From the corporate world to the African forests – how modern conservation is everyone’s ‘business’

After graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 2005, Canadian Aram Kazandjian took the expected route into the corporate sector. Fast forward 12 years and he was living in a national park in Sierra Leone as Manager of Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Aram shares his route into conservation and discusses how typical ‘business’ skills are not just useful to conservation but invaluable for an organisation’s sustainability.

Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

In 1995 Tacugama began as Sierra Leone’s only Chimpanzee sanctuary, and still provides a life-line for chimpanzees rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. Thanks to dedicated staff, the sanctuary has remained functioning through civil war, Ebola and Covid, and in recent years its reach has extended greatly, to include community engagement, education, field research, forest protection, advocacy, eco-tourism and co-managing several national parks.

Arriving in 2017, Aram spent several years as Manager overseeing Tacugama’s day-to-day running as well as the expansion of its projects.

Aram discussing wildlife with children at one of the community schools. Credit: Aram Kazandjian. See Sanctuary Founder Bala Amarasekaran share the Tacugama story here.

Corporate life

At university in Montreal, Aram majored in International Business and says that elements of international relations and economic development within the curriculum strongly appealed to him, as did marketing and finance. Subsequently, after graduating he took on a variety of roles, finally focussing on consulting, marketing, and business expansion for established companies.

Aram was keen to gain international experience, so during his time in the corporate sector he took a posting in Chile, which he sums up as “consulting a wide range of clients from the banking sector to all sorts of corporates and international entities looking to either invest or develop their portfolios”.

Aram describes the work as “exciting in its own way;” it was well-paid, provided a great lifestyle, and came with privileges and opportunities to meet with influential people. But he began to feel that he was often working with clients in areas in which he had no vested interest, or with companies that were relatively well-off and did not really need his expertise. He felt a ‘disconnect’, as he describes:

“I think there was something missing in my life – the sense of purpose, direct accomplishment or something meaningful on a day-to-day basis. It wasn’t what I had envisioned growing up, and there were certainly more meaningful areas I could lend my support to.”

However, Aram maintains that time in Chile was a vital stepping stone to the later move to Sierra Leone. He says “I don’t think I could have gone directly from Montreal to Africa – I needed something in between.” There is a large gap between Canada and Chile in terms of lifestyle and society, and that step helped to broaden his horizons and shape his expectations when he took the even larger leap to Sierra Leone.

Making the move into conservation

In making the switch to conservation, Aram’s transferable skills of research, analysis and implementation very much came into play.

First, he outlines how important it is to identify what exactly is driving your passion for conservation and to dissect that. Is it conservation in general? Are you looking to be involved in a more financial capacity? Is it other closely related sectors, such as ecotourism or environmental education?

Being honest with yourself about what you want to be immersed in is important, he asserts, as you don’t want to be switching careers often and it’s good to project certainty at an interview or later in your work.

Second, you need to be selective. Aram discusses the fair amount of research he had already done prior to finding the Tacugama posting:

“I’d done a mapping exercise where I had classified and, literally on the map, listed out the opportunities available per country per sector. I’m visual in that sense, and it helped me grasp what I needed to do to start pairing my skills with some of these areas and organisations.”

Despite admitting he knew very little about chimps at the time, Aram says the posting for Tacugama was by far the most interesting position he’d seen. However, he merely ‘bookmarked’ the advert for two weeks. As he admits “It kept me up at night thinking about why I was avoiding it, but it was because of Sierra Leone’s association with Ebola, poverty, and war.”

However, gradually he talked himself into it, accepting that it was better to go where the help was more needed rather than considering more comfortable or commercial opportunities. He also acknowledges that on a personal level the timing suited him, as he was both single and at an age that he could readily take such a leap.

Aram says that at the interview stage “it became a challenge at first to find a way to think outside the box and essentially sell myself”. But thanks to his mapping exercises, he was able to discuss his successes and align those with what Tacugama was already doing, to put forward a plan to take the projects forward.

One of Tacugama’s orphaned chimpanzees rescued from the illegal wildlife trade. Credit: Claire Tyrrell.

However, when the prospect of working in Sierra Leone became a reality, he suddenly had misgivings about how the career switch might be perceived:

“The recurring question in my head was, are people just going to think that I’m working for a zoo? I was letting go of this relatively successful career and transitioning to a sanctuary, which some wouldn’t consider favourably, and might even be a setback in many ways.”

Aram realised that ultimately he was projecting his own doubts. Not only were people close to him supportive, but the scope of Tacugama’s work was also an exciting opportunity:

“To safeguard wildlife, you need to work with people. On a daily basis I’m involved in strategy and project development, budget management, marketing, advocacy and policy, research and analysis. I’m liaising with government officials and networking at a broad level.

“It’s not much different to what I was doing before. It’s just the who you’re trying to support. The input is similar … the outcome is different. And that’s the change I was looking for.”


Aram found his first year in Sierra Leone particularly challenging, Things worked very differently to his experiences on the American continent, and other events also took him out of his comfort zone.

Soon after his arrival there was a large landslide in the local area which killed over a thousand people, and left many more homeless. As Tacugama is heavily involved in supporting local communities, Aram was suddenly faced with helping with disaster management and the well-being of local families and staff.

However, after seven years, Aram maintains that things are constantly evolving and even that is not enough time to learn everything about the country and his role:

“Some of the government and key stakeholders are changing. Diplomats come and go, and you’ve got NGOs that for various reasons have an ever-changing portfolio of commitments. To understand that landscape and then deal with some of these emerging factors you need a good foundation. For me that foundation is Tacugama’s founder, Bala.”

A past Tacugama project working with local communities to create tree nurseries. Credit: Claire Tyrrell.

Finding his passion

Talking with Aram it’s clear his passion lies where wildlife protection, community support and overall benefits for the country intersect. While the achievements he discusses are varied, they also align well with his background, as liaising with the government to find solutions to boost economic development and create socio-economic benefits is essentially what he was doing before as a consultant.

Advocating for chimpanzees to be designated the national animal

In 2019 the government of Sierra Leone declared the chimpanzee as the national animal, and Tacugama was a key voice in advocating for the move. Aram says that it was a significant step in the right direction in a country where only 5,500 wild chimps remain. Also  by leveraging the chimp as a flagship species and the face of tourism, it also safeguards other wildlife that shares the habitat, and resources that are shared by local communities – resources such as water catchments.

Always looking forward, Aram is determined to build on the success of the national animal, and Tacugama is pushing to secure commitments from the government to get a national animal bill in place and trigger a complete reform of the outdated 1972 Wildlife Act. Despite its new status, the penalty for killing a chimp can still be less than $1.

Just one of the spectacular beaches not far from Freetown and Tacugama. Credit: Claire Tyrrell.

Building eco-tourism

Aram has worked closely with the Ministry of Tourism, and he believes that if you ‘position’ the chimp in the right way, you can build effective eco-tourism. He has no doubt that it will create more jobs within communities and also ‘rebrand’ the country away from negative associations.

On the 2023 Global Peace Index Sierra Leone is the third safest nation in Africa – much higher than some of the most-visited African countries that receive a lot of commercial interest. Aram’s enthusiasm is clear:

“If you match that with the natural beauty and the offerings from the national parks and the mountains, the cultural activities, I think it will start driving more tourism. But as well as the perception, we need to develop more products, improve the infrastructure and eventually that tourism revenue can go into conservation and helping communities.”

However, Aram is clear that a lot needs to be done first:

“It’s difficult to build infrastructure for tourists and yet ignore that some of the communities don’t have access to water or energy or secondary schools. Before we get to the point where we’re comfortable declaring the start of an ecotourism venture we need to at least be attempting to fulfil as many basic requirements as possible. Communities need to see concrete examples of how things can improve for their children.”

As one step towards this, Aram is proud to say that as an organisation they’re working with World Hope International to provide access to clean water to some of their outreach communities.

Integrating environmental education into the national curriculum

Another area Aram is proud of is the advancement of environmental education in the country. As part of their education programme Tacugama has a workbook that has been used in around 30 schools. Aram has played a key role in integrating the workbook into the national curriculum, and is keen to develop new topics (covering local and global challenges) in inspiring ways to engage the youth.

Educational visits to Tacugama are important for students of all ages. Credit: Claire Tyrrell.

Further advice for career/sector switchers

Here, Aram again emphasises how modern conservation is a sector that in many respects is not that different to the corporate world.

Although the structure is not identical, he says, there are certainly similar roles/skills required within the sectors such as stakeholder liaison, marketing, human resources, policy development or even in the digital space with SEO optimization or graphic design. While they are not typical conservation roles, he concedes, they are certainly required to achieve sustainability for an organisation in what can be a competitive field.

“If you’re a finance person, and you think that you’ll have difficulty getting into conservation, that’s not true. Especially nowadays, we’re talking about challenges on a global level to attract capital and finances to fund some of these larger projects. Whether it’s habitat restoration, reforestation on a large scale or ecotourism projects, they require large amounts of funding. You need that background to secure some of those deals and confidently negotiate at a high level.”

As the organisation grows and supports more communities, it becomes a significant financial responsibility. He continues:

“In terms of marketing, it’s vital to create a sense of visibility, and often that’s still a challenge in the sector. Conservation organisations are sometimes so focused on project implementation and delivering results that they don’t always maximise opportunities to market their successes. In a sense that’s the most important aspect – turning successes into a mechanism to attract attention and financing – to build sustainability into a project.”

Young rescued chimps making friends in the nursery group. Credit: Claire Tyrrell.

Opportunities to get involved with Tacugama’s work

Tacugama provides a variety of research opportunities in Sierra Leone covering wildlife monitoring, socio-economic factors, and even renewable energy and advocacy. To highlight how beneficial this can be, Aram shares how their current Conservation Manager first came to Tacugama as a researcher on the impact of different types of bedding on resident chimps’ behaviour. He explains how that experience ultimately gave her an advantage over the other applicants when the role became available.

As Tacugama works with national institutions such as the Ministries of Environment and Tourism, they’ve also taken several interns over the years. It’s something they hope to expand as it also creates a talent pool within the country.

There is also a confirmed project to create an innovation centre and botanic gardens (horticultural centre) onsite as a multi-faceted space to host lectures, seminars, conferences and a variety of training. They hope to encourage and create opportunities for not just local university students, but even school children. Aram explains it is about making people aware of what’s available in terms of conservation and sustainability opportunities so they have something more concrete to work towards in the sector.

Those in the UK can get involved with the Friends of Tacugama charity, set up as a support mechanism for their work in Sierra Leone.

Credit: Claire Tyrell.

The future

Aram reveals that in Africa he found both his passion and his partner (now wife)! In 2020 they decided to move back to her native England, and while Aram continues to advise the team in Sierra Leone and still travels several times a year to stay abreast of the projects, his role continues to evolve as Managing Consultant of the UK charity.

Although Aram moved to the UK for personal reasons, he’s always keen to search out opportunities for the charity to grow and to take advantage of his new location. He believes there are opportunities to get international media behind Tacugama’s projects and also sees potential for new partnerships with academic institutions, conservation organisations, or stakeholders that may be able to help develop their eco-tourism dream.

As he concludes:

“If you’d asked me when I graduated if I could, in whatever capacity, be involved in chimpanzee protection and this line of work, I would have asked how could that even be possible?  

“But if you’re embarking on a new journey or joining an organisation (even at a junior level) and commit to staying for a good chunk of time, then the beginning is never even remotely close to the end. What I mean by that is sometimes, without even noticing, you are able to carve out your own path and to put the pieces together to almost create your own position.”

To find out more about Tacugama’s wide range of projects check out their Website, Linkedin and Instagram.

To connect with Aram or to contact him about the Friends of Tacugama (UK) use Linkedin.


Author Profile | Claire Tyrrell

Claire is a wildlife enthusiast and keen amateur conservationist, and has volunteered long-term in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centres across Africa and Asia – largely working with primates. Having worked in the TEFL industry for quite some years (teaching, writing and editing) she now works for the National Trust in visitor welcome and volunteers when possible for the Hampshire Wildlife Trust.

Connect with Claire on LinkedIn.

Read more conservation careers advice interviews by Claire here.


Interviews, Senior Level, Organisational Manager