“Getting paid to do what people pay to do” | The wild life of naturalist guiding

Karla Pound, 34 years old, is a zookeeper and an expedition leader with an incredible story to tell. Currently with Coral Expeditions, Karla works on large tour boats, taking guests on expeditions through some of the most beautiful and remote parts of the world.

Having just finished guiding the Kimberley season in remote north-western Australia, Karla has jumped across to Cape York and Arnhem Land to guide in these incredible natural paradises before heading overseas at the end of the year to continue her adventures in this little-known but exciting profession.

We caught up to talk all about what it’s like to work as a naturalist guide, navigating seasonal contracts and tips for landing your dream job!

Karla’s journey

“It can certainly be a tricky field to get into!”

At 16 years old, Karla’s love of reptiles ignited when she first encountered and became fascinated by the world of captive animal husbandry.

When Karla left school, she initially studied captive animal husbandry followed by zoology at university and started gaining hands-on experience as a volunteer at a local zoo. After 3 months, Karla became a casual zookeeper and worked at a local pet store to supplement her income – including teaching reptile husbandry courses. Karla spent five years working as a zookeeper at the Australian Reptile Park in New South Wales, initially in the reptile section and later branching out into Australian mammals and birds as well.

“Back then, I thought I’d be a zookeeper forever, but I started travelling around Australia and almost fell into tour guiding, then naturalist guiding which has been my career the past 10 years.”

Karla has always been open-minded and jumped at opportunities that have come her way – jumping between tour-guiding contracts across a remote and exquisitely beautiful country, zoo keeping, working with birds of prey, big cats and saltwater crocodiles!

A saltwater crocodile. Credit: Jon Connell on Flickr.

Connecting people with nature

Although Karla has always loved working hands-on with animals, she has come to love the interaction with the public and opening their minds to the natural environment and how they can protect it themselves:

“People come to the zoo, and they may never have held a koala, or always thought snakes were slimy but that physical interaction changes people’s minds – until then, they can’t understand and don’t even think to protect what’s in their own backyard.”

“So, my job as a zookeeper and now as a naturalist guide is about making that connection between humans and wildlife.”

The media can dramatize and misconstrue many wildlife stories, especially surrounding less charismatic animals like saltwater crocodiles which is why knowing the facts and communicating them is so important for raising awareness and conservation concerns for wildlife!

As an example, the saltwater crocodile story is one very close to Karla’s heart:

“Now is a time for us to change people’s perspective, to educate without brainwashing them. Give people the facts, the history with previous culls – we nearly lost them so let’s not go down that path again – and give people the option to make up their own minds”.

Karla has found that the combination of education and entertainment in first-hand experiences has been the winning formula for changing hearts and minds on controversial conservation issues. It has also broadened people’s horizons to the wonder and majesty of the natural world!

Karla’s tips for delivering effective conservation messages are:

  • Know your audience and read their energy
  • Keep it light and upbeat
  • Accompany messaging with engaging, first-hand experiences
  • Never avoid a topic because you’re worried your audience won’t be interested

“I’m always thinking – are they interactive? Do they have questions? If you feel like you’re losing them, wrap it up, change topic. People’s concentration levels are very short! So, in that way be a chameleon to shift and change in order to get your message across.”

A day in the life of a naturalist guide

Although Karla’s role shifts regularly and adapts to the season, in her current role as an Expedition Leader on board a tour vessel, her role is both behind the scenes and in the field with the guests:

“I’m in the office about 50 % of the time, planning where we go, what we do, what we see and the logistics of navigating tides, weather and permits.”

“But I still get to be out in the field guiding the guests and sharing information about what we experience, be it bush tucker, wildlife or survival.”

Karla’s guests are often older city-slickers who have never been exposed to these wild and remote environments, so her day is spent taking beautiful hikes, spotting wildlife and experiencing Indigenous culture.

“My days are always different: the clients change, we change locations constantly which I love – so I definitely have found my niche.”

For Karla, the beauty of naturalist guiding is that you can talk about whatever you want – after all, it’s all about being observant, delivering memorable experiences and telling stories in a beautiful place.

And, when you realise you’re living your dream it’s a truly amazing experience.

“I didn’t even know naturalist guiding was a job until somebody suggested it for me. But I feel like my entire career between guiding, driving boats and helicopters, and zoo keeping has been building towards this one role.”

“I’m very thankful and very lucky that I do have a career that I’m just in love with – to travel the world and be paid to do what people pay to do.”

“It’s so nice to wake up each morning excited to go to work and come home smiling at the end of the day because I’ve had such a great time.”

Kimberley, WA, Australia. Credit: Isabelle Truong on Unsplash.

Short-term contracts and stability

“Look, I won’t sugar coat it – it’s not always been easy!”

While adventure and wildlife travel are high on many people’s bucket lists, the uncertainty and instability surrounding seasonal and short-term contracts can be a challenging emotional space to navigate. Karla provides her top advice for combating anxiety:

  • Work when the work is plentiful
  • Keep consistency in your own routine outside of work
  • Stay open-minded to opportunities as they arise and moving locations
  • Networking is key – and throw your hat in the ring – reach out to organisations you’d like to work for even if they aren’t advertising

Arnhem Land, NT, Australia. Credit: Vladimir Haltakov on Unsplash.

“When my season’s coming to an end, I’ll pump my resume out to 40 different places that I think would be a really good job. Whatever comes back to me, then I go from there – and just stick with it!”

“Now I’m 10 years into my career I’ve got people contacting me for work, which is really nice. So, it comes to the beginning of the season and people email me now. But sometimes I’ll be in Kahoot to the company for two years before I say yes, or before they say yes.”

The squeaky gate gets the oil. Don’t harass people, but don’t be too shy to check in every 6 or 12 months if there’s a dream job you’re after – you might be surprised!”

“And, never don’t go for a job that you don’t think you’ll get. I’ve gotten jobs I never thought I would – so apply everywhere and just see what happens!”

Karla also advocates for staying confident and using your cover letter to highlight why you should get that job:

“Show who you are – be colourful, be bright, be bubbly. Never be ashamed or proud to be who you are and tell your story, and your achievements, because it’ll make you stand out in the crowd.”

At the end of the day, Karla’s advice is simple: follow your heart and keep an open mind. And when trying to decide which path to follow, truly listen to what it is you want most – and have fun with it!

Author Profile | Susie Stockwell

Susie with a Purple-crowned Lorikeet, during work as a bird bander.

Susie Stockwell (she/her) is a field ecologist, science communicator and creator of the blog and podcast#itsawildlife, a platform to support people on their journey to work their dream job in wildlife science or conservation. Based in the beautiful Kimberley region of north-western Australia, Susie is passionate about finding novel solutions for wildlife conservation and opening up the space to promote engagement and involvement for everyone interested in pursuing this career.

Interviews, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation