world walking for miles and miles and days and days just in terrible conditions through heavy rainfall or in cold areas and yeah, they’re doing amazing work. So when I was in Indonesia, this was one of the other things that struck me most, I got asked to make a short report about the rangers in the Leuser Ecosystem, so I went on patrol with them for just two days and it was raining all the time, I mean I was soaking wet and it was quite a challenge figuring out how to make my camera deal with those conditions, but those people just almost effortlessly, they continue to do the work and they patrol through the area and I made a short video about it, and I consider that my biggest achievement, to give those people a platform. I call them the invisible forces behind conservation work and in this role as a communications officer or, I don’t know how you want to call it, but people like in that role can really provide a voice to those people too, because they’re very, very important.
NICK: Yeah, absolutely. The unsung heroes. Have you had much feedback on your report, on the videos and the blogs that you’ve been publishing and promoting?
RUBEN: I was very lucky that I already had the Future for Nature academy basically around me, so I already had a platform where I could share my stories, starting from scratch would probably… I wouldn’t come that far and most feedback I had was from people quite close to me, people from the Future for Nature academy, fellow students, fellow peers and yeah, they were all very positive about it and of course, I started with this, I produced 14 posts I think. So it’s just a start but it’s definitely something I would like to do for a longer period of time, to continue doing it.
NICK: Yeah, and good luck with that. And I mean it! I didn’t mean for that to sound sarcastic.
RUBEN: I know, thanks.
NICK: When you kind of, you know, reflect on the journey and things that you’ve learnt, are you feeling, you know, more hopeful now about conservation and the future of the planet, you know? We know things are tough for wildlife and nature around the globe. Or are you feeling more depressed?
RUBEN: I’ve always been quite hopeful concerning conservation, because I think when you have a positive state of mind, the farthest you can come and you can achieve the most. But yeah, I think I’m more hopeful than before I left, because I’ve seen so many people in a variety of roles working very hard to, yeah, to make the natural world a little bit better, to help conserving nature, there’s loads of people doing good work out there and that gives me a lot of hope.
NICK: That’s really nice, it’s nice to have seen that and know that you’ve just seen the tiny tip of a huge iceberg of movement out there, people doing their best to conserve wildlife and it needs more support, it needs people like you promoting it, so yeah, it’s great that you’ve been doing that. While I’ve got you on the line, you know, I thought it would be nice just to talk very briefly about your career actually and where you’re looking to go. Because we’ve worked together a little bit outside of the Future for Nature Award because we did some career planning together, you were part of the Conservation Careers kick-starter course, where we help to get people clear about the sort of job you want to do, what your gaps might be in terms of experiences and qualifications and to get a bit of a plan together. Would you mind just briefly telling people about the course? It’s not a sales pitch, we’re not here to sell it but better to hear it from you as a participant and then we can talk about, you know, where you’re going at the moment.
RUBEN: It was funny because the timing of the course was quite perfect for me, so I got to know the course through the Future for Nature academy and so again, you can see that being in a network with like-minded conservation enthusiasts can really be beneficial. I was in the preparations for my journey and then I stumbled across this, and I was like, yeah well it’s perfect. I mean, at that time I didn’t know what I wanted to do but the course gave me a lot of useful tools to figure out what you want to do in the first place, what direction you want to have, but also very practical tools about how to work through the application process, how to work on your CV, how to work on the motivation ladder so it was quite early in my career, so to say, but I think for the future it will provide me with a lot of nice tools to go on that career hunt.
NICK: Yeah, that’s good. That’s nice to hear as well and we encourage people to do things as early as possible, I think people think that career planning kind of starts at the end of your education, when you’re starting your job hunt and if that’s where you are then that’s great, but I would always encourage people to start, you know, the earlier the better because often you learn lessons that I need to work on this or I need experience to do that. Obviously you’ve just planned a journey and that planning and the journey itself took, you know, over a year and these things take time so in order to get clear about what job you’re looking for and to get ready to be putting in good applications, there might be a bit of a time required there, a bit of a lag so the earlier the better for kind of getting yourself prepared. Where are you now, Ruben? What are you doing now you’re back, your report’s been published, you know, what next for you?
RUBEN: Well right now I’m about to start my masters, so I really wanted to be in the field, in the conservation field before I could do my masters so that helped me choose some courses, to pick a thesis subject, stuff like that. So right now I’m just waiting to start my masters actually and I really hope that both the Conservation Careers kick-starter course and my journey will help me make the best decisions in… during my masters trajectory.
NICK: Well good luck with that, I look forward to hearing, you know, how you go, where your career’s gonna take you next. If people want to hear a little bit more, find out more about your report on the Future for Nature Academy, Foundation and Award, where should they go?
RUBEN: More about the Future for Nature awards can be found on futurefornature.org and about the academy and also my reports, both can be found on ffnacademy.org and if you want to specifically look into the report project, there’s a tab on the home page saying “Report”, yeah if you click it you’ll get there.
NICK: We’ll also put links obviously at the bottom of this, so if you’re listening, go to the show notes so you can click straight through, and I definitely encourage people to do that. Ruben, it’s been really nice to chat again, thanks so much for finding the time to jump on the podcast. And we’ll keep in touch!
RUBEN: Likewise. Yes, we definitely will and thanks for the invitation, I really enjoyed it.
NICK: You’re welcome.
NICK: Ok well I hope you enjoyed that everyone, if you did then please do hit that ‘subscribe’ button to get notified when new episodes are live and also give us a rating as it really helps us to get in front of more people. If you enjoy the interviews we’ve collated the best advice from over 400 professional conservationists into a free e-book, which you can download from the bottom of our website. And finally, if you’ve got any questions or suggestions for the podcast, please tweet them to @ConserveCareers, we’d love to hear from you. Ok, till next time guys, this is Nick signing out.
Link to the Future For Nature website: futurefornature.org
Link to the Future For Nature Academy website (and the Reports): ffnacademy.org (https://ffnacademy.org/ffnareport)